Many years ago, long enough that neither men can remember exactly when, a young horse trainer and a rider lived in the same apartment building in San Mateo.
The two worked out of nearby Bay Meadows Racetrack and sparked a casual friendship. Both had come up, as Art Sherman, the rider, described it, "the hard way."
Sherman slept in a boxcar en route to Churchill Downs in 1955 with the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Swaps, for whom he was the exercise rider. The other man, Jerry Hollendorfer, worked first as a groom and then as a trainer who logged long hours and seemed to devote his entire self to his horses.
When Sherman became a trainer in 1976, he grew to admire Hollendorfer's tirelessness, and the two grew close. "We were the type of friends that we could say anything to each other and get a good laugh out of it," Hollendorfer, who is 68, said.
Sherman, nine years older at 77, describes those early days with nostalgia — two throwback horsemen who never had the big clients. "We didn't have anything when we started out," Sherman said. "Just hustling and scuffling."
So it has come as a pleasant surprise for both that, in perhaps the most anticipated race of early 2015, the pair has found itself with the two biggest-name horses. Sherman's California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness last spring and was named the horse of the year. Hollendorfer's Shared Belief, also a 4-year-old, was the juvenile horse of the year in 2013.
On Saturday, California Chrome and Shared Belief will face off in the San Antonio Invitational at Santa Anita. It is believed to be the first time in 28 years that the 2- and 3-year-old champions will meet as 4-year-olds, according Horse Racing Nation. That makes Saturday's race a kind of throwback. In an era when the best horses usually retire early to stud, these two are still going.
"When you go back to the good old days when people used to come out and watch them, there were so many races and horses to watch, especially the rivalries," said Mike Smith, Shared Belief's jockey. "So this is the start of one. You can't really call it one yet, but it certainly is the start of what could be a great one."
Smith described Shared Belief, an undersized horse, as athletic, with a graceful stride, "like a point guard."
"He's a tough little dude," Smith said. "With some more size, he'd be knocking people around. But what he lacks in size he has in heart and ability."
Shared Belief is a gelding, so he is likely to continue racing beyond this year, unlike California Chrome.
It has become increasingly rare for a horse who has won two legs of the Triple Crown to continue racing as a 4-year-old. Alan Sherman, Art's son and assistant trainer, said they advised the horse's owners that California Chrome's value would increase if he raced well for an additional year before being retired to stud. The owners agreed.
All of that was in question after the Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome finished a disappointing fourth in a dead-heat. In the days after the race, when jockey Victor Espinoza would visit California Chrome in his barn, the horse looked ragged.
"He looked rough, man," Espinoza said. "He looked like an anorexic horse in there."
Espinoza wondered if the horse was done racing.
"I thought it was going to be tough for him to come back," Espinoza said.
Sherman decided to give the horse a break, and it worked. California Chrome returned in September to finish sixth in the Pennsylvania Derby but he won the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar in late November.
Earlier that month, California Chrome had faced Shared Belief in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Until then, Shared Belief had been undefeated, though injury kept him from the Triple Crown races. Popular speculation held the winner between the two would be the horse of the year.
After a controversial start in the Classic, Bayern won and California Chrome finished third, beating the betting favorite Shared Belief. It was enough to help California Chrome capture the horse-of-the-year title. That was the only time California Chrome and Shared Belief have raced each other, but in this era, with a rematch coming Saturday, that qualifies as a budding rivalry.
It is a coincidence, a happy twist of fate, that the two friends would have these horses at the same time. California Chrome is Sherman's best horse in almost four decades of training. Shared Belief is perhaps the same for Hollendorfer, who is in the Racing Hall of Fame.
Both trainers have reached the peak of their careers at the same time. Now, Sherman said with a laugh, "We'll see Jerry and I going for pink slips on Saturday."