No one could imagine that a year as magical, historical, and downright glorious as 2015 could end in such tragedy. The death of Shared Belief shocked the racing world and reminded everyone just how gut wrenching this sport can be and how fragile these magnificent horses are.
Shared Belief was special, pure and simple, going through his brilliant, but frustrating, injury-plagued career constantly on the threshold of greatness. As a gelding he had time on his side and there was still ample opportunity to achieve that greatness. With everyone eagerly awaiting his 5-year-old campaign and more epic confrontations with his arch rival on and off the track, California Chrome, tragedy struck and just like that he was gone.
The records will show that Shared Belief won 10 of only 12 starts, including five grade I stakes, setting a track record for 1 1/8 miles in the Los Alamitos Derby, taking home an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old, defeating older horses in the Pacific Classic and Awesome Again Stakes at 3, demolishing his opposition in the Santa Anita Handicap at 4, and defeating Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome in the San Antonio Stakes. He also demonstrated his sprinting speed by winning the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes in 1:20 3/5.
One of the closest partnerships between horse and rider was that of Game On Dude and Mike Smith, who teamed up to win two Santa Anita Handicaps, a Hollywood Gold Cup, and a Pacific Classic. But when Smith rode Shared Belief to victory in the Los Alamitos Derby, Game On Dude’s trainer Bob Baffert knew he was about to lose his rider for the Pacific Classic.
“As soon as they crossed the finish line, I said, ‘Oops, I’m gonna need a jockey,” Baffert said at the time. “I can’t blame Mike for going with the younger gelding. We really don’t know how good that horse is.”
Smith added, “It was extremely difficult decision, and came down to the fact that Shared Belief is a 3-year-old and has a few good years ahead of him. I’m planning on sticking with him for a long time.
“I was really amazed at the ease with which he won the Los Alamitos Derby, and there was a good group of 3-year-olds behind him. This horse is such a professional and so straightforward. I was also amazed at how well balanced he is. He had plenty left in the tank at the end; it’s kind of scary.”
One of the earliest memories of Shared Belief actually came from Dennis O’Neill, assistant and bloodstock agent, working closely with his brother, trainer Doug O’Neill. For O’Neill, Shared Belief will always be the one that got away.
“After his first start (winning by seven lengths at Golden Gate in 1:09 2/5 for breeders Pam and Marty Wygod), I got wind of him and started talking with Wygod and pretty much had a deal in place,” O‘Neill recalled. “I originally tried to talk Paul (Reddam) into it, but he thought it was too expensive. Then I called Glenn (Sorgenstein) and they were interested.”
Sorgenstein, who headed the group that owned two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, remembers O’Neill telling him, ‘Let’s walk back to the barn and watch the video of this horse.’ After watching the race, they agreed it was a “total freak show.”
“It was a Friday or Saturday,” O’Neill recalled, “and we wanted to see him train, and instead of flying up there (to Golden Gate), which I should have done, they sent the horse down to (trainer Jerry) Hollendorfer at Santa Anita so I could see him train on Monday. Wygod said, ‘I’ll send him down to Jerry and you guys can watch him train on Monday and we’ll finish the deal’. I guess when he got down there, Hollendorfer told Wygod, ‘Whatever they offer let me match.’ So right then I knew I was done.
“We were supposed to see him train on that Monday and I got a call saying Jerry’s going to buy him. I should have flown up there. If I had we would have gotten him. Once Hollendorfer got him in his barn he wasn’t letting him go. He saw him and said, ‘I didn’t even know this horse was for sale. Whatever they’re offering we’ll match or do better.’ We were in the $250,000 to $300,000 range and they topped it.
“Every time the horse runs, I’m like ‘Oh geez.’ I’d be a genius if I we got this deal done. How smart would I be if I bought that horse? Oh my God. I can’t say I fell in love with him, but was going to probably buy him anyway. He wasn’t the prettiest horse in the world, which may have something to do with why Wygod was selling him. He wasn’t real big and he didn’t move real pretty, paddling his left leg, and I like horses who move pretty. He was narrow up front, kind of smallish, and had a couple of offset knees.
“But, my God, he was a runnin’ sonofagun.
“Those Golden Gate races, a lot of times they run off like that and you find out later they were just terrible races. But he ran a really fast number and I loved the way he finished. He closed like a freight train and was just drawing away while being wrapped up. It was a jaw dropper watching the race. I figured there would be tremendous upside if he was the real deal, and obviously he was.”
It was bloodstock agent Alex Solis II who negotiated the deal for Shared Belief, forming a partnership consisting of himself and Jason Litt, Jungle Racing (sports commentator Jim Rome and his wife Janet), Kevin and Kim Nish, Hollendorfer, and Dr. George Todaro.
