03/11/2015 2:55PM

Hovdey: Smith getting ‘Z’ feeling with Shared Belief

Benoit & Associates
Mike Smith guides a very willing Shared Belief across the finish line in the Santa Anita Handicap.

It was dark in the stables of Santa Anita Park last Saturday night, deadly quiet and deserted save for the odd stirring in a stall, when out of the darkness appeared a disembodied white dot floating at the far end of the tow ring hard by the Jerry Hollendorfer barn.

As the white dot approached, a shape emerged, dark as the night around it but pushing the white dot forward until the shape became a horse walking softly with a young woman at its side. Two men emerged from the nearby shed row, and one of them approached the horse, taking it from the young woman, who smiled as she relinquished the shank. The man and the horse circled the tow ring once more before stopping at a water bucket, where the horse sniffed and then drank.

Welcome to the low-key Santa Anita Handicap after-party, during which the highlight of the mild Southern California evening was the sight of groom Armando Rodriguez beneath Shared Belief on the washrack inspecting all four feet by the glow of the flashlight app on his iPhone. His shaved head bending low, Rodriguez put the last foot down, looked up at Hollendorfer, and gave his boss the high sign.

“Good,” Hollendorfer said. “Go ahead and put him away.”

So ended the day for the best horse in America, or at least that’s what Shared Belief is being called by anyone who watched him win the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap by more than four lengths under 125 pounds two hours earlier. Mike Smith had his horse geared down at the finish in a futile attempt not “to win by too much,” as if racing secretaries around the country had lapsed suddenly into comas.

Trevor Denman dismissed such nonsense, flatly proclaiming, “This is absolute poetry in motion,” and, “He could go around again, could Shared Belief,” comments not exactly helpful in holding down the weight.

But all that is for later. Right now, Shared Belief was at the front of his stall, fiddling with his hay rack and braced for the approach of his doting majority owner, Jim Rome. The sports talk show host made a quick move to deliver a smooch to Shared Belief’s forehead, but the horse twitched, and Rome deked left, then planted one between Shared Belief’s eyes.

“Gotcha,” Rome said. “I’m good, but you’re better.”

Somehow it was comforting to know that Rome, known for his stylized, multimedia trash talk, treats his horse with the same level of high-octane attitude he heaps upon the two-legged superstars of the sports world – except for the fact that Shared Belief can do no wrong, and not just because he has now won 10 of his 11 starts.

“I just love this guy,” Rome said. “I can’t believe how lucky we are he came into our life.”

Neither can Smith, who rides Shared Belief with the confidence of a man who knows without hesitation that when he throws the switch, all the lights will come on.

“Going into the far turn, his rhythm was so much better than the horses around him, I had to go ‘no, no, no’ to keep him from doing too much,” Smith said in the jocks’ room after completing his post-race ceremonies.

By the time Smith hit the head of the stretch, the Handicap had become a matter of how far Shared Belief would win by. Moreno edged Catch a Flight in a good duel for second and probably made it closer than it should have been, but Smith, as he watched the race replay, only had eyes for his horse.

“Look at the way he throws his front legs out,” the rider said. “Even so, he always stays up underneath himself. He never gets long. Sometimes when you ask a horse to run, they turn into a wiener dog. You’ve seen them run. They can’t get their ass up underneath quick enough. With him, it’s always push, push – there’s never a drag. That’s what we used to say about Zenyatta.”

For Smith to compare anything about Shared Belief to the most famous mount of his Hall of Fame career is heady stuff. But what they have in common is an ability to overcome all of the variables that comprise the Thoroughbred experience and repeat their form in race after race after race. Art Sherman, who saddled a horse early on Handicap day and then watched Shared Belief at home, knows how tough it is to keep even the best horse on a steady beat.

Sherman would have been in the Handicap with California Chrome were it not for their upcoming date in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. He was asked what he thought of the performance of Shared Belief, who beat California Chrome in the San Antonio Stakes in February.

“Awesome,” Sherman said. “Just awesome. Right now, it looks like Chrome might be the only one out there who might be able to give him a race. I sure hope they get to meet up down the line.”

The imagination soars. And because of possible challenges down the line, against horses like California Chrome, Honor Code, Constitution, Lea, Tonalist, Wicked Strong, and the rest in a very deep talent pool, Smith and Co. are spending no time resting on their laurels.

“When you start getting too impressed with what you’ve done, that’s when you get beat,” Smith said.

Still, when it comes to Shared Belief, it’s hard not to be too impressed.