So who's the best racehorse in the country? Wait, before you leap onto the Shared Belief bandwagon, keep in mind that even before Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap a crowd already had convened up there vowing never to leave until their hero wins the Breeders' Cup Classic or Jerry Hollendorfer sings his favorite Iggy Pop tune in front of a full Santa Anita grandstand. And now, well, with the recent arrival of all these revelers, redolent with champagne and invincibility, it looks more like a Mardi Gras float than a bandwagon; but go ahead, jump aboard, don't let the crowd worry you or me stop you 'cause I agree.
Shared Belief is indeed the best horse in the country. No question, no debate. By lengths, he's the very best. For now.
His performance Saturday at Santa Anita beggared even Trevor Denman's vocabulary; the great announcer resorted to "poetry in motion" in deep stretch to describe the latest-greatest, but only because "moving like a tremendous machine" was already taken. Shared Belief's victory in the Santa Anita Handicap was, quite simply, the best performance so far this year -- not because the final time for the 1-1/4 miles was so fast (2:00.67), although it was plenty fast enough, or because the margin of victory was so overwhelming, for his rivals were overwhelmed from the moment he stepped onto the track; the performance was the best simply because it was achieved with such style, bravura and nonchalance.
The chart will say Shared Belief's margin of victory Saturday was 4-1/4 lengths, but don't believe it. The distance between the winner and the runner-up (Moreno) might have been 4 1/4 lengths, but the difference between them approximated the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.
Shared Belief's jockey, Mike Smith, hardly moved down the lane, nor did he have to. The only threat in sight was boredom. Shared Belief dominated so eagerly and easily, and he so clearly enjoyed his dominion that he needed no encouragement. Smith's whip became superfluous. Around mid-stretch, he probably would have traded it for a good cigar.
Asking who's the best horse in the country always seems such a silly question. Best at what distance? On what surface? At what racetrack? But the question of who's the best horse in the country somehow sounded appropriate Saturday afternoon, or, even more, it seemed necessary when the answer charged forward, fired a Roman candle into the sport's ear and said, "Well?" Shared Belief's performance, in other words, demanded the question be asked simply because he had so insistently provided the answer.
With 10 victories in 11 races and his only loss an unfortunate consequence of a huggermugger start, Shared Belief is at the very least a reminder of what the great ones were like even if, at this point, he hasn't conclusively proven to be great himself. But he might. He's far from done.
Eight of his victories have been by dominant margins, as though he prefers domination to gregariousness. His close wins came in the Malibu Stakes, where he sprinted in his seasonal debut, and the Awesome Again, where he had to overcome and battle back after being carried out to Colorado Blvd. in the first turn. Otherwise, he consistently has won by many lengths, embracing the mantle of superiority. That's why, whenever Shared Belief walks into the gate, it's difficult to imagine his losing, or losing on the square, without the intervention of mishap or misadventure. And that's the way it was for the great ones: You always expected them to win because that's what they did. That was what they were about, how they defined themselves.
And so who's the best horse in the country? Why, Shared Belief, of course. Two more questions, though, jump up and demand asking: Who's even talented enough to threaten Shared Belief and offer a challenge that will force him to sound the depth of his talent and determination? And who's going to be best in eight months, when the Breeders' Cup goes to Keeneland?
Honor Code is the answer to at least one of those questions. Sure, Bayern, the Breeders' Cup Classic winner, has proven that he can, under the right circumstances and at the right distance, outrun just about anybody; if Tonalist, the Belmont Stakes winner who's training in Florida, takes a step forward, he could threaten the best horse in the country; Palace Malice, who briefly looked like he might have been last year's best horse, has had two workouts as he prepares for a return to competition; Constitution and Lea gave the second and third best performances of the year in the Donn Handicap; California Chrome's best effort in a traffic-free world would give him a chance; and the outstanding filly Untapable, who returns to competition in Saturday's Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn, has the talent to make a foray or two outside her division and maybe into the best horse's backyard. And in the fall, when such talented 3-year-olds as Dortmund, Carpe Diem and American Pharoah have internalized all their lessons and outgrown their fascination with jewelry, they could, maybe, become good enough. But of all of them, Honor Code might be the most serious threat to Shared Belief down whatever road they travel.
He made his seasonal debut in Saturday's Gulfstream Park Handicap. And although his victory was at least as exciting as Shared Belief's, it was, in an awkward sort of way, quite opposite. While you couldn't at any point of the Santa Anita Handicap imagine Shared Belief losing, you couldn't at any point of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, except one, imagine Honor Code winning. After ducking in at the break -- "I was ready to go home," his trainer, Shug McGaughey, said about the start -- Honor Code was last in the field of six. He trailed by 15 lengths after the opening half-mile and by 10 lengths after the first three-quarters of a mile. And then his rider, Javier Castellano, swung Honor Code to the outside, and from there, he said, the big colt "just took off." Sounding like a cowboy getting off a tornado, Castellano said "it was amazing." Honor Code won by a half-length.
And here's another difference between Honor Code's victory Saturday and Shared Belief's. While the runner-up was invisible, or at least unimportant at Santa Anita, at Gulfstream Park he provided a measure of the winner's performance. That was Private Zone a half-length back. Third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and the winner of the Vosburgh, he won the Cigar Mile by five lengths prior to meeting Honor Code. But Honor Code ran him down, making up 10 lengths in the stretch.
Who's the best horse in the country? Shared Belief, of course. But put that question in your wallet and trot it out again in November.