There are usually contrasting accounts to every story and Solis recalled the story of the sale this way: “Jerry (Hollendorfer) said to watch this horse. He called and said, ‘What do think of this Shared Belief?’ I said that first race was really impressive, but Wygod never sells. He told me, ‘Well, he might sell this one. You might want to give him a call.’ I went and did all the homework on all the numbers and everything made sense. He had a good Beyer and Ragozin number and he did it easily. He was just really impressive. You just don’t see horses running that fast first time out at Golden Gate, which is usually pretty dead. I called Jim (Rome) and told him he was a nice horse and I think he could be tough in the Prevue (Stakes at Hollywood). I didn’t know if he’d get the mile and a sixteenth in the Futurity but for the price I think he’s a really nice horse. He said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ That was it. We were just trying to buy one horse for Jim because we were getting ready to sell (two-time Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winer) Mizdirection. You never dream they’re going to be this good, but you get lucky sometimes.
“Until they answer all the questions you never know what you have. And this horse answered all the questions with flying colors. I was surprised Wygod sold him. I told Jerry, ‘Jerry, I don’t know why Wygod is selling this horse. Either there’s something wrong with him and I’m gonna look like a real fool doing this or maybe it’s because he’s a gelding. I couldn’t figure it out. I just went on gut instinct. I thought he was a nice enough horse and we’d get our money’s worth out of him. That was the whole deal. I was hopeful but you never know.”
Solis was amazed early on how sound Shared Belief was and how strong his mechanics were. Although he was on the small side and a bit skinny, he took on a totally different look once he was saddled and on the racetrack.
“He’s always been ice cold everywhere,” Solis said as Shared Belief was preparing for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (which would turn into an absolute nightmare). “He’s just a sound horse. When you watch the horse walk you can see him float. He has that kind of movement. He’s so athletic and not a heavy horse so he doesn’t put any pressure on himself when he moves. Mike fits him so well because he stays out of his way. He just waits for you to call on him and when you call on him he goes."
And goes and goes. He won his first seven starts by an average margin of 4 1/2 lengths, culminating with a nearly three-length score over older horses in the Pacific Classic in 2:00 1/5, which prompted Justin Zayat to tweet, “That is a special horse. Wow Shared Belief. California Chrome you have some SERIOUS competition."
One of Shared Belief’s biggest fans was Dan Ward, assistant to Hollendorfer who ran his barn at Santa Anita.
“When he came to us after we bought him we had him ready for the Prevue,” Ward recalled. “When you’re watching horses who win by seven lengths you usually look at the horses on the turn and you say these horses are going nowhere and the winner draws off by default. But this horse came into the stretch and the favorite was running at him like he was going to go by him and then he still sprinted away from him, which is pretty rare. It was the same thing at Los Al. Candy Boy was making a move like he was going to win. Those horses behind him are running and he’s still drawing away from them.
“After the first time we ran him I said I haven’t seen anything like this since Landaluce. Everybody gave me a hard time, but it doesn’t look like such a stupid statement now. With him it’s not like he’s going to the front and winning by many lengths. Most times when you see a horse win by 10 lengths they’re going wire to wire. He comes from off the pace and when he makes a move on the turn the race is over. He’s such a pleasure to be around and work with. There’s no wasted motion.”
As the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the first meeting with California Chrome neared, Ward said, “This is what we’re looking for. Those people are friends of ours. When we run at Los Al we ship into Art’s (Sherman) barn, so I happened to be there when California Chrome worked in 1:10 1/5 and I’m hoping he wins the Pennsylvania Derby by 10 lengths to make it more exciting in the Breeders Cup having both horses coming off wins.”
As everyone knows, Shared Belief lost all chance in the Classic when he was slammed into hard twice after the break, the first time by eventual winner Bayern, pretty much wiping him out, causing a major controversy and an outcry from fans who felt Bayern should have been disqualified. Shared Belief took a while to recover from the incidents and found himself at a big disadvantage, taken completely out of his game plan, but he still managed to run a solid fourth, beaten only 3 3/4 lengths.
This year, after beating California Chrome in the San Antonio and romping in the Santa Anita Handicap, Shared Belief was injured in the Charles Town Classic, which sidelined him for the rest of the year. Back in training, everyone was eagerly awaiting the resumption of his rivalry with California Chrome when he suffered a severe colic attack. Surgery was scheduled to repair a possible rupture, but he could not be saved.
Who knows how history will remember Shared Belief. Perhaps he will be remembered as a horse with greatness in him, who achieved great things in a short career, but who never got the chance to leave the legacy that was worthy of him.
Mike Smith may have summed him up best when he said. “He’s not a big horse, but when you’re on him he makes you feel like you’re on a giant.”