04/15/2015 2:21PM

Hovdey: Shared Belief will be tough at every turn

Benoit & Associates
Mike Smith will guide Shared Belief around the three turns of the 1 1/8-mile Charles Town Classic.

Just when Shared Belief had gotten used to the culture shock of regular travel from his home in sophisticated San Francisco to the garish candyland of fantastic L.A., now he finds himself waking up in a stall on the backstretch of the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, getting ready for Saturday’s Charles Town Classic. In West Virginia, no less.

As a first interstate road trip for America’s best racehorse, Shared Belief’s people picked a doozy. The party line would have us believe that a race coming six weeks after his consummate victory in the Santa Anita Handicap and seven weeks before his date in the Metropolitan Handicap provides perfect timing for a horse ready to run, and they have a point. The fact that Shared Belief stands to earn at least $750,000 is, I guess, merely a pleasant by-product.

With such an adventure comes a collection of variables, although when aligned against Shared Belief’s multidimensional, 10-for-11 record, none of them seems particularly daunting. He will be traveling by plane for the first time since he was a young horse heading west from his Kentucky birthplace. He will be asked to handle his first deepish, Eastern racing surface. He also will be required to spend most of the 1 1/8-mile race turning left.

The Charles Town Classic is the only Grade 2 event presented over what racetrack slang refers to as a “bullring.” The circumference of the Charles Town course is six furlongs, which means a nine-furlong race like the Classic must start on the backstretch with a short run to the first of three turns.

American racing already has an international reputation as being overly influenced by counterclockwise turns, but bullring competition takes that trend a step further. Shared Belief has competed in two-turn races at Del Mar, Los Alamitos, and Santa Anita – each a mile in circumference – and at Hollywood Park, which was 1 1/8 miles.

:: CHARLES TOWN CLASSIC: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

Mike Smith, who has ridden Shared Belief in seven of his races, rode Game On Dude to finish second to Duke of Mischief in the 2011 Charles Town Classic and second to Imperative there in 2014. In between, Smith and Game On Dude teamed to win the race in 2013.

“It seemed like those horses ran the race of their life to beat Game On Dude back there,” Smith said. “Then the time he won it, he didn’t really handle the track all that well. He was such a warrior though. He didn’t run to his best, but he did whatever it took to win.”

Don’t get Smith started on how much he likes Shared Belief. Their only loss together came in the rough-and-tumble Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November.

“Nothing seems to faze him,” Smith said. “Even that day, any other horse would have folded, but he kept on running. For his size, the things he does seem just wild to me.”

Smith sees no problem for Shared Belief in the turns at Charles Town, nor with the short, 660-foot stretch run.

“He’s not a big, leggy horse, so that might even be an advantage,” Smith said. “He always takes a little breather at some point and then kicks home hard. Breaking so close going into that first turn can be a little tricky, but the short stretch won’t matter because he’s so explosive. People don’t realize how quick he really is. All you have to do is ask him.”

The idea that some horses run faster on the turns than others is a fact of racing life to which Smith can attest.

“A horse I rode called Lure was like that,” Smith said. “He’d hit that turn and almost lean on the rail, accelerating like crazy and putting distance between him and the others. Then he’d swap back to his right and give you another gear.

“Another horse who ran around the turns really well you wouldn’t think of because she was so big,” Smith added. “That was Zenyatta. I’d be 10 lengths back going into that far turn, but I had to be careful. In a matter of a few jumps, I’d be all over the top of horses in front of me.

“Some horses just have great balance with either leg, they’re so athletic,” Smith said. “But then some are just better on one side or the other, just like people can be. Shared will do whatever I ask. I remember in the Malibu at seven furlongs, the middle part of the race on the turn was run really fast. I had to ride him around the turn just to keep up because they were all going fast, and it was fair to wonder if he would have the same kick at the finish. Boy, did he ever.”

Shared Belief might not need to run as well as he did in the Santa Anita Handicap to win, but he will need to at least show a little respect to the front-running Moreno, who finished a distant second at Santa Anita. Beyond that, Smith predicts his horse will deliver a crowd-pleasing show.

“I think everybody’s happy to see horses like Game On Dude and Shared Belief come in for a race like that,” Smith said. “I remember when I was young and the big-name jocks would come in to ride for the big money. You tried hard to beat them, but win or lose, it was fun to watch.”