Updated on 03/09/2015 9:01AM

Hovdey: Hoping against hope in the Handicap

Benoit & Associates
Shared Belief will be daunting presence in the Santa Anita Handicap, but historically there have been Big Cap longshots who have thrown a scare into big favorites.

You can’t beat Shared Belief in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday, so don’t even try. End of column.

Then again ...

The rules of racing require all entrants to assemble for saddling, parade to the post, and enter the starting gate. Quaint custom is requiring Shared Belief to carry anywhere from four to 11 pounds more than the others in the field, and there are experts in Newtonian physics who will tell you – if you’ve got a minute – that such a variance in load will affect the relative speed of competing Thoroughbreds over the Handicap’s distance of 1 1/4 miles, whether or not Mike Smith is in the saddle.

Then again, those who have savored Shared Belief’s journey from precocious 2-year-old champion to 4-year-old phenom who just dusted the Horse of the Year in the San Antonio Stakes are pretty much convinced that the opposition could come out wearing zebra stripes and their hero wouldn’t flinch. With Jerry Hollendorfer calling the shots, Shared Belief has become one of those clockwork professionals with a repeating swing that holds up under the toughest conditions. He’s only been beaten once, and never on the square.

Still, the Santa Anita Handicap requires two full minutes of intense concentration. Phone it in at your peril. If the mind wanders, strange things can happen, as the opposing jocks found out in 1990, when Gary Stevens put Ruhlmann on the engine at 22-1 and led them on a futile chase to win by nearly two lengths against a field that included the champions Criminal Type and Bayakoa.

Rudy Campas was not particularly intimidated in the 1963 Handicap, riding the unheralded 5-year-old Game, despite the fact that the opposition included defending champ Physician, Derby winner Decidedly, and the odds-on highweight Crimson Satan, who had dismantled the Strub Stakes at 1 1/4 miles the month before.

Game was 108-1 on the tote and carried 108 pounds, which is not exactly like shooting your age but comes close. Campas and his horse kept the leaders in sight to the final turn, then found themselves head-and-head with Crozier on the lead with less than a quarter of a mile to run.

“I kind of thought I might have a chance to win it all,” Campas said. “Then Baeza left me pretty easy with Crozier. But my horse never really stopped.”

In fact, Game hung tough and finished in a dead heat for second with Crimson Satan, 5 1/2 lengths behind the winner.

“I rode a lot of horses like Game,” said Campas, 74, who owns a farm in Riverside east of Santa Anita. “George McIvor put me on Inclusive for a mile and a half race on the grass and told me if I rode him like he told me to, he’d win it. And he did, at a hundred to one.”

Inclusive was 101-1 the day he and Campas beat Mr. Consistency and Ken Church a nose in the 1964 San Luis Rey Handicap. In his next start, Mr. Consistency won the Santa Anita Handicap.

If there is a Game in the field against Shared Belief on Saturday, he has yet to make himself known. Laffit Pincay ran into one, though, while riding the well-backed Greinton in the 1986 running of the Handicap. His first words upon returning from Greinton’s win, by just three-quarters of a length, were:

“Who was that other horse?”

That other horse was Herat, and Herat was 157-1. His trainer, Jack Van Berg, was not insulted in the least.

“I had Gate Dancer in there, too, so everybody thought Herat was a rabbit,” Van Berg said. “I didn’t do anything to discourage that thinking, figuring they might leave him alone.”

They did, as Herat and his rider, Rafael Meza, galloped along in front of a field that included not only Greinton and Gate Dancer but also the champions Precisionist and Vanlandingham. With a 10-pound pull from Greinton, Meza still had horse and a two-length lead deep in the stretch, and the crowd of 70,000 was going wild at the sight.

“I thought I had him,” Van Berg said. “If it hadn’t been Pincay on Greinton, I still think he would have won, but Pincay’s so damn strong. He made the difference.”

Pincay nearly made the difference in the wild and woolly Santa Anita Handicap of 1993, when trainer Jerry Fanning thought his Star Recruit, at 59-1, might have gotten the head bob in a three-way photo with Sir Beaufort (11-1) and Major Impact (16-1). The $3 trifecta paid $6,286.60.

“Pincay thought he’d won it,” Fanning said. “And I think he was in front a jump before the wire and a jump after. But that’s not where they pay.”

Fanning thought Star Recruit at least deserved a shot in that running of the Handicap, no matter what the odds, because he was a useful colt who had won the Longacres Derby and Bay Meadows Derby the year before and was in good form as an early 4-year-old.

“I thought the race was pretty wide open, even though Best Pal was in there,” the trainer said. “Bertrando looked like the horse to beat, but I gave everybody a chance.”

Depending on what’s at stake, false hopes can be better than no hope at all. Since he nearly caught lightning in a bottle that day with Star Recruit, Fanning was asked if the longshots arrayed against Shared Belief on Saturday should cling to the possibility of an upset.

“No,” Fanning replied. “I think Hollendorfer’s horse is a really good horse. The way he won the other day, he was just pricking his ears the last sixteenth of a mile. All he has to do is run his race, which he has done every time he’s run. Of course, if he doesn’t run his race ...”