If horse racing is to creep back into the national psyche of sports fans, it will need days like Saturday at Santa Anita.
The 21,522 who showed up didn't just get the Shared Belief-California Chrome heavyweight title fight. They got a look at a horse named Dortmund, who may well be parading around Churchill Downs with a blanket of roses around his saddle come May 2.
The biggest news was that Triple Crown star California Chrome got caught in the stretch of the Grade II $500,000 San Antonio Invitational and was beaten by the second-biggest three-year-old star of 2014, Shared Belief.
Chrome's trainer, the venerable Art Sherman, said, "People may have seen the two best older horses in the country today."
After the race, most would have dropped the words "may have."
Shared Belief's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, had a good summary of his own: "Chrome's rider [Victor Espinoza] moved at the right time, and we just had to go get him."
Shared Belief's jockey, the veteran Mike Smith — who is so good in big races that the minute he climbs aboard for one, bettors fall all over each other to get to the windows — did exactly that. He went and got Chrome and Espinoza, pulling up even along the eighth pole and exploding past them along the sixteenth.
"It was like he always does," Smith said. "He takes a little breather before he goes. That gets everybody scared. Then he fills it up and goes and gets 'em."
Smith has ridden so many champion horses that there are too many to list, or rate. He got Zenyatta to within a thumbnail of winning her second straight Breeders' Cup Classic and her 20th race without a loss.
So where does Shared Belief fall in that list?
"Top five, and growing," Smith said.
Oftentimes, the setting and the weather dominate the day at Santa Anita. The distant San Gabriel Mountains, usually glistening in sunshine, seldom fail to perform.
On this overcast, drizzly day, the setting presented an eerie backdrop of fog nestled into mountain passes, and the racing stole the show.
This was not a single-headline racing day. Dortmund was the first.
This is the time of year when racing, all over the country, sorts out its next star. That's what it did with California Chrome last year, and he went on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Shared Belief got sorted out by injury and ran none of the Triple Crown races.
Dortmund won one of those early West Coast sorting-out races Saturday, the $150,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds. And the big deal wasn't so much that Dortmund won, and logically promoted himself into a major sorting-out race, the April 4 Santa Anita Derby.
The big deal was how he won.
The Bob Baffert-trained Dortmund, on the exact date he was born three years ago, went to the lead around the final turn. Then Firing Line, ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, took over the lead and seemed to be in dominant position, with nice momentum, to breeze home.
But Dortmund, as stubborn as he is talented, did what few horses do — especially three-year-olds in just their fourth race. Racing on the rail, he kicked back into gear and won by a head.
The quotes afterward were almost as good as the race.
The master quipper Baffert said, "At the eighth pole [when Firing Line went past], I felt like Bill Belichick of the Patriots."
To which Stevens responded, "I thought I would never say I moved too early at the eighth pole in a dirt race, but I moved too early."
Dortmund remains unbeaten, Baffert took his fifth win in the race, and the gathering in the winners' circle was a flashback to some of the great days of recent lore in thoroughbred racing.
The presenters on behalf of the late Bob Lewis were his son, Jeff, and Bob's wife, Beverly. Among Baffert's earliest successes in the sport was his 1997 training job on Silver Charm. Bob and Beverly Lewis owned the horse and Silver Charm came within a nose of winning the Triple Crown, under the ride of Stevens.
Baffert said that Dortmund is "a fighter, like Silver Charm."
Dortmund's jockey, Martin Garcia, made the horse's scary-good performance even scarier.
"He's just a big baby," Garcia said. "He's still learning."
The amount of money bet on track was $2,895,129. From all betting sources around the country, money bet was $18,059,096. That made for a day of competitive and financial success. Had the sun come out, you could have added aesthetic.
If racing is on life support, as many say, then it took out the needles and got up out of bed for at least a day Saturday.