02/12/2014 2:14PM

Kentucky Derby: No sense rushing back for Shared Belief

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Shared Belief, the winner of the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity in December, has missed training time this year due to a foot injury.

No one knows better just how difficult it is to win the Kentucky Derby than trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. A member of racing’s Hall of Fame, Hollendorfer has won the Kentucky Oaks three times. The first Friday in May – or, in some years, the last Friday in April – he’s got that down. The first Saturday in May – that’s been more challenging.

Hollendorfer has run in the Derby five times without winning, including fifth-place finishes by Eye of the Tiger in 2003 and Chocolate Candy in 2009. But he’s also had particularly cruel setbacks the week of the race.

In 2000, Hollendorfer entered Globalize, and then the next morning at Churchill Downs, Globalize was kicked by his pony during what was to be routine exercise, incurring an injury that forced him to be scratched.

And in 1998, Hollendorfer had the horse many considered the one to beat, the unbeaten Seattle Slew colt Event of the Year, but in his final work for the race at Churchill Downs, he suffered a fracture to a knee and was sidelined.

Hollendorfer entered 2014 with the horse acknowledged as the front-runner for this year’s Kentucky Derby, Shared Belief, who won all three of his starts in 2013 and was rewarded with the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. But Shared Belief recently missed significant training time owing to a foot injury that developed into a quarter crack and needed to be patched. He’s back training at Santa Anita, but whether he comes around in time to make the Derby is another matter.

And so, Shared Belief will be conspicuous by his absence from Daily Racing Form’s inaugural Derby Watch top 20 list for 2014. Also missing is Havana, another highly regarded 2-year-old who got a late start to his preparation in Florida with trainer Todd Pletcher. Both still have time to make the Derby, since the points system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field offers its most lucrative prizes deeper into the spring. But both may need a Hail Mary to make it.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Who's hot, who's not]

Under the old system, which utilized graded stakes earnings, both Havana and, especially, Shared Belief would have been virtually guaranteed spots in the field based on their current bank accounts.

There are other factors to consider regarding the schedules Shared Belief and Havana will have in the next couple of months and whether that gets them to the Derby.

Havana is being aimed at the Swale Stakes on March 1 at Gulfstream Park, but since that race is a sprint, it does not offer points toward the Derby. Essentially, Havana, at best, will have one shot at a two-turn prep to make the Derby field, and that’s if his connections head down that route. He might be best suited to shorter distances than the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles.

With Shared Belief, even if everything goes perfectly over the next few weeks, the chance of his making the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 8 is remote. Deeper into March, he’d have to ship, perhaps to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes on March 15, or to Turfway Park for the Spiral Stakes on Polytrack on March 22 since he has proven himself on a synthetic surface. But that’s if there are no setbacks.

“Like every horse trainer, I want to win the Derby,” Hollendorfer said this week. “He’s started galloping. He’ll probably gallop a week before we’d think of breezing him. We’ll observe and analyze all the information we see at the barn every morning. The difficulty is not doing something too soon, or too late.”

It also is important to remember that Shared Belief is a gelding. A win in the Derby does nothing to enhance his value as a stallion prospect. His value is on the racetrack, the only place he can earn money. That demands a long-term approach, not a short-term horizon. Hollendorfer owns a piece of Shared Belief. He takes a percentage of many of the horses he trains.

The Preakness is worth $1.5 million this year, compared with the Derby’s $2 million, and the Preakness field is guaranteed to be smaller, so if Shared Belief isn’t ready for the Derby on May 3 but would be spot-on for the Preakness two weeks later, that is a viable option. When a horse is nominated to the Triple Crown, the focus is always on the Derby, but it includes the Preakness as well as the Belmont on June 7.

When Shared Belief first was hurt last month, Hollendorfer said, “I’m not going to sacrifice anything to make the Derby.” He’s not wavered, and he won’t waver.

Hollendorfer’s approach is nuanced. A 2014 debut is predicated on how Shared Belief trains in the upcoming weeks. Subsequent starts will depend on how he does in his comeback. It is a day-to-day proposition. That might not satisfy those clamoring for more certitude, but how can one provide certitude if he’s not certain how it will unfold?

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

There already have been plenty of reminders of the potholes faced on the road to the Derby.

New Year’s Day, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, was injured and retired before the end of 2013. The unbeaten Indianapolis was found to have mucous in his airway this week and will miss the San Vicente Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita. Honor Code bruised his hind ankles last month at Payson Park and was sent to Gulfstream Park, where he worked Wednesday for a 2014 debut that has been delayed from the original plan, the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22.

And even if you get through all the Derby preps unscathed, there’s still the final work to get through. And even if you get through that final work and enter the Derby, you have to hope a pony doesn’t kick your horse.

If you want to know why trainers go prematurely gray, that’s why.

– additional reporting by Steve Andersen