Bittersweet memories on Shared Belief's day

Data from The Jockey Club reveal that the population of the 2011 North American Thoroughbred foal crop was 24,930. At the time, the number was the smallest since 1971, when the nose count was 24,301.

Size doesn't always matter. From the crop of 1971 came good ones like Cannonade, Little Current, Chris Evert, Miss Musket, and Holding Pattern.

From the crop of 2011 came California Chrome, Tepin, Honor Code, Tonalist, Untapable … and Shared Belief.

Every time California Chrome runs -- like he did with such arrogant delight in last Saturday's Pacific Classic -- it is hard not to think about Shared Belief. They were brothers under the Western sun, leapfrogging each other into the history books.

Shared Belief was a champion 2-year-old while California Chrome was still getting his young sea legs. California Chrome dominated the first half of their 3-year-old season, winning the 2014 Derby and Preakness while Shared Belief recovered from a foot injury. After Chrome was bloodied in the Belmont Stakes and took a break, Shared Belief seized the stage with victories in the Pacific Classic and Awesome Again.

They finally met in an unsatisfactory Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing third and fourth to Bayern, who racked up Shared Belief, among others, at the start. Never mind. They both came back roaring as 4-year-olds, and when Shared Belief defeated California Chrome in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita, the stage was set for a rivalry that figured to entertain the troops far and wide.

Anyway, that was the plan. By the spring of 2015, both horses were out of commission. Shared Belief fractured a hip in the Charles Town Classic. California Chrome came home from Dubai and England considerably worse for wear. It felt like a long goodbye for the two most successful Thoroughbreds of their generation, their legacies dwarfed by the singular accomplishments of the younger American Pharoah.

Then came last November, and in the wake of American Pharoah's swan song in the Breeders' Cup Classic, word came from the West that both Shared Belief and California Chrome were training up a storm, with sights firmly set on 2016. The news was as good as it gets.

That is why the Northern California dispatches from Dec. 3, 2015, were as bad as bad could be. Shared Belief, having trained smartly at Golden Gate that morning, was stricken with colic and rushed to the veterinary clinic at the University of California-Davis. He died that afternoon.

Died without warning, just like that -- a vibrant, sociable, midsized gelding with a stride of such fluid grace that his jockey, Mike Smith, described him as the most perfectly balanced horse he'd ever ridden.

"I'll never forget when Mike told me that," said Jerry Hollendorfer, who trained Shared Belief for all but the first of his 12 starts. "The whole barn loved him. We really miss him, and his name comes up often. Sometimes there are things that happen you just can't put into words."

Deeds will do. On Friday at Del Mar, Hollendorfer will have two 3-year-olds in the first running of the $100,000 Shared Belief Stakes. The race used to be called the El Cajon, but El Cajon won't mind, not when a horse like Shared Belief meant so much to so many, including his principal owner, Jim Rome.

Rome will bring his CBS Sports radio show to the Del Mar plaza Friday morning, then he and his family will be front and center later in the day when the Shared Belief is run. Taman Guard, owned by Rome and partners, is one of the Hollendorfer pair in the field.

"It will be a very emotional day," Rome said last weekend before watching his filly Stays in Vegas finish a close third in the Del Mar Oaks. "We love all our horses, but Shared Belief was special. Losing him is something you get past, but you never get over it."

Del Mar management will mark the occasion with a brief ceremony before the Shared Belief Stakes that will include a highlight reel of his greatest hits, a commemorative presentation from track chief Joe Harper, and a few words from Rome. Later on, there will be a private ceremony to bury Shared Belief's ashes in the Del Mar infield alongside the grave of Native Diver, the Hall of Fame gelding whose 37th and final victory came in the 1967 Del Mar Handicap. Nine days later, he was dead after an attack of colic.

A.E. Housman cornered the market with his poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young," written in 1896. The gist of the verse, when read dry-eyed, provides consolation that the young athlete of the title would never end up outliving the glory of his deeds, like those "runners whom renown outran/and the name died before the man."

In that sense, the legacy of Shared Belief never will be shackled to the uncertain twilight of an aging racehorse. Instead, he always will be the 2-year-old exploding onto the national scene in the CashCall Futurity, the 3-year-old winning the Pacific Classic with arrogant ease, the 4-year-old who put California Chrome in his place, then painted a masterpiece in the Santa Anita Handicap, his last hurrah.

Bob Dylan never met A.E. Housman, but they drank from the same trough. In the end, you can pick your poet. Shared Belief was a good horse gone too soon, and he will stay -- in Dylan's words -- forever young.