There isn't an emotion that trainer Art Sherman and his team didn't endure in 2014, be it the elation that comes with a horse who reshapes one's world or the angst that comes with criticism and controversy.
The constant throughout was the flashy chestnut named California Chrome, the colt who at one point in early summer had the world at his hooves. The morning after Chrome won the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar on Nov. 29 — his sixth win from nine starts last year, fourth Grade I triumph and first on turf — Sherman paid tribute to the runner who held everyone together during the good and the ugly.
"I know this horse," the 77-year-old Sherman said. "He wasn't going to let me down."
No horse captured the public's imagination last year like California Chrome, and few danced every dance at the level the dual classic winner did from January on. The reward for having endured form and two-thirds of the most sought-after series in Thoroughbred racing came Saturday night when California Chrome was honored as the 2014 Horse of the Year during the 44th annual Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park.
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California Chrome, who was also named champion 3-year-old male, prevailed over fellow finalists Bayern and Main Sequence with 143 of the 265 first-place Horse of the Year votes cast from the NTRA, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. The homebred colt becomes the first Kentucky Derby winner to be named Horse of the Year since Charismatic in 1999 and the first sophomore runner of either sex to take top honors since Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern, who was also a finalist for champion 3-year-old male, received 36 first-place votes with four-time Grade I winner Main Sequence getting 53 votes.
"It's been a wild year for me," said Sherman, who is prepping California Chrome for a 2015 campaign. "I want to thank all my crew, especially my son Alan who lived with the horse ... everyone who worked many hours on this horse keeping him sound and doing what we do.
"It's been a lifetime achievement for me just being here. I've been on the track for 55 years. So it's been a great honor and I truly appreciate it."
California Chrome's coronation Saturday was the completion of a full-circle journey that saw him become Thoroughbred racing's golden boy during his Triple Crown attempt, pulling his affable, old-school trainer and owners/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin into a spotlight they had never experienced.
Unbeaten and untested in his first three starts of 2014, including a 51/4-length win in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome sauntered into Churchill Downs and left with an overflowing bandwagon when he captured the Kentucky Derby by 13/4 lengths.
His subsequent 11/2-length victory in the Preakness Stakes had his army of "Chromies" proclaiming him an overwhelming choice to take the Belmont Stakes three weeks later and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
In place of history, fate ordered up heartbreak. California Chrome got his right front hoof stepped on at the start of the Belmont en route to finishing fourth behind race-winner Tonalist, prompting Coburn to denounce horses who skip the first two legs of the Triple Crown as "cheaters" in an emotional post-race interview.
While Coburn eventually had his mea culpa for his outburst, tensions were still high after California Chrome finished a dull sixth behind Bayern in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20. Though he was third in the Breeders' Cup Classic to Bayern again, he was beaten just a neck that day and came back to take the Hollywood Derby in his first try on turf.
"This is a dream come true for us, it's just amazing," Coburn said Saturday.
While he lost the Horse of the Year vote to California Chrome, Breeders' Cup Turf winner Main Sequence was recognized for his 4-for-4 campaign all in Grade I races in 2014 by earning champion turf male and champion older male honors.
Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Untapable was a unanimous pick for champion 3-year-old filly with Juddmonte Farms homebred Close Hatches taking champion older female honors.
Multiple Grade I winner Dayatthespa was the overwhelming choice for champion turf female with Wesley Ward-trainee Judy the Beauty being named top female sprinter. Midwest Thoroughbreds' Work All Week earned the crown of champion sprinter.