We've Waited 50 Years For a Year This Good
by Laura Pugh
February 7, 2015, will go down as one of the great days in American racing.
Normally, most of the chatter would have circled around the three-year-old stakes, as it is Kentucky Derby prep season, but instead, the most fervent chatter was about the older male division. The feature races included not only the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, but a clash of titans in the San Antonio Stakes, between Horse of the Year California Chrome, champion Shared Belief, and Grade 1 winner Hoppertunity.
The three-year-olds certainly did their best to overshadow the foreshadowed showdown: there was Far From Over going to his knees at the start, but recovered to rally resolutely up the rail to secure the Withers. Then there was Dortmund playing cat-and-mouse with Firing Line, before getting the best of that foe in the Lewis. Despite their stirring victories, neither could match two superstars putting forth explosive performances.
Indeed, the performance by the two California-based titans was everything it was billed as and more.
The first part of the race went as expected. Everyone broke cleanly and was getting ideal trips, but around the far turn the excitement ratcheted up several notches when California Chrome moved for the lead with Hoppertunity and Shared Belief hard on his heels. For a moment, it looked as if Hoppertunity would make it a three-horse race, but as they came spinning into the stretch, California Chrome and Shared Belief kicked clear, leaving the Clark Handicap winner reeling in their wake.
Trevor Denman, then, so aptly called, “This is the race we’ve been waiting for,” and for a while California Chrome held his rival at bay, but Shared Belief found a new gear following four left-handed cracks of the crop, from jockey Mike Smith. Then the champion two-year-old began to move the better, and in the end four-year-old gelding by Candy Ride triumphed by 1 ½ lengths, over the Horse of the Year.
This was the second meeting between the two horses with the first coming in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 1 at Santa Anita Park. That day saw California Chrome finish third and Shared Belief fourth behind fellow three-year-olds (at the time) Bayern and Toast of New York.
Will these two meet again before a repeat engagement in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 31 at Keeneland Race Course? Short term, Shared Belief is headed to the Santa Anita Handicap while California Chrome points toward the Dubai World Cup.
With such a strong contingent, the 2011 crop is reminiscent of the 1954 crop that featured Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Iron Liege, Gen. Duke, and Round Table trading wins on dirt while Round Table found additional success on turf. In addition to the aforementioned San Antonio trifecta, the Breeders’ Cup Classic double, and Donn winner Constitution, returning this year from the 2011 crop is Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes winner Wicked Strong, unanimous champion three-year-old filly Untapable, amongst a host of other pursuers. Many punches have already been traded, and California Chrome—like Round Table—has shown the ability to excel over the turf.
In 1957-1958, the class of 1954 knocked heads several times: Iron Liege won the Kentucky Derby (by a head over Gallant Man, photo right), Round Table won the American Derby, and Bold Ruler finished ahead of the pack in the Trenton Handicap. Round Table and Bold Ruler both earned championships during their careers.
The 2011 crop is not yet in the league of crop of 1954, but the way things are shaping up don’t be surprised to be feeling some decades-old déjà vu, as the year develops.
This could be one of the best years the Sport of Kings has seen in a long time.