The showdown everyone wanted to see produced a clear verdict for Shared Belief over reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome in the $500,000 San Antonio Invitational Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 7 at Santa Anita Park (VIDEO).
Second choice California Chrome, leading by a length at the head of the stretch, could not withstand the charge of even-money favorite Shared Belief, who responded to a couple of left-handed cracks of the whip from Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in upper stretch.
Before a crowd of 21,522, Shared Belief surged past in deep stretch under a hand ride on his way to a convincing win by 1 1/2 lengths. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile trip was 1:48.45 over a fast track.
"I can't even describe that performance," Smith said. "He ranks right up there with the top five horses I have ever been on, with room to grow. It really was so impressive. There's no telling what this horse can do or the potential that he can reach. I think he still has room to grow."
Hoppertunity finished 6 1/2 lengths behind California Chrome in third.
Owned by Jim Rome's Jungle Racing and partners and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Shared Belief, the 2-year-old champion of 2013, registered his ninth win from 10 career starts. He once more redeemed his only loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), in which he finished one spot behind California Chrome in fourth after getting bumped off stride at the break.
Hollendorfer said he did not see the race as vindication for Shared Belief.
"No, I'm just happy to win this race and that's the honest truth. I don't care what happened before. I care what happened right now and what happens in the future. California Chrome has a big following, deservedly so. He deserved to be Horse of the Year. If things had gone a little bit different, I might have got a chance, but you can't always get things to go your way."
The 4-year-old gelding by Candy Ride was bred in Kentucky by Pam and Marty Wygod out of the Storm Cat mare Common Hope.
"Jerry's horse is the real McCoy. My horse is very good, too; we just got outrun," said Art Sherman, California Chrome's trainer. "Jerry's horse was sitting in the garden spot; it was a great race. My horse ran his heart out and I'm proud of my horse. He didn't give up; he ran his eyeballs out."
California Chrome, making his first start since taking the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) on the Del Mar turf Nov. 29, was a bit anxious leaving the gate. Under a light rain, the robust chestnut colt took the lead leaving from post 8 before being overtaken on his outside by Alfa Bird approaching the clubhouse turn. Shared Belief angled to the outside of those two and tracked from third as Alpha Bird set moderate fractions of :23.65, :47.87, and 1:12.49.
"There was a little jockeying around that first turn between the three of us," Smith said. "We were just making each other decide what they were going to do without showing one another our hands. We were pushing at each other but then we settled into a nice pace."
Rounding the far turn, jockey Victor Espinoza allowed California Chrome to go for an early run and he quickly swept past Alfa Bird. But Smith never allowed California Chrome to get too far from Shared Belief, who came out of the bend poised for the drive.
California Chrome appeared to be going the better of the two at the head of the lane, but Shared Belief made up the slight deficit after getting encouragement from Smith. Lengthening his stride impressively under hand urging, the smallish dark bay surged ahead of California Chrome and drew off in the drive for the wire.
"At first I thought California Chrome was getting away from me and I know that when he switches leads he has another gear." Smith said. "It wasn't good enough today but not only was it not good enough but I don't have words to describe what Shared Belief did."
Shared Belief paid $4, $2.40, and $2.10, across the board, topping a $7.60 exacta with California Chrome, who returned $2.80 and $2.60 at 7-5 odds. Hoppertunity, ridden by Martin Garcia, was $2.60 to show.
"I had a good trip. For two months off, it was a good race for him, a good effort," Espinoza said of California Chrome. "He will be better the next race."
Coming off a neck victory in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes (gr. I) Dec. 26 at Santa Anita, Shared Belief boosted his career earnings to $2,332,200 for Rome and Hollendorfer, who own him in partnership with Jason Litt, Alex Solis II, George Todaro, and Kevin and Kim Nish's KMN Racing.
"The race kind of came up on paper like we thought it would," said a pleased Hollendorfer. "We got lucky that way. We wanted to be around third early. Mike (Smith) said if he came away from there and shot to the lead, he might try that. But it ended up the way we talked about it, so that was real good.
"I was thinking you're going to have to go get him (when California Chrome opened up turning into the stretch) and that's what we had to do. Good for us we got to him in mid-stretch and then got past him."
The dark bay was purchased by Hollendorfer privately from the Wygods after he debuted at Golden Gate Fields in October 2013, taking a six-furlong maiden special weight by seven lengths. Shared Belief went on to win all three of his starts at 2, wrapping up an Eclipse Award with a 5 3/4-length romp in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I).
After missing the Triple Crown campaign with a foot injury that was slow to heal, Shared Belief returned in 2014 with stellar efforts in taking the Los Alamitos Derby (gr. II), TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I) and Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) prior to the roughly-run Breeders' Cup Classic, in which he lost all chance at the start.
His foot injury kept Shared Belief from meeting California Chrome prior to the Classic. It's possible they could renew their budding rivalry in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 7, a race that could also include Classic winner Bayern . California Chrome's connections have stated an interest in going to Dubai for the World Cup (UAE-I) March 28, however.
"We're thinking about that Santa Anita Handicap next, for sure," said Hollendorfer, who noted that this may have been Shared Belief's finest performance. "I think you could make a case for a couple of races, but this one would be hard to argue against.
"He's still a young horse and he's going to mature some more and I think the people who looked at him today can see that he was carrying a little more weight," the Hall of Fame trainer added. "He's still training on a regular schedule which is a little bit hard for these kinds of horses, and he's gaining weight, not losing."
"Hopefully they get to meet again," Smith said. "They're two great champions, they're going to battle back and forth. Hopefully we see a race between the three of them again, Shared Belief, California Chrome, and Bayern."