08/22/2014 12:59PM

Hovdey: Smith takes his choice of Cadillacs

Shigeki Kikkawa
Mike Smith opted to ride Shared Belief in the Pacific Classic off his victory the gelding in the Los Alamitos Derby.

Shared Belief was prancing around the Del Mar walking ring the other day acting like he was 3 years old, which he is, when he decided to plant his feet and stare into the shadows of a saddling stall. There, Game On Dude lolled peacefully, an older gent at one with the moment, thinking more about his next meal and a nap than his title defense of the $1 million Pacific Classic three days hence.

After a few beats of being ignored, Shared Belief finally budged and completed his schooling circuit under the guidance of groom Armando Rodriguez. For his part, Game On Dude yawned and allowed himself to be led into the sunlight, then meandered around a while before going home. As prerace theater it wasn’t much – more afternoon tea than a title bout weigh-in – but for those on the scene it was an appetizer for the looming drama. The Classic might just live up to its name.

Sunday’s 24th running is more than a two-horse race, of course. Majestic Harbor has found himself at age 6 and has a Gold Cup at Santa Anita to prove it. Mystery Train comes from South America equipped with Group 1 credentials. Toast of New York, another 3-year-old, saves his best for synthetic tracks like Del Mar’s. And in case anyone has forgotten, Charles Town Classic winner Imperative has beaten Game On Dude twice this year.

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No horse has ever finished in front of Shared Belief. That is a cold, hard fact that will be tested to the max on Sunday when he tries to win for the sixth time in six starts spread out over the last 10 months. His trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, eyed Shared Belief with critical admiration as he left the paddock and disappeared down the dusty backstretch road.

“You hear people calling him ‘little’ all the time,” Hollendorfer said. “Maybe he fools them at a distance because he’s a dark horse. But you get up close to him and he’s not little at all. He’s put together very well.”

Hollendorfer noted that the quarter crack that kept Shared Belief out of the classics this year has nearly grown out, and that the foot is no longer a pressing issue. Nevertheless, he will run in a hoof patch as a precaution and wear three-quarter front shoes to relieve any unwelcome pressure.

“This is an important step for him,” Hollendorfer said of the Classic. “Then again, every race for him is important.”

Mike Smith has ridden the 7-year-old Game On Dude in 11 of his last 12 starts, including four up-and-down races this year that included his third win in the Santa Anita Handicap and two lifeless defeats. The Hall of Famer rode Shared Belief only once, winning the Los Alamitos Derby in July, and is sticking with the younger horse for the Classic.

“They’re both geldings, so they’re both going to run as long as they can,” Smith said. “But obviously Shared Belief could have another three, four, five years if he stays sound, where Game On Dude might only have another year or two.”

This speaks highly of Smith’s long-term thinking, especially for a jockey who just turned 49. He’s betting on Shared Belief as the horse of the future, while conceding that Game On Dude still can bring the heat.

“He’s got an unbelievably high turn of speed,” Smith said. “It feels like he just keeps running faster and faster, like he did the last time he won in the Santa Anita Handicap.”

Then there was a race like the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, when Game On Dude appeared to be going slower and slower until he finished a distant fourth to Majestic Harbor.

“When he doesn’t show up, you know it pretty early,” Smith said. “He’s just kind of got his ears pinned back. He’s not happy and he’s letting you know it, for whatever reason.”

Game On Dude is the speed of the speed when he wants to be, and with Martin Garcia back at the wheel that’s exactly what Smith expects.

“The way I look at it, I’ve just got to be able to beat that guy,” Smith said. “Just flat outrun him. We should all have a decent trip. Game On Dude’s probably going to be in front of me, but I won’t be far off him, waiting to make my move.

“I’m not sure too many horses can beat Game On Dude whenever he throws his A-plus game at you,” Smith added. “But even saying that, I’m not sure anyone knows just how good this 3-year-old is yet. It’s just going to be a matter of beating a better horse than he’s been beating.”

Smith got off Shared Belief last time at Los Alamitos with the look of a guy who had just stumbled onto an oil well.

“He’s a very well balanced, athletic horse,” Smith said. “He’d be a young Kobe Bryant, with that kind of ability. Things come easy to him. When you’re on him you don’t even have to move your hands, or adjust your body, your legs, your irons, or put your hands up to take a shorter hold. You feel like you’re standing on solid ground.”

Smith was describing the kind of Thoroughbred who makes jockeys look good – a horse that gives a rider the feeling he’s part of one large, efficient machine.

“That’s what I’d like to think,” Smith said. “I just hope we’re a fast machine on Sunday.”