Shared Belief Needs to be Awesome...Again

Not to put any pressure on Shared Belief in Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes, but racing desperately needs a victory by the son of Candy Ride. Actually, it needs an impressive victory, not so much in the margin, but the manner in which he achieves it.

Why does racing and the Breeders’ Cup need Shared Belief to win? Because there ain’t nuthin’ else.

Not that Moreno, Majestic Harbor, Itsmyluckyday, Wicked Strong, V.E. Day, Tonalist, Zivo, Euro synthetic star Toast of New York, and several others aren’t talented, classy horses, but it’s like having chicken without the francaise sauce. It’s a bit on the bland side, with nothing to dazzle the taste buds.

And if there is one thing racing and the Breeders’ Cup Classic need going into the race it is dazzle, after the retirements of, well, pretty much everybody – Mucho Macho Man, Game On Dude, Palace Malice, and Will Take Charge and injuries to Lea and Moonshine Mullin. And now that California Chrome has dug himself a pretty deep hole from which to climb out, the Classic has lost what once was its most intoxicating lure in years.

It lost the anticipation of a California Chrome-Shared Belief showdown with both horses in top form and it lost what could have been a rare collection of talented older horses. And we don’t even know yet if Itsmyluckyday, prepping in the Kelso Mile, will go for the Classic or the Dirt Mile.

Unless Shared Belief wipes up the remaining older horses in the Awesome Again and comes back with a victory in the Classic, you can pretty much present ‘ol reliable Wise Dan with his third straight Horse of the Year title.

There is no saying that California Chrome can’t bounce back off his Pennsylvania Derby defeat, but for now the sizzle is gone, and, as we noted earlier, the Breeders’ Cup needs sizzle going into the Classic.

Also, if Shared Belief gets beat in the Awesome Again, it actually opens the 3-year-old Eclipse door to Bayern, Wicked Strong, V.E. Day, and Tonalist. Maybe even Horse of the Year. If, for instance, V.E. Day ends the year with victories in the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic that certainly would earn him votes. The same with Tonalist, with the Peter Pan, Belmont Stakes, JC Gold Cup, and BC Classic. The same with Wicked Strong, with the Wood Memorial, Jim Dandy, JC Gold Cup, and BC Classic and a nose defeat in the Travers. And the same with Bayern, with the Woody Stephens, Haskell Invitational, Pennsylvania Derby, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Maybe even all these defections and the California Chrome defeat and a Shared Belief defeat on Saturday would entice Close Hatches to perhaps follow in the footsteps of Zenyatta and Havre de Grace if she should win the Spinster Stakes impressively. That, however, seems pretty unlikely at this point.

But all this is purely supposition and is a long way off. For now, racing needs a superstar on the dirt, pure and simple. And Shared Belief is that horse. Bayern most certainly has the talent and brilliance to dominate any race against any group of horses, but he’s shown that things have to go his way, and he still does not possess the star appeal of Shared Belief, who has never been beaten or tested.

Perhaps one day Bayern will possess that star appeal, but only after he demonstrates some consistency. Excluding his disqualification in the Derby Trial Stakes, his average margin of victory has been an impressive 7 3/4 lengths, but his average margin of defeat has been 15 1/2 lengths. In his two bad defeats, he couldn’t overcome a poor start in the Preakness Stakes and couldn’t overcome an apparent dislike for the drying out surface at Saratoga, in what Bob Baffert referred to as a ‘head scratcher.”

Can California Chrome rebound off his performance in the Pennsylvania Derby to the extent of knocking off Shared Belief and the other 3-year-olds in the Classic? It must be noted that the five times in his career he has been stuck on the inside or between horses he has finished out of the money, unable to kick in even when there was room turning for home. When he’s been on the outside and in the clear, he has been unbeatable. But beating (Derby runner-up) Commanding Curve and (Preakness runner-up) Ride On Curlin is not exactly the same as meeting this new group of potential stars.

So, it will be all guesswork when it comes to evaluating his chances in the Classic. It sure would make for a great story if he could rebound, especially with the large fan base he has amassed through his Triple Crown heroics. But races are marketed and sold before the race, and we’ll have to see how far his star appeal has dropped after his lackluster performance at Parx.

Chromies, as his fans are often known, had to feel frustrated watching Victor Espinoza try desperately to get out off the rail and into a clear path. After breaking sharply, he was confronted by C J’s Awesome charging up from the outside, thwarting his first escape attempt. But that was to be expected considering C J’s Awesome’s early lick. It was the second attempt that did him in when Javier Castellano, on Protonico, asked his horse going into the first turn, and it was obvious that Castellano was intent on keeping California Chrome boxed in, no matter how hard Espinoza tried to get out, even attempting for a second to bull his way out. But Castellano had him locked in and had thrown away the key. He wasn’t about to leave the door open even a crack. That’s when Espinoza resigned himself to his fate and just tried to follow Bayern, hoping something would open up. When it finally did it was too late. California Chrome seemed spent by then, offering little in the stretch.

By the way, Protonico finished over four lengths behind California Chrome in seventh, which often happens to horses when they are preoccupied for so long with going after targeted favorites. That is two races in a row now that a Todd Pletcher horse has compromised California Chrome – first it was longshot Matterhorn stepping on the back of his ankle at the start of the Belmont in a freak occurrence and now with Protonico, who was coming off an impressive victory in the Smarty Jones Stakes over the Parx Racing surface.

With all that said, the outcome of the Pennsylvania Derby, as far as the winner goes, might not have been altered even if California Chrome had gotten out. Perhaps even more damaging to him than his entrapment was the :47 4/5 half-mile fraction glaring ominously from the tote board. That pretty much sealed the fate of not only California Chrome, but every other horse in the race.

After such a dawdling half over a blazing-fast track, Bayern was able to throw in a third quarter in a sizzling :22.99, followed by another rapid quarter in :23.52, and finally a :12.49 knife-in-the-heart final eighth. Not only did he draw off to a 5 3/4-length victory, much as he did in the Haskell Invitational, his time of 1:46.96 broke the track record that had stood for 40 years. When a horse the quality of Bayern can steal a half in :47 4/5 and then fly home his final five-eighths in about :58 4/5, no one is going to beat him…except maybe Shared Belief, which brings us back to the importance of the Awesome Again.

We just don’t know to what heights this remarkably gifted gelding can attain. He is the type of horse who could have pressed Bayern early or he could have sat back had the pace been brutal. That’s what we’re dealing with.

There have been Breeders’ Cup Classics with great back stories and great finishes (last year we had both) and great fields. But you can count on one hand the ones that had that special headliner or an intense rivalry that attracted worldwide interest and an outcome that lingered in the memory and stamped the race into the history books.

Yes, a third BC Mile victory by Wise Dan certainly would be historic. But we’ve all come to expect nothing less from him. (Don’t worry, I’m not even bringing up the idea of running in the Classic. Those days are long gone). Dan is a hero we all can count on year after year. But from a PR standpoint, the Mile is not the Classic; just compare Goldikova’s three-peat with Zenyatta’s presence  in overall impact.

With that said, no one is asking much of Shared Belief in the Awesome Again…except to save the Breeders’ Cup, the Classic, and racing in 2014. That’s not a lot to ask, is it?

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