Be wary of labels, especially in horseracing. They bite.
In the spring of 1955, Swaps was called that "West Coast colt trained by cowboys" when he arrived for the Kentucky Derby. Easterners laughed, bet on Nashua, and watched Swaps win wire-to-wire.
On the eve of the first Arlington Million, a British horseman referred to John Henry as "just a handicap horse," more than a cut below a classic English filly in the race. The next day John Henry won, and the filly finished third.
For the longest time, Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman were known as "Northern California trainers" in the same, patronizing way that women riders would be called "jockettes" or horse owners who earned a paycheck were described as "blue collar."
Northern California racing was considered Southern California's distant, harmless cousin, populated by lesser horses and unambitious racetrack people who preferred the clang-clang of the San Francisco trolleys to the wealth and glitter of Los Angeles and Hollywood.
Then, before anyone knew what hit them, Hollendorfer and Sherman ascended to the top floor of the Thoroughbred world, and Northern California was a punchline no more.
In the summer of 2011, Hollendorfer took the stage at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion in Saratoga Springs to acknowledge applause for his induction into the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, where his name henceforth would be found alongside those of Ben Jones, Max Hirsch, John Nerud, Wayne Lukas, and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
Then, in May of 2014, Sherman stood atop the racing world as the trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, a colt of humble beginnings but consummate talent whose patient development was tribute to his 77-year-old trainer.
Not bad for a couple of guys who came from nonracing families supported by working class fathers. Who left the nest as young men looking for adventure, and started at the bottom of the game. Who once were neighbors in the same apartment four-plex near Bay Meadows, struggling to kickstart careers as fledgling trainers on a demanding, year-round circuit.
"Who would have figured?" said Sherman not long ago, shaking his head. "Two guys from Northern California, and look at us."
Yes, look at them – bucking the odds to become household names, making good on a lifetime of hard work, and now lending their names and reputations to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation as the organization's 2017 honorees at the annual awards dinner at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
In 2001, the Gregson Foundation began offering scholarship grants to the children of the California backstretch workers who care for the Thoroughbreds who make the sport possible. The Foundation is named for the late Eddie Gregson, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol and the driving force behind the effort to give young people access to higher education.
"I was an okay student, but in those days you didn't think about college as much as going to work and earning some money," said Sherman, a native of Brooklyn whose family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s.
Sherman's father owned a barbershop in the Silver Lake district, not far from downtown. There were rumors that a man could get a bet down on a horse race as well as a haircut at Harry Sherman's shop, which meant the conversation would often turn to names like Arcaro, Longden and Neves, famous jockeys in service to the cause.
"Small as I was, hanging around there, it wasn't a surprise they said I ought to be a jockey," Sherman recalled. "I found out about a ranch east of town that would hire you as a hand and teach you how to ride. I was 16, so I figured why not?"
The ranch belonged to Rex Ellsworth, whose story as one of the giants of the game was just beginning to unfold. In 1953, Ellsworth moved his growing Thoroughbred enterprise from Ontario to Chino, advertising a "jockey school" to go along with the breeding and training operation. In fact, the young Sherman and his fellow trainees were little more than indentured servants, living at the farm under an ironclad contract and paid a token wage to do every conceivable chore.
Fortunately, horsebacking was one of them. By the time he turned 18, Sherman was at the track with the Ellsworth horses, exercising them in the morning and sometimes riding in the afternoon. His first official mount was on June 15, 1955, at Hollywood Park, on a 3-year-old filly named Konsonet, the longest price in the field, who showed speed and "gave way badly after three-eighths," according to the chart. She finished last.
"I was riding for my life," Sherman said with a laugh. Let the record show that Art Sherman won his first race as a jockey on Nov. 5, 1955, at Agua Caliente, aboard a 3-year-old colt named Nic's Brigade, under what the official chart described as "a hustling ride." It was not, however, for Ellsworth.
"Yeah, they got a little mad at me for that," Sherman said. "They had a few more horses I was supposed to give a race to before my apprenticeship started with that first winner."
All's well that ends well. After bouncing back and forth on Ellsworth runners between Southern California and Mexico throughout the 1956 season, Sherman ended the year as the leading apprentice at Agua Caliente. Need proof? Art still carries the money clip given to him in recognition of the achievement.
For the next decade, Sherman played the racetrack gypsy, following his fortunes all over the land. He met his wife, Faye, in Chicago, they were married in Florida, and brought two sons into the world, Steve and Alan. Sensing a need for stability, Sherman settled his young family into the Bay Area in the mid-1960's and decided to call it home.
About that same time, Jerry Hollendorfer, fresh from earning his B.A. degree in business administration from the University of Akron, visited a pal in San Francisco, just for the fun of it.
"I liked the climate right away," Hollendorfer told turf writer Steve Schuelein. "I went back, packed the car and drove out."
Hollendorfer was born in Akron, Ohio, the son of an autoparts factory worker. They had a bit of land, just outside of town, and young Jerry got to throw a leg over the family pony when he was so inclined. The idea of being a jockey was a bit farfetched, but he enjoyed the races at Ascot Park and Thistledown, and the trotters at Northfield.
Once settled in the Bay Area, Hollendorfer again was drawn to the racetrack, intrigued by the horseflesh and the possibility of a job. Working for trainers Dan Wilcher, Jerry Dutton, and Jerry Fanning at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, Hollendorfer went from hotwalker to groom to assistant, eventually with an eye toward going into business for himself.
That day came in 1979, when Hollendorfer hung out his shingle as a public trainer. He won 11 races that year, 16 in 1980, then went through a few more tough seasons before his horses topped the million-dollar mark in earnings
in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. The intense Hollendorfer paused long enough in the lead-up to the confrontation to marvel aloud, "How fortunate are we, a couple of trainers from Northern California."
As recently as last fall, Sherman and Hollendorfer were in the spotlight together again, this time at the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita with arguably the two most popular Thoroughbreds in the land. Sherman had California Chrome primed for the Breeders' Cup Classic, while Hollendorfer had the unbeaten Songbird ready to face the best older females in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
They both ran lights out but finished close seconds – California Chrome to the talented 3-year-old Arrogate and Songbird to the redoubtable Beholder. Their support held firm when it was announced that Songbird and California Chrome were among the three finalists, along with Arrogate, for 2016 Horse of the Year.
So there they were, the two guys from Northern California, front and center at the Eclipse Awards last January in Florida. Songbird was named champion 3-yearold filly, while California Chrome took older male honors and his second title as Horse of the Year.
And now here they are at Del Mar, joined at the hip by history, lending their support to a cause that is dear to the hearts of all racetrackers: the future of bright young people who just need a little help to make their dreams come true.
"We've been friends for a long time," Sherman said. "Competitors and friends. I know Jerry has a reputation for being super competitive. But you get him away from the track at dinner, and you could not find a nicer, more congenial guy to be around. He represents our sport with class.
"Still, this is the same guy who was standing next to me one time getting ready to watch a race," Sherman added. "Jerry leans over to me and says, ‘Art, if I don't win this, I hope you don't either."
"But we never claimed a horse off each other," Sherman added. "Never."
Hollendorfer, who weighs his words carefully, smiled at the thought.
"Well, there are plenty of opportunities to claim horses," he said, as if to downplay any significance. "All I know is that Art Sherman is one of the most generous people I've ever known. I watched him help a lot of folks. He actually took in a young friend of one of his sons who needed a home. You don't do things like that unless you're special kind of person."
They both qualify, which is why the Gregson Foundation
is lucky to have them in the spotlight tonight.