ARCADIA, Ca. — Traveling down the Santa Anita Park backstretch aboard champion Shared Belief on Sept. 27, all of Mike Smith's peerless knowledge was telling the Hall of Fame jockey that his mount's unbeaten record was likely coming to an end.
Just get a decent finish and leave something the tank, Smith thought. Because what kind of horse — a 3-year-old against elders nonetheless — could come back after being carried out as wide as his gelding just was and still have something left for the finish.
Smith has coaxed countless Thoroughbred legends through career-defining outings. What happened coming off the final turn of the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes has him thinking Shared Belief is headed for a spot on his personal Mount Rushmore.
Adversity is something Shared Belief has yet to let overtake him. The Candy Ride gelding was the class of his generation before being sidelined with a foot ailment this winter and has returned to become potentially the top horse in training, period, deemed the 9-to-5 morning line favorite after drawing post No. 6 in a field of 14 entered for Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
The 11/4-mile Classic is the headline event of the two-day, 13-race event. Four Breeders' Cup races, including the $2 million Distaff will be contested on Friday with the other nine races held on Championship Saturday.
Post positions were drawn for all 13 races Monday with multiple Grade I winner Untapable being made the 5-to-2 morning line pick for the Distaff out of post No. 10 of 11 entered.
As evidence by his record 20 victories in Breeders' Cup races, Smith ranks as one of the all-time greats in his ability to make the right split-second decision in a big spot. When he called on Shared Belief to mount a wide move on the final turn in the Awesome Again after being carried almost to the middle of the track by Sky Kingdom coming off the first turn, the dark bay gelding responded as he always has: a non-stop drive that saw him notch his second Grade I win over older horses and seventh victory in as many career starts.
"I didn't think he had a shot at all really once they turned down the backside," Smith said. "Honestly I thought, let's make it as smooth as we can at this point and not get in a wrestling match with anybody...hopefully we'll run third or fourth and get a good race out of it.
"Going into the far turn I asked him to pick it up, and he did it a whole lot easier than I was expecting. We took a little bit of a breather and I asked him again and that was at the point where I thought, we can go ahead and win this. Because 98 percent of the horses you ride could have never, never done that. And I still don't think we've seen the best of him."
Wearing the biggest target in a Classic field that features six other Grade I winners and a total of seven sophomore runners represents a full circle journey back to the top for the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee.
Before dual classic winner California Chrome became a national darling with his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Shared Belief was expected to hold the divisional crown off a championship 2-year-old season that saw him win his three starts by a combined 201/2 lengths, culminating with a victory in the Grade I CashCall Futurity in December.
Hollendorfer, who also co-owns Shared Belief in partnership with a group that includes sports talk host Jim Rome, didn't even think of pushing the gelding to make the Triple Crown races once the gelding developed a slow-healing quarter crack. Since emerging off the sidelines with an allowance win in May, Shared Belief has clicked off victories in the Grade II Los Alamitos Derby and Grade I Pacific Classic heading into his Awesome Again triumph.
"What I think makes him stand above a lot of the horses I've been blessed to ride is he doesn't need his race to run his race," Smith said. "He'll do anything. You can get left, you can go to the lead, he can lay second, he can get dirt in his face, you can bang him around. It doesn't seem to matter. He'll run whenever you ask him."
What plagued California Chrome in both his fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes and sixth place effort in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby is being stuck down inside and out of his normal rhythm.
The son of Lucky Pulpit won't have that excuse in the Classic, drawing post No. 13. Installed as the 4-to-1 second choice, Alan Sherman — son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman — said the chestnut colt is showing him the same cues he did during his classic heroics.
"His work (on Oct. 25) was probably the best I've ever seen him work and I think he's coming into this race just as good if not better than he was for the Derby and Preakness," Alan Sherman said. "It will be nice to not have the big target on our back, the target has definitely shrunk a bit."
Grade I winners Bayern and Moreno, the two speedsters expected to put up the early fractions, drew posts Nos. 7 and 6, respectively. Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist will break from post No. 11 under Joel Rosario, and could usurp both Shared Belief and California Chrome for year-end honors if he scores his fifth win this season.
"It's the perfect spot (post No. 6)," said Alex Solis II, co-owner of Shared Belief. "The whole year was based on this race and now, everyone is here and we can prove who is the best 3-year-old. Hopefully it is him."