Racing fans came to Santa Anita on Saturday expecting the best.
It was, after all, the 75th anniversary of Seabiscuit's immortalized victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. It also was a day with three graded stakes races serving as lead-ins to the $1-million Big Cap.
The day turned up Southern California perfect: sunny with temperatures in the 80s, gentle breezes, mountains glistening down on the backstretch. The crowd was 26,126, with an on-track handle of $4.25 million.
Everything cried out for a highlight.
They got two.
Shared Belief, the Jerry Hollendorfer horse who has proven he can beat anything except a mugging at the starter's gate, overwhelmed a somewhat underwhelming field in the Big Cap. For trainer Hollendorfer, owner Jim Rome of talk-radio fame and jockey Mike Smith, it was a 4 1/4-length victory that could have been twice that much, had Smith not eased off toward the wire.
FOR THE RECORD:
Santa Anita Handicap: In the March 8 Sports section, a column about the Santa Anita Handicap said winner Shared Belief had been victorious for the ninth time in 10 outings. In fact, it was Shared Belief's 10th victory in 11 races. —
It was Shared Belief's ninth win in 10 outings, the only blemish being the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall, when he was played like a pinball machine out of the gate.
Then there was the other wow.
Four races earlier, in the $400,000 Grade II San Felipe Stakes, a prominent prep race for the May 2 Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert's Dortmund did what Shared Belief would do later. He took control at the head of the stretch, shrugging off a challenge from Prospect Park and Bolo, and cruising home 1 1/4 lengths ahead.
If you were taking bets on which horse was the more impressive, you'd have to make Shared Belief and Dortmund a coupled entry.
Dortmund's performance seemed to clinch a spot as a short-odds entry in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, who also has top Derby contender American Pharoah, said the plan was for Dortmund to make one more prep run in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby, even though he has plenty of money and points to get into the big race without running again.
Baffert also knows how fragile 3-year-old thorougbreds are and how often great horses never make it to the gate in Louisville, Ky.
"You never feel safe until you put the saddle on them," he said.
He was asked which Derby horse, Dortmund or American Pharoah, he preferred.
"That's like asking me to tell you which of my children I like the best," he said.
Shared Belief's next venture is not quite as obvious. Hollendorfer was asked whether there would be some second thoughts about skipping Dubai and its $10-million classic March 28.
"I wouldn't think that [decision not to go] would change," he said. "But I could be overruled, I guess."
To which Rome responded, "The only person who overrules Jerry Hollendorfer is nobody."
Shared Belief paid $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10. The smartest, and scariest, bet of the day might have been $10,000 on Shared Belief to show. That's an easy $1,000 for a real risk-taker, assuming all goes as it should. And all did just that for the son of Candy Ride.
"I'm so humbled right now," said Smith, who called getting a chance to ride a horse the stature of Shared Belief "a blessing."
Some might look at that the other way. With the victory, Smith became the first jockey to win three consecutive Santa Anita Handicaps. His previous victories were on Game On Dude.
"He put the horse in perfect position all day," said Hollendorfer, a man who throws praise around like sacks of cement.
Rome made the additional point that Shared Belief has been in the best of hands right from the start. He pointed out that Hollendorfer is in racing's Hall of Fame, as is Smith. Also, so is the horse's exercise rider at Golden Gate Fields, where he is based. That would be Russell Baze, the winningest jockey of all-time.
"We are surrounded by unbelievable quality," Rome said.
Shared Belief's dominance was not only impressive, but expected. The gamblers knew. Only one other horse besides Shared Belief in the 13-horse field ended up with single-digit odds, Moreno at 9-1. He finished second.
The rest of the field reminded few of Seabiscuit. Included was Crimson Giant, a 6-year-old, who was running in his 67th race, with a single victory to show for all that. Saturday, he went off at 100-1 and finished, fittingly, last.
The other big races of the day were friendly to value gamblers. Ring Weekend won the $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Stakes and paid $17.40, $8.60 and $5.20. Wild Dude won the $250,000 San Carlos and paid $5.80, $3.80 and $2.20. And Singing Kitty won a $75,000 China Doll Stakes and paid $41.60 to win.
Dortmund's win brought $3.60, $2.60 and $2.20.
The day featured a visit from some relatives of Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard. Before the race, the track showed a replay of the 1940 race that was remarkably enhanced and in living color.
The great horse deserved all of that and more. Little did anybody know he'd get a double dose.