A week or so after the Kentucky Derby, the headline in the Daily Racing Form said it all: “Oy gevalt! Derby-winning trainer is a nice Jewish boy.”
And that was three days before California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Now the “nice Jewish boy” is on the precipice of history. Art Sherman needs only a victory at the Belmont Stakes on June 7 to achieve every trainer’s dream: winning the Triple Crown.
It’s something only 12 horses in history have accomplished, and none since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978.
“It would be the ultimate in my career,” said Sherman, who at 77 became the oldest trainer to win the Derby. “I’ve been in the game 60 years. Triple Crown winner? If you would have said that to me at the beginning of the year, I would have said, ‘What, are you crazy?’ And now that I’m getting closer, I’m elated.”
Research by Oakland-based Celebrity Jews columnist Nate Bloom has revealed Sherman’s connections not only to Judaism, but also to the Bay Area. Here are some of his findings, along with some information found in the Daily Racing Form article:
• Sherman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father, who scraped out a living in construction, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. In 1945, when he was 7, his family moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where his uncles were succeeding in business. There, his father opened a small barber shop.
• His family wasn’t religious. “I never even had a bar mitzvah,” he was quoted as saying. “I went to Hebrew school. One day, my teacher hit me on the head. I told my parents I’m not going back to learn from this idiot.”
• Nobody in his family rode horses, but at only 5-foot-2, Sherman was encouraged by customers in the barber shop to become a jockey. He learned the ropes working at a ranch that trained jockeys. “I never experienced any anti-Semitism while training to be a jockey,” he said. Then again, his name wasn’t Goldberg. To that, he laughed and replied, “True.”
• Racing mostly at tracks in Southern California and the Bay Area, Sherman had only modest success as a jockey. In 1980, he became a full-time, licensed trainer, gradually becoming fairly successful.
• Until recently, Sherman was a fixture at Bay Area tracks, training horses at the now-closed Bay Meadows in San Mateo (where his wife, Faye, worked for decades in the gift shop) and at Golden Gate Fields on the Berkeley-Albany border. He and his family lived in San Mateo until a few years ago and he still owns an apartment there; his sons graduated from Hillsdale High School.
• When California Chrome was a 2-year-old, his owners approached Sherman’s son, Alan, a trainer based part time in the Bay Area, about training their promising colt. Alan checked with his dad, and they agreed to take on the chestnut horse with four white socks. The father and son now train and stable 20 horses at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County.
• The owners are small-time horse owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, who live, respectively, in Yuba City and Topaz Lake, a small Nevada town near Lake Tahoe. Coburn told the Sacramento Bee they chose Art Sherman because “he’s a regular guy. He doesn’t have a huge barn. He can spend quality time with every horse. You can tell Chrome likes him, and he really loves this horse.”
• Art Sherman didn’t become more religious with age. Faye, his wife of 53 years, isn’t Jewish. Still, he called himself a “pretty Jewish guy,” mentioning how much he loves lox, eggs and onions. He said his favorite deli in the San Diego area is D.Z. Akin’s, about 25 miles from his home in Rancho Bernardo. “They have the best matzah ball soup,” he said.
• He fondly recalled a trip to Israel that he, his wife and his nieces (the daughters of his late older sister, Gladys) took two years ago. Also, he tries to attend his nieces’ Passover seder every year. “We probably have more gentiles than Jews at the table,” Sherman said.
According to the Daily Racing Form, Sherman is not the first Jew to train a Kentucky Derby winner. Max Hirsch won the race three times, including in 1946 with Triple Crown winner Assault.
Until California Chrome’s victory in the Kentucky Derby, Sherman operated in semiobscurity, running a low-key but respected training operation and rarely taking his horses outside of California.
But now the diminutive Sherman stands out in a crowd.
“I’m kind of getting used to it,” he said. “After I won the Kentucky Derby, I said, ‘Wow, all of a sudden I feel like Willie Nelson,’ the old rock star coming through the airport.”
It’s been a whirlwind.
“Sometimes I need to take my little siesta for about an hour,” he said.
Since the last Triple Crown win, Affirmed in 1978, 12 horses have won the first two legs and failed to complete the sweep in the longer 11⁄2-mile Belmont. Sherman thinks California Chrome can end the drought.
“I have a good feeling about it. I’m really confident,” he said. “He’s the real McCoy.”
Freelancer Nate Bloom, J. managing editor Andy Altman-Ohr and the Associated Press contributed to this report