02/05/2015 2:13PM

Hovdey: Familiarity breeds respect among San Antonio rivals


Ladies and gentlemen, start your metaphors.

Saturday’s early-season showdown between California Chrome and Shared Belief in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita is ...

David vs. Goliath? Not hardly. Both are champions with huge bankrolls and reputations to die for.

The Rivarly, Part II? Sort of, but their one and only encounter came in the rough-and-tumble Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was not a true bill of their relative abilities.

Heavyweight title bout? This comes close. Although a single race in February has never determined ultimate honors, chances are that what happens Saturday won’t soon be forgotten.

At around 3 p.m. Saturday, the cornermen will be in the stalls, intent on their preparation. Armando Rodriguez will have Shared Belief glowing through his dark brown coat, while his uncle, Raul Rodriguez, polishes California Chrome to a radiant chestnut sheen. Minutes later, they will be on the main backstretch road, heading for the receiving barn, where the first gaggle of fans will have gathered to greet their heroes.

The California Chromies glory in their colt, an expressive, Muhammad Ali kind of racehorse who has taken his game on the road and thrilled crowds far and wide on the greatest stages the game has to offer. He wears garish purple and green, sports a nasal strip and blinkers, and if he could, he’d add a set of moon hubcaps and a rear-deck spoiler to round out the flashy package.

The True Beliefers come from a different place. Their horse has effectively mopped up his own neighborhood with a series of quietly brilliant appearances dating back to the fall of 2013. He’s got an all-business, Joe Frazier approach to his battles, a stripped-down gladiator running clean-headed and draped in muted blacks and blues. Physical circumstances kept him out of the 2014 classic spotlight and the attendant hype, but the only time they beat him, they practically had to knock him down.

Besides the Rodriguez family ties, there is mutual admiration in the rival camps, and not only because Art Sherman and Jerry Hollendorfer have known each other going on 40 years while plowing the same Northern California ground. Now, Hollendorfer is in the Hall of Fame, and Sherman has trained the Horse of the Year.

“I think I’m enjoying that as much as anything,” said Sherman, who has put a fine edge on California Chrome. “Two trainers from Northern California with a couple of great horses in a race like this. I’m just hoping it’s a true-run race and we get to see these two hook up together at the top of the stretch. Then we’ll find out from there.”

At nine furlongs on the main track, the San Antonio has a rich history of serious showdowns going back to the 1950 running that pitted Ponder, Citation, and Noor. Along the way, there has been Gun Bow vs. Candy Spots, Pretense vs. Native Diver, Vigors vs. Ancient Title, Gentlemen vs. Alphabet Soup, and Congaree vs. Pleasantly Perfect.

To be the most famous San Antonio of all, Saturday’s running would have to score higher than the 1959 version, when C.V. Whitney’s filly Bug Brush defeated Hillsdale and Terrang and set a world record in the process.

The race also has been the traditional gateway to the Santa Anita Handicap. But with its purse increased to $500,000, its invitational status, and its $20,000 participation guarantee to the owners of horses who finish past fourth, this San Antonio stands on its own.

“It was always looking like it would come up with a dream field,” said Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle. “We wanted to do something that would make it more than just a great race. We thought it should be its own special event.”

Mike Pegram, chairman of the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, applauds the idea.

“They’re showing some imagination,” Pegram said. “That’s a good thing.”

Pegram wouldn’t mind winning the race, either. He will try to knock off the Big Two with Hoppertunity, the son of Any Given Saturday he owns with Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. Pegram knows his colt is up against it.

“Here you’ve got the Horse of the Year and the second-best horse ...” at which point Pegram interrupted himself. “I guess I shouldn’t say that. Baffert’s gonna kill me.”

Bob Baffert, the trainer of Hoppertunity, also trains Bayern, who beat both California Chrome and Shared Belief in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“How’s this?” Pegram said. “You’ve got two of the best horses out of the best 3-year-old crop we’ve seen in a long time.”

Three of the best if you count Hoppertunity, who comes into the race off wins in the Clark Handicap last fall at Churchill Downs and the San Pasqual last month at Santa Anita.

“That’s the reason why they run ’em,” Pegram said. “As long as your horse is doing good, you don’t care who you run against. This horse is doing good, so you’ve got to throw your hat in the ring.”

Sounds like Pegram is fully prepared to burst a couple of bubbles and spoil all the fun.

“I won’t be the bad guy,” he said. “But I will have the best horse if it happens.”