It’s a great time to be Art Sherman.
At 77, he’s the oldest horse trainer to have won the Kentucky Derby. When 3-year-old California Chrome raced to victory two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes on May 17, it meant he had trained the winner of the first two legs of this year’s Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.
On June 7, Sherman will attempt to become the 11th trainer — and second Jew, after Max Hirsch in 1946 — to complete the trifecta by winning the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome would be the 12th horse overall, and first since Affirmed in 1978, to win all three races.
Not bad for a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn who grew up in Los Angeles.
“I’m a certain generation Jewish guy,” he told the Journal by phone. “My parents were born in this country. We’re die-hard Jewish-Americans.”
That said, Sherman — who was a jockey before he became a trainer — isn’t particularly observant. He didn’t become a bar mitzvah because the teacher at his Echo Park-area shul once hit him over the head, mistaking little Art for someone else who was making trouble. (“I told my parents, ‘I am not going back to learn from this idiot,’ ” Sherman told the Daily Racing Form).
Yet Sherman peppers his comments with Hebrew and Yiddish terms and was part owner of Haimish Hy, winner of the 2010 Hollywood Derby. He regularly attends a niece’s Passover seder and loves scrambled eggs, lox and onions at D.Z. Akin’s deli in San Diego. (He and his wife, Faye, live in Rancho Bernardo).
“Every other ethnic group has its soul food,” Sherman said. “I laugh and say it’s my soul food.”
The horse trainer also recently took a trip to Israel that he said filled him with pride for his heritage.
“[We] went everywhere: Jerusalem, Haifa, Golan Heights, a kibbutz,” he said. “I was amazed at the kibbutz, having its own food. Everything was so fresh. I just enjoyed that. It’s amazing to see what they can do in the desert. Made me proud.
“The places were beautiful to see. Different religions getting along — very moving. I kind of liked going back to my roots.”
When Sherman visits New York, home to the Belmont, he’ll be returning to his roots in a different way. He wishes he could find his old neighborhood but doesn't remember where it was — he left when he was still young — and there’s no one still alive who could tell him. But he’s looking forward to eating the Italian food, which he loves.
“Why go to New York for Jewish food when I can try other stuff?”
California Chrome isn’t Sherman’s first experience with a top-notch horse. As a child, he was an exercise rider aboard Swaps, who won the 1955 Kentucky Derby, either set or tied six world records on his way to winning 1956 Horse of the Year honors and was inducted to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1966. Blood-Horse magazine named him one of the greatest horses of the last century.
Sherman’s son Alan is his assistant trainer, who rode with the horse from the Preakness in Maryland to New York for the next race. Art Sherman also has a son Steve who is a trainer in Northern California.
As for winning at the Belmont, there’s a reason why no horse has won the Triple Crown in 35 years. To do so, a horse must win three races at different distances in five weeks.
“I think it’s way too much for a young horse,” Sherman said. “If he won all three, he’s going down in history. Even if he doesn’t win, how many get a chance to win the Triple Crown?”
The answer? Nineteen horses, including 11 after Affirmed, have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but faltered in the Belmont. At 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont is the longest distance of the three, and it’s usually the only time a horse will run that distance.
“If it happens, it happens,” Sherman said. “We’ve been on a solid run. I’ve got to pinch myself. You’ve got to be really lucky.”