I have talked quite a bit about Shared Belief since Blinkers Off began back in January. I maintained that he should beat New Year’s Day out for Champion Two-Year-Old Male, and I drafted him to my fantasy stable. It was a winter of foot problems, scheduled workouts, and missed workouts; most of my weekly updates until I finally waived him were nice ways of saying “we don’t know when he is going to race again.”
I was glad his connections skipped out on the early season, since taking a careful approach to returning to training serves the horse far better than trying to rush him. This holds true for any horse, but rings with particular poignancy for a gelding. There is no chance that Shared Belief will be yanked off the track as a three-year-old or a four-year-old to preserve his stud value. Geldings who stay sound and race for years become fan favourites: just think of Wise Dan, Ben’s Cat, Cirrus des Aigles. They come back year after year, win races, and give fans like us someone to cheer for over a long period of time. We don’t know yet if Shared Belief will have that sort of longevity, but he would not have a chance for it if his connections rushed him back to the track and compromised his soundness.
Still, it was hard not to anxiously await his return to the track after what he did last year. After breaking his maiden at Golden Gate, he steamrolled both the Hollywood Prevue Stakes (GIII) and the CashCall Futurity (GI). The field in the Prevue included eventual graded stakes winner Kobe’s Back. The field in the CashCall included not only Kobe’s Back, but other graded stakes winners Candy Boy, Tamarando, and Bond Holder. When the hooves hit the track, however, none of them could mount a challenge to Shared Belief. After those three wins last year, he looked like he could be something special.
Despite gossip that he might come back in some lofty race like the Woody Stephens, Jerry Hollendorfer returned him to the track today in a somewhat more modest place: a six-furlong open allowance over the Golden Gate Tapeta surface. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer ran him there because he didn’t want to ship, and made the valid point that a race can always be tough if it is the first one back from a six-month layoff. Shared Belief wasn’t facing fellow divisional champion horses, but he was facing older company for the first time. He was the only three-year-old in the starting gate. He was the only horse who hadn’t started yet this year; all four others in the race were in their sixth start of 2014. It was a solid allowance field despite its small size, with one stakes winner and two stakes-placed horses in the field.
Any other day, it would have been a solid enough race at Golden Gate, but today it was something more. It was the return of a champion. It was our first chance to address the question of whether Shared Belief may be the same special racehorse he was last year.
Today, Shared Belief proved that dream is still alive.
Early on, he got the rail and the lead. Shared Belief had never been one to set the early fractions, but no one else seems to want to do it today. The lead just fell to him, though Jockey Russell Baze didn’t ask him for run that early. He set some slow fractions, at least for the early stages of an allowance level sprint: the quarter in 23.32, the half in 46.46. No one even tried to challenge him until the far turn, though, so it made no sense to expend unnecessary energy by asking him for more run.
Finally, with about a quarter of a mile remaining, Ourwestcoastghost tried to make a run at him. Stalking a length or so off through most of it, he got to within a head of Shared Belief. It was no matter. Baze hardly had to move. Shared Belief kicked right into his next gear, and almost immediately opened up a length, then two… The other jockeys urged their mounts, but by the time the field turned for home, the fight between Ourwestcoastghost and Moonshine Bay was clearly for second. Any rust that Shared Belief may had gathered over the last six months was off, and he was running long and strong. He pulled away while still under a hold. By the time the field hit the wire, Shared Belief was all alone, 4 1/4 lengths in front. Ourwestcoastghost, after stalking the winner for the first half-mile, just barely had enough to stave off Moonshine Bay for second. Ridden hard, they couldn’t find enough to counter what Shared Belief had in hand.
Next time out, Shared Belief will almost certainly face tougher company. Today proved that despite any setbacks through the winter, Shared Belief can still run. He is still comfortable on the track, and still has the desire to win.
Shared Belief, you are a special horse, and you are ready for your next challenge. Welcome back. We missed you.