07/06/2014 11:51AM

Watchmaker: Shared Belief sets up intriguing second half

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Shared Belief’s dominating victory in the Los Alamitos Derby got a couple of small housekeeping issues out of the way. The race was Shared Belief’s first score on a conventional dirt surface and first win going as far as 1 1/8 miles. But let’s not kid ourselves. Not many, if any of us, entertained any serious concerns that the undefeated and untested champion 2-year-old male of 2013 would be undone by such trivial circumstances.

In a larger sense, what Shared Belief’s romp Saturday really did was generate considerable intrigue for the second half of this season, both in Shared Belief’s 3-year-old male division and beyond. As we all know, foot issues precluded Shared Belief from competing in the Triple Crown events. In his absence, California Chrome went on a sensational run after taking the California Cup Derby, winning the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby in overwhelming fashion, and then landing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Still, there are those who think that California Chrome’s loss in the Belmont Stakes left the door open, however slightly, in the 3-year-old male division. And with the older male division (let’s call it the Breeders’ Cup Classic division for the moment) looking a little more shaky than it did just a little while ago – Palace Malice is very good, but can he keep this up all year; Lea is still a ways off from coming back; Game On Dude has become erratic; I’m still not totally believing Moonshine Mullin; Will Take Charge just isn’t in top form; who knows what kind of Mucho Macho Man we’ll get when he returns – there is obvious opportunity at the top for an immense talent like Shared Belief.

That said, Shared Belief is going to have to do some heavy lifting if he is going to be a genuine threat to California Chrome for divisional supremacy. You have to go all the way back to 1969 and Majestic Prince to find a horse who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and did not win the 3-year-old male championship. Since then, the 12 horses who won the Derby and Preakness and were denied a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont all went on to be voted divisional champion, as did the one colt who won the Derby and Preakness and was unable to run in the Belmont.

Moreover, in 1969, there were very different dynamics at play than there are today in the potential scenarios involving California Chrome and Shared Belief. Arts and Letters, who was the champion 3-year-old male of 1969, was a narrowly beaten second to Majestic Prince in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, won the Met Mile over his elders right after the Preakness, and soundly beat Majestic Prince in the Belmont. Arts and Letters then went on to win the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, all in decisive fashion.

It may well be that Shared Belief is every bit the equal of California Chrome in terms of sheer ability, if not clearly superior. But in terms of accomplishment, this year, anyway, Shared Belief still has much to do.

** A Twitter follower posted to me Saturday that he thought the Europeans were 3-5 to sweep the two big 3-year-old turf races at Belmont Park Saturday, the Belmont Derby and the Belmont Oaks. I couldn’t disagree with him. So I think it was a surprise for many that the Europeans didn’t win either race.

Adelaide would have. Aidan O’Brien’s colt looked like he was 1-5 the way he was traveling on the far turn of the Belmont Derby and looked shorter than that when he easily tipped out in upper stretch for a clear run. But as soon as Adelaide struck the front in upper stretch, he immediately and obviously idled, an observation confirmed by the fact that after upset winner Mr Speaker took a deep stretch lead of almost a length, Adelaide came back on to miss by a neck.

The Euros never looked during the running as though they’d win the Belmont Oaks, which was taken in less of an upset by Minorette. Xcellence, who was the strongest European shipper on paper in this race by far, went off at an icy 3-1 and finished a non-threatening fourth. A Belmont second-floor acquaintance remarked to me before the Oaks and reiterated after that European jocks almost always seem lost when they come over and ride at Belmont. After watching Gerald Mosse’s ride on Xcellence, his theory might have some merit.

** There was a really nice crowd Saturday at Belmont. It’s hard to know if they were attracted by a stakes-packed card with lots of international flavor, a T-shirt giveaway, a betting voucher giveaway, an inspired promotion that gave out admission tickets for the day on Belmont Stakes Day, a bunch of terrific food trucks (don’t laugh, upper-end food trucks have huge followings all over the country), or simply perfect weather, but whatever brought them out, it was good to see.

However, I just wonder about the two anchors of the card, the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks. I understand that these races in their current iteration (don’t forget, they used to be the Jamaica and Garden City and were run during the Belmont fall meet) will need time to realize their full potential. But I don’t think anyone will conclude that because they won the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, Mr Speaker and Minorette are now players in the 3-year-old male and 3-year-old female divisions. The thought is frankly ridiculous. And I doubt anyone will think that Mr Speaker and Minorette can, right now, even be fringe players against older male and female turf performers, even if those divisions right now are soft. The truth is the 3-year-old male and female turf divisions are niche sub-divisions that are essentially for those who couldn’t cut it on the main track.

** Taking nothing away from the incredible progress he has made, but Zivo’s win in the Suburban was frustrating and not only because I was so pari-mutuelly invested in runner-up Moreno. As horseplayers, it is ingrained in us to be skeptical of horses coming off perfectly set up wins. Zivo had an ideal set up last time out in the Commentator Handicap for New York-breds and just got up in the last jump. Now, Zivo was running against ostensibly better with a less ideal set up. So for him to win, and win decisively, was not something I anticipated – at all.

** He lured us in with repeated good tries despite one bad trip after another, and another, and finally, Clearly Now put it all together in the Belmont Sprint Championship. His track record performance was sensational and really wasn’t all that much more than we thought he might be capable of. Now, let’s see him do it again.

** I will admit I didn’t think Kid Cruz could ever be a significant stakes horse after his dismal showing in the Preakness, but I was wrong. Kid Cruz beat some nice horses in the Dwyer. Two things to think about going forward, however: Kid Cruz was in a very long drive Saturday, and he did drift out significantly during the stretch run.