Santa Anita dubbed it “The Rematch,” the second meeting of California superstars California Chrome and Shared Belief. While they had only met on the track once before, in that controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic that saw eventual winner Bayern make a left turn out of the gate right into race favorite Shared Belief, the outcome perhaps decided another race- the race for Horse of the Year honors. While previously undefeated before the Classic, Shared Belief was defeated twice at the year-end Eclipse Awards when Chrome and his dual-Classic winning season were awarded both the 3-year-old Champion and Horse of the Year honors.
Before the featured San Antonio Invitational, the trail to the Kentucky Derby hit an early highlight when highly-regarded Dortmund rallied in deep stretch to beat a stubborn Firing Line. It was an impressive race for both colts, who separated themselves far from the rest of the field. Firing Line actually passed Dortmund at one stage, but the huge chestnut colt dug deep and put his head back in front in the closing strides.
Both Shared Belief and California Chrome were making their 2015 season debuts, with Chrome having last taken the Grade I Hollywood Derby on turf in November, and Shared Belief the Grade I Malibu in December over a sprint distance. Having not seen Chrome in person since the Breeders’ Cup, I was impressed by how much more he has filled out and developed as a four-year-old. The same can be said of Shared Belief, who as a gelding carries less bulk than Chrome, but has also matured well.
Santa Anita was buzzing with the chance to see these two champions duke it out under fair conditions. The day was overcast and slightly rainy, but not enough to keep the track from being fast and keep the crowds away. As Chrome entered the paddock, a wave of cheers went up for him and his connections. The area around the walking ring was packed several rows deep, with most decked out in green and purple. As the horses exited the tunnel onto the track, cheers were again heard for Chrome as his name was announced. There probably hasn’t been this much support for a horse nationally since Zenyatta, and he draws the kind of crowd in his home state as that great mare did.
As the race unfolded, both broke well and settled into early positions. Mike Smith was able to guide Shared Belief to California Chrome’s outside as they moved into the first turn, sitting third right off of Chrome’s flank. Both looked relaxed and in the clear in the early stages. As they rounded the far turn, Chrome moved up on pacesetter Alfa Bird and seemed poised to make his usual kick around the turn. Hoppertunity followed him on the inside, while Smith got to work on Shared Belief on Chrome’s outside. Shared Belief has this tendency to hang a bit on the turns, and it always seems like Smith is working a lot harder than he should be, which makes one wonder if the horse is out of gas. At the top of the lane, the crowd exploded as the two separated themselves from Hoppertunity and hooked up at the top of the stretch. Chrome briefly took the lead, looking full of run and ready to open it up at the top of the lane as he had so many times, but Shared Belief swapped leads easily and came running at the 1/8th pole. Although they matched strides for a brief while, Shared Belief went on by, heading to the wire on a hand ride with ears pricked. While many of the “Chromies” were disappointed with the outcome, the race delivered everything the fans had hoped for when the two hooked up at the top of the stretch.
I’ve never thought of Shared Belief as being as handsome as Chrome is. He’s a smallish horse, near-black in color with a lean body and smaller head. But you can tell he’s all grit. When he gets down to running, Shared Belief pins his ears and gets low to the ground, an economical stride that propels him past his rivals. He’s truly just a genuine racehorse.
While fans hope to see these two hook up again, it seems Chrome is headed to Dubai in pursuit of the World Cup and Shared Belief will contest the Big ‘Cap back here in March. Nevertheless, racing got all it wanted with these two champions squaring off on Saturday, and it’s wonderful that not only are they both back for their four-year-old seasons, but that perhaps the two best handicap horses in the country might reside in California.