07/03/2014 2:05PM

Hovdey: Rome plays different tune with Shared Belief

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Benoit & Associates
Jim Rome hoists the trophy after winning the 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint with Mizdirection.

What a disappointment. You call Jim Rome to talk about Shared Belief making his return to stakes competition Saturday in the $500,000 Los Alamitos Derby, and the least you hope for is a little taste of smack from the man who runs the jungle. A warning that the champ is back, descending on the Home of Chrome with all the ferocity of a Mike Tyson overhand right. A challenge to anyone with a 3-year-old within firing-squad range of his CBS Sports radio show or his “Jim Rome on Showtime” to step up in the second half of the year and prove they’ve got a better beast. Any doubters? Scoreboard, baby. Csonk and Merc are hearing footsteps – four at a time.

Instead, what do you get? Adlai Stevenson classing up the U.N. Daniel Day Lewis romancing the Academy Awards. Paul Mellon, for Pete’s sake, just grateful to be a part of racing and own a generous piece of this wonderful horse.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

“You walk around Los Angeles, or Orange County, and there aren’t a lot of people who have a lot to say about horse racing,” Rome said this week from his Los Angeles office. “At a restaurant in Corona del Mar not long ago, this waitress looked at me and my wife and said, ‘I know you two. You own Shared Belief.’ My jaw hit the table. She tried to go back and do her job, and I didn’t want her to go.

“I get so much more of a charge out of that than anything anybody could say about me, good or bad, and the work that I do,” Rome said. “They recognize the talent and the heart and the grit. It just makes me proud that people like and respect a horse like this. There’s no other way to put it.”

Rome couldn’t order tacos in Acapulco without someone recognizing his knife’s-edge baritone and nail-gun delivery. This goes with the territory of more than 20 relentlessly in-your-face years on the sports-talk scene -- he branded his corner The Jungle -- now amped to 11 by a social-media network that Rome plays like a two-dollar fiddle. His message for years was that horse racing was all about the gamble, the bet, so change the subject because he was here to talk about sports.

This did not keep Rome and his wife, Janet, from giving horse ownership a try. He was intrigued but far from hooked, and wins were few and far between. Then along came the mare Mizdirection to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint back-to-back against a world-class stack of gnarly males. That was it. Rome was all in. He began calling Mizdirection his “favorite athlete ever” and has not changed his tune.

Rome, along with partner Bill Strauss of ProFlowers, also sold his favorite athlete ever at auction just two days after her score in the 2013 BC Turf Sprint at Santa Anita. This prompted a comment from Rome that should be tattooed on the forearm of anyone who ever spent a conflicted moment as a high-stakes player in racing.

“Now, the biggest problem I have with the business ... is that it’s a business, and the big girl shipped to Kentucky and will be sold at auction,” Rome said. “It was gut-wrenching, but the only way for me to stay in this business, which I love, is to take some money off the table when possible and reinvest it in the industry.”

After Mizdirection sold for $2.7 million, Rome turned around and partnered up in the purchase of a 2-year-old maiden race winner at Golden Gate Fields. Two races later, Shared Belief, now trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, won the CashCall Futurity and with it the divisional championship.

Shared Belief missed the first half of the 2014 season with a minor foot injury that took major time to properly heal. In his absence, California Chrome emerged from his training grounds at Los Alamitos to capture the hearts and minds of Thoroughbred fans, while Rome and his partners had to watch.

“As tough as it may seem to sit out the Triple Crown season, when you stop to realize what you have, you don’t want to jeopardize that,” Rome said. “I mean, the horse is a gelding. It seems to me if we have some good luck and handle him the right way, he could have a long, long career that would benefit everybody. Then again, you know that nothing’s guaranteed.”

Rome has spent years challenging every lame line from a losing coach, every weak excuse for a botched play, every moldy sports cliché meant to sugarcoat grim reality. It is almost a relief, therefore, to embrace the racehorse as an unpredictable athlete of rare honesty.

“When I look at horse racing, I almost see boxing in the sense that boxers can be great, and they’re great, and they’re great, and then they show up one night and they can’t pull the trigger,” Rome said.

“They’re not what they once were, and nobody necessarily saw it coming. With a horse, you never know exactly what you have. You never know if they haven’t run their best race already.”

Shared Belief returned to action May 26 at Golden Gate Fields with a wire-to-wire win over older horses at six furlongs. He is now 4 for 4.

“It was an honest showing against a better field than some people might think,” Rome said. “Still, I’m not sure if he’s as good as he was, or better. He’s never run on dirt. He’s never run this far. I’m as anxious as anybody to see how he’s going to do on Saturday.”