12/04/2015 1:22PM

Hovdey: Death of Shared Belief hits hard

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Barbara D. Livingston
Shared Belief stands with trainer Jerry Hollendorfer in the paddock at Charles Town on April 18.

I was trying to remember the last time I felt so rotten about the death of a Thoroughbred.

In May 2005, I was sick to death to hear Star Over the Bay, a wondrous white tornado of a turf horse, would not be coming home from Singapore, where he broke a leg while running for some ungodly sum of money. Then, I was sick all over again when rider Tyler Baze told me Singapore’s brand of racehorse euthanasia was a bullet to the head and that he never would forget the sound of the gun.

I said my reluctant goodbyes to Lost in the Fog at Golden Gate in September 2006, when he still was battling the ravages of malignant tumors that had compromised his spleen, spine, and kidneys. There was a moment as he nibbled on grass alongside trainer Greg Gilchrist when the remarkable sprinter tried to act like his old, very fast self, but he was just putting up a brave front, and we both knew it. Three days later, he was dead.

Swale, Landaluce, Go for Wand, Eight Belles, George Washington – the list is long and very personal for many. Each of those bright Thoroughbred lights was extinguished all too soon, and each one of them cut like a knife because every death of a Thoroughbred racehorse chips away at the justification for racing them at all.

That is why it is so vital that anyone licensed to care for a racehorse should be held to the highest standards. No one has a right to own or train a Thoroughbred racehorse, but those who do have an absolute moral obligation to give them the best care possible and prepare to be held accountable if they do not.

Shared Belief died Thursday from complications of colic, a bitter, senseless end for a Thoroughbred of consummate talent. I know for a fact that Shared Belief got the best care possible from Jerry Hollendorfer and his crew, whether the horse was at Santa Anita with assistant trainer Dan Ward or at Golden Gate Fields with Janet Hollendorfer, the trainer’s wife and closest confidante.

I know Shared Belief got the best care possible because I watched his groom, Armando Rodriguez, worry over every dark brown hair, every twitch of a muscle, every grain ever left in the bottom of his tub.

I also know there will be genuine sorrow across the racing landscape at the loss of yet another equine athlete of singular ability and personal charm. Jim Rome and his partners in the ownership of Shared Belief are allowed as long a period of mourning as they need.

Shared Belief was from many angles the perfect package. He was Sugar Ray Leonard – a graceful middleweight who could drop you with a right. Out here in the West, we first got a good look at Shared Belief as a 2-year-old winning a brace of stakes late in the year. Apparently, there were others paying heed because that was his name in the envelope for the Eclipse Award.

During the summer of his 3-year-old season, Shared Belief turned the Pacific Classic into a laugher. Trevor Denman called it an “awesome performance.” Six months and a week later, as Shared Belief was dismantling the Santa Anita Handicap, Denman kicked it up a notch to “poetry in motion.” No one disagreed.

The Handicap was his final victory in a shooting-star career of just 12 starts. He only lost twice – once when he suffered a plague of interference throughout the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic and once last spring when he injured his hip leaving the gate in the Charles Town Classic. Shared Belief did not owe anyone a comeback, but he was making one anyway, and lucky us.

“There’s no telling how good he really was,” said Mike Smith, who began his eight-race run aboard Shared Belief by winning the 2014 Los Alamitos Derby. “They didn’t come any tougher than him. What happened to him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, most horses would have curled up and crawled away. He came back on and ran fourth, beaten just a few lengths. That was incredible.”

Smith has known his share of tragedy on horseback. Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down beneath him halfway through the 1993 Belmont Stakes. In 2001, the rider was sent flying when his classy mare Spook Express took her last steps near the end of the Matriarch Stakes over a dicey Hollywood Park turf course. His heart ached for Shared Belief – who must have experienced considerable stress from the pain of the fatal colic – and for the people at his side.

“It affects all of us but especially the ones who spent every day with him,” said Smith. “Jerry, Janet, his groom, what a terrible thing to go through. He trained great this morning and went back to the barn. Jerry left to catch a plane, and then while he was sitting at the airport, he got a call. It happened that quick. It’s just so sad that he passed. I mean, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d gotten better but couldn’t race again. At least he could have had a life as a horse at some place like the Kentucky Horse Park.”

Smith spent Thursday afternoon watching videos of Shared Belief in action. He recalled the power, the balance, the feel of the flawless action.

Smith watched the Awesome Again, when Shared Belief was carried wide on both turns and still beat a field of tough elders. He watched the Malibu, when he dialed back to seven furlongs and beat good sprinters at their own game. He watched the San Antonio and marveled at the ease with which they dusted reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome.

“This hits you hard,” said Smith. “You have to try to remember the good times because you don’t ever get over a loss like this. You get used to it, but you never get over it.”