Shared Belief, Chrome Justify The Hype

Shared-Belief-Mike-Smith-San-Antonio-Benoit-photoLast Saturday was one of those days that make it a joy for admirers of Thoroughbred racing to get out of bed in the morning.

The day featured early-season face-offs for last year’s 3-year-old stars in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Antonio and Florida’s Grade I Donn Handicap, and there were two Road to the Kentucky Derby points outings: the current crop of 3-year-olds in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, and the Withers at New York’s Aqueduct.

The marquee match-up was the highly anticipated initial 2015 showdown between reigning Horse of the Year, Kentucky Derby winner and 3-year-old champion California Chrome and Shared Belief, the once-beaten 2-year-old champion of 2013 knocked out of last year’s Derby by injury.

They first met in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where California Chrome and Shared Belief finished third and fifth, respectively, in a race that, as the cliché goes, left their admirers wanting more. The Classic result was an anti-climax for all but those who had wagered on the victorious 3-year-old Bayern, who took a left turn out of the starting gate and proceeded to a front-running win.

Shared Belief lost all chance in that pinball machine Classic start. California Chrome ran well, but probably was a race shy of his best effort.

On Saturday Bayern was nursing an injury, and the Derby winner and Shared Belief were 1-2 at the head of the stretch. The latter launched a sparkling rally under Mike Smith and shot past the champion to win, providing immense satisfaction for Shared Belief fans who felt their hero had been robbed of any opportunity to keep his record perfect by the Classic’s pinball machine start.

One would hope the San Antonio is the first of several 2015 meetings between the two stars. But their next clash won’t happen anytime soon, as Shared Belief will stay in California to run in the Santa Anita Handicap, and California Chrome will head to Dubai for the $10 million World Cup.

Meanwhile, local fans can hope that Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster Handicap in mid-June would provide a nice setting for the duo’s next battle. And Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher would be welcomed to bring his resurgent Constitution to Churchill Downs for a Foster run.

Last year’s Florida Derby winner was unbeaten when injury took him out of Kentucky Derby consideration, but on Saturday Constitution scored the first win of his comeback in a front-running Donn Handicap triumph over defending winner Lea.

While there were no significant revelations about the May 2 Run for the Roses in Saturday’s pair of stakes races for 3-year-olds, both were immensely entertaining and confirmed that their stars are pretty nice colts with potential to improve on that description.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s unbeaten Dortmund rallied to edge out emerging rival Firing Line in Santa Anita’s Lewis. The margin was a head, a margin identical to the duo’s 1-2 finish in December’s Grade I Los Alamitos Derby. Their two races have been run very differently, but in each Dortmund and Firing Line proved that they love a good fight.

Dortmund, a son of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, rallied late at Los Alamitos to catch Firing Line at the wire. But on Saturday it was Dortmund who led into the far turn of the mile and a sixteenth race, and watched Firing Line rush past under Hall of Famer Gary Stevens to open a clear lead. Baffert’s colt battled back along the rail under Martin Garcia, and grittily reclaimed the lead and the win.

It was 16 lengths back to the third-place finisher, usually a pretty good sign for the top two.

New York’s Withers introduced a new Derby player for the power-packed Pletcher stable when unbeaten Far From Over overcame a horrible start and passed Kentucky Jockey Club winner El Kabeir with relative ease to win the one-mile prep. It was an eye-catching effort by the son of 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, but the pre-Derby tests on the New York route will get tougher from here.

The result was a happy one for Pletcher, the trainer of six 3-year-olds featured in last weekend’s second pool of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager. None was named Far From Over. VT