There are only a handful of horses that would inspire me to drive 6 1/2 hours to see in the flesh. Shared Belief was one of them.
Little did I know that race on April 18 earlier in the year would be the last one of his brilliant career on the track.
In an unfortunate sequence of events, the 4-year-old gelding died yesterday due to complications of colic, which can be described as severe abdominal discomfort characterized by pawing and rolