By Steve Haskin
Some things are worth waiting for. It’s been a long time since racing fans have witnessed the great rivalries that were such an integral part of the sport when names like Affirmed and Alydar, Damascus and Dr. Fager, Swaps and Nashua, and Seabiscuit and War Admiral seemed to roll off the tongue as a single entity.
Today, fans have had to settle for great rivalries of the mind, in which they could do no more than envision what it would be like for Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra to face each other.
A rivalry like the one in 2010 and ’11 between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, as competitive as it was, never seemed to capture the interest of mainstream America.
What racing needs is a good old fashioned male rivalry, gunslinger versus gunslinger, with a popular Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner at the center of it. It was a long time coming, but it looks as if those California protagonists, California Chrome and Shared Belief, will square off again in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) Saturday, Feb. 7 at Santa Anita Park. Just like a game of checkers, it will be the red versus the black. With their first confrontation in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) proving little because of a variety of circumstances, the San Antonio is the race that will set the rivalry in motion.
It is California, it is two charismatic horses; it is the 2-year-old champion versus the 3-year-old champion; it is those Dumb Ass Partners versus well-known sports radio host Jim Rome; it is two veteran trainers who have clashed numerous times over the years up in Northern California. But most of all, it is what great rivalries are all about–giving the fans what they want, in this case to see if Shared Belief can prove to the world that he was denied, by injury and then controversy, Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year immortality and getting his revenge on the horse who took it away from him.
Because of a rough start, in which Shared Belief was hampered badly on two occasions, the Breeders’ Cup Classic failed to settle the score and put another horse, Bayern, into the mix, making this a three-horse rivalry. But an injury has forced Bayern to the sidelines, which in no way dampens the enthusiasm for the San Antonio in the slightest, because like all great rivalries, this one is personal.
This is Shared Belief on his quest to defeat California Chrome and claim his rightful place on the throne. This is California Chrome looking to rid himself of the horse who is intent on taking away his title.
And so, without the clutter of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to interfere, these two magnificent horses will put the gloves on and hopefully prove once and for all who is the better horse and who deserves to reign atop the racing world, even though the connections of Bayern and several others might dispute that.
Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, and Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of Shared Belief, have been friendly rivals for years in Northern California, and at the ages of 77 and 68, respectively, they have been thrust into the spotlight with brilliant horses. Each has a tremendous amount of respect for the other and their horses.
“Jerry’s horse ran out of my barn at Los Alamitos and, believe me, he is the real McCoy,” Sherman said two days before the Breeders’ Cup. “I’m happy for Jerry that he has a horse like this, and it’s so ironic that after all these years we have two Northern California boys in this position. It’s quite a thrill for me.”
Hollendorfer added, “It’s pretty amazing that these two horses wound up being in the same race (last year) with Horse of the Year on the line, considering we took entirely different paths to get here.
“The great part of our game is, it doesn’t matter how old you are and how much money you put in,” he added. “The jewel can show up on any given day. You have Art at 77 racing one of the best horses in the country, and here I am at 68 racing one of the best horses in the country. I think that makes a statement about our game.”
But now for these friendly rivals it gets serious as they prepare for round one in 2015 in what promises to be an epic rivalry.
“This is the way racing is supposed to be,” Hollendorfer said on a Feb. 3 national teleconference. “If it’s special for the fans, then everyone is all for it. The significance of the race is that this is what the fans want to see. I’m sure they’d be even happier if (Bayern) was also running. These kinds of races are supposed to be very competitive, Shared Belief and California Chrome get top billing, but there are others running and we have to plan on beating them as well.
“This was a race we’ve been pointing for, no matter who was in it. When this one is done we’ll find another. Of course, we’d like to beat California Chrome, but we’d like to beat all the others in there as well. He breezed a half in :50 4/5 (Feb. 3) and Russell (jockey Baze) said he was playing coming back, so we’re going into the race in 100% condition.”
Sherman added, “I get goose bumps when I think about it. It’s like, ‘All right, who’s the champion on the block?’ It’s going to be fun. I just want both of us to be at the head of the stretch with no excuses and then it’s who gets to the wire first.
“Jerry and I go back a long time and we’ve been friends for years and years. I felt bad for him in the Breeders’ Cup because he didn’t have a good shot at it. I’ve wanted to meet his horse for a long time. My horse is doing great and has gotten bigger and stronger at 4. He’s put on weight and I’m just delighted to be able to run him as a 4-year-old. He’s a different horse from last year; he’s really grown up and is just a super looking horse. He knows he’s a rock star. There’s more pressure on me now because now he’s challenging the world and not just 3-year-olds.”
Speaking of challenging the world, it looks as if the rivalry will be put on hold after the San Antonio, as Shared Belief likely will point for the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 7, while California Chrome is off to Dubai for the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 28.
“The ‘Chromies’ might be disappointed he won’t be running in the Big ‘Cap, but the owners want to try him against the best in the world,” Sherman said. “They say it takes a horse three months to recover from that trip, so you just hope he comes back OK.”
Hollendorfer said his partnership talked briefly about the World Cup, but decided against going.
“Anything can still happen, but the interest level is not particularly high,” he said. “We’re enjoying running him in the U.S. and that’s where our preferences lie.”