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LOUISVILLE — Art Sherman has lived long enough to rewrite his life story. He has been the little guy "right beneath the radar," a happy plodder at America's racetracks, and he was perfectly fine with his lot outside the limelight.

But if the 77-year-old trainer must adapt to the newfound fame of being the horseman who has shaped California Chrome, he does not expect it to turn his head.

"I don't think I change much anymore," he said. "I have a lot of friends on the racetrack, been around a long time. I'm just the same old Art Sherman, you know ..."

Here, he paused for effect.

"Except," Sherman continued, "I won the Kentucky Derby."

He was sitting at a table on a raised platform Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, recounting California Chrome's victory and the crowning achievement of a long career, and his playful tone served as curious counterpoint to the tears of jockey Victor Espinoza and the spasms of choked-up sentiment of co-owner Steve Coburn. Blue-eyed and buoyant, Art Sherman's demeanor suggested a character from the fiction of Ernest Hemingway: Santiago, the faithful fisherman of "The Old Man and the Sea."

"Everything about him was old except his eyes," Hemingway wrote, "and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

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That sentence sounds a lot like Art Sherman, who has carried the burden of training the Kentucky Derby favorite with a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and without being weighed down by all that responsibility. California Chrome's 1 3/4-length victory in the 140th Derby made Sherman the oldest trainer to win the Run for the Roses, but to hear him tell him it, he was just along for the ride.

Sherman gave Espinoza no pre-race instructions, trusting the instincts and the experience of the veteran rider. He characterized California Chrome as the "rock star" and himself as a minimalist manager. He was being modest, but he was also being himself, the former jockey who learned long ago to defer to his mount.

"California Chrome is an easy horse to train," Sherman said. "...I just let him be a horse. They told me, 'You're only going half a mile with him. You're going to do this.' ...

"I know the horse. I've been on many a horse. You don't train every horse the same way. You have to let a horse tell you what he needs to do. It's just maintaining."

It is more than that, of course. If he did nothing else for California Chrome, Art Sherman succeeded in matching him with a jockey who has ridden him to five straight victories by a total of 26 lengths. If Saturday's winning time of 2:03.66 was comparatively slow — it was more than four seconds slower than Secretariat's record 1:59.40 — there was nothing pedestrian about how this chestnut colt pulled away from the pack down the stretch.

"I didn't think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race," rival trainer Dale Romans said. "And I was very, very wrong. Whether the crop's a good crop or not, that's a special horse. ...

"I was a very big skeptic. I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby. I'm very impressed (by) the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran."

No California-bred horse had won the Derby since Decidedly did it in 1962. The previous California-bred to win the race had been Swaps, a horse Sherman served as an exercise rider before prior to the 1955 Derby.

When Sherman visited Swaps' grave at Churchill Downs this week, he said a prayer and made a plea: "I said, 'Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into Chrome, I'll be the happiest guy in the world.' "

Truth be told, Art Sherman has long had a good handle on happiness. He does not expect his life to be much different now, except he won the Kentucky Derby.

Sullivan writes for the Courier-Journal.

PHOTOS: A day at the Kentucky Derby

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