The pressure is off Art Sherman. By earning 50 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby with California Chrome's dazzling victory in Saturday's Grade 2 San Felipe, the door to Louisville, Kentucky, and the Run for the Roses on May 3 was opened wide.
All the 77-year-old trainer has to do now is keep his colt healthy and pick and choose the best way to get to Churchill Downs for the 140th running of the Derby.
"He came out of the race good; he looked good this morning," Sherman said by phone early Sunday from his Los Alamitos headquarters. "I was here really early to make sure. You get a little nervous thinking about it.
"I'm not making any plans (for his next race), you know what I mean? I'm in the Derby now; I've got enough points. That took a lot of pressure off me. I'm just going to play it by ear. There is a chance we might go to the (Grade 1, $1 million) Santa Anita Derby (on April 5).
"The horse has to let me know. He came out of the race good, he ate up last night. I was happy. He's a cool horse. I just don't want to do too much with him. We're on the Derby trail and I know it's tough. I've been there before as a kid with other people's horses, but I know how grueling it is getting up to that point."
As a teenage "kid," Sherman went to work for Rex Ellsworth and accompanied the mighty California-bred Swaps to the Derby in 1955 and later to Chicago for his match race against the vaunted Nashua.
Now California Chrome will seek to become the first Cal-bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962.
"He's Derby-bound," the Brooklyn-born Sherman said after Saturday's romp. "He looked like Swaps turning down the lane. I was amazed. You think a horse might win by a length or two. I'm not used to seeing him draw off by five or six.
"He's peaking at the right time. The horse has been super, he's putting on weight, he looked excellent in the paddock. I said, 'My, he looks like a race horse today.'"
Sherman, a former jockey who enjoyed his best year as a trainer in 2007 when he won 207 races and gleaned $4,023,669 in purse money, isn't about to be counting his roses before they bloom.
"I still have to go to Kentucky and try the big boys," he said. "So far, all this has been great, not only for me and the horse, but for (owners/breeders) Steve (Coburn) and Perry (Martin). We're just a mom and pop operation."
If luck holds, the family will be growing.
Victor Espinoza had been California Chrome for his past three starts now, all wins, and guided the son of Lucky Pulpit to his 7 1/4-length San Felipe victory, the largest winning margin in the race at the distance of 1 1/16 miles since Premier Pegasus posted a 7 3/4-length romp under Alonso Quinonez for Myung Kwon Cho in 2005.
"Yesterday was his most impressive race since I've been riding him, but I believe he still has more left," Espinoza asserted. "I just took it easy with him yesterday. I think he'll be even better at a mile and a quarter. We'll find out how good he is as we go along, but he's an amazing horse right now."