It's Preakness Week in Baltimore, which is only slightly more sober than a New Orleans Mardi Gras, more tradition-filled than the Little League World Series and definitely more diverse than the Masters Tournament. It's the city's time to shine, and no amount of clouds or rain are going to dampen the celebration.
A round of black-eyed Susans, please, for the guest of honor this year who can likely be found over at Pimlico Race Course's Stall 40 where the Kentucky Derby winner is always housed. From all appearances, he is of gentle nature, a natural at what he does, confident and clearly enjoying his newfound celebrity.
We speak, of course, of Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome, the 3-year-old chestnut that oddsmakers have made a heavy 3-to-5 favorite to win the Preakness Stakes. As much-admired as the California thoroughbred may be (rising from a mere $10,000 investment to potential Triple Crown winner worth tens of millions of dollars), Mr. Sherman has nearly stolen the show with his own version of a classic rags-to-riches story of hitting the proverbial jackpot in his golden years.
Moments like this make horse racing seem like, well, deserving of all the fuss. Remember Seabiscuit, the Depression-era colt that won over the hearts of a nation — and most notably, a match race against War Admiral at Pimlico in 1938 (and recreated in the 2003 film)? Even California Chrome's trainer was a bit too young to remember the real-life moment, but not by that much.
Mr. Sherman has the same made-for-movie feel about him. A barber's son born in Brooklyn and raised mostly in California, his first job in racing was as a 5-foot 2-inch tall stable hand and exercise rider at age 17. His first ride as a jockey was in 1957. He got his trainers license in 1980, but his horses generally ran in summer fairs, not stakes races.
That is until now. Oh, he had been around a few great horses before. He helped bring along a 3-year-old named Swaps when he won the Kentucky Derby in 1955, but he didn't ride the California horse to victory; that job belonged to the legendary Bill Shoemaker. But now, this week in Baltimore, Mr. Sherman is no second-fiddle to anyone, he is the man who trained the favorite in the No. 3 post position.
A California newspaper editor recently wrote that Mr. Sherman is well-liked because he's not a prima donna but a regular guy whom we should all be rooting for. "He's not a guy who has public tantrums or strange outside-the-lines drama then later blames bad luck, pressure or nerves," Frank Girardot of the Pasadena Star-News insisted. "Art Sherman is more like your kindly uncle or the really nice neighbor whose name you can't remember."
That he's also been eligible for Social Security benefits for a decade and a half means something, too. He is the anti-Donald Sterling, an example of how a guy in his statin years can not only finish first but can be productive and generous to others. By contrast, the 80-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers demonstrated on a recent CNN appearance that he can't even apologize on national television without sounding like a hateful crank.
It must be great to be admired and at the top of your profession at age 77. It's even better than Cormac McCarthy winning the Pulitzer Prize at age 73 for "The Road" or Clint Eastwood's Oscar at 74 for directing "Million Dollar Baby." Both were already famous and living the high life. In racing, California Chrome has given Mr. Sherman a four-legged ride from the Day's Inn to the Hyatt, and after the Kentucky Derby, he's been living in the equivalent of a Four Seasons suite.
Baltimoreans may come no closer to experiencing such a thing than the Pimlico infield, but we do know rags-to-riches. It was only a few years back that Maryland horse racing looked to be on life-support. Marylanders dug into their pockets and came up with a share of slot machine revenue to save racing and the Preakness. Now, the industry is looking much healthier, and with the possibility of a Triple Crown winner (a feat not achieved since Affirmed in 1978) looking more likely than usual, there's reason to believe in its future as well. Just ask the older gent hanging out at Stall 40. He'll tell you about eternal optimism at the track.
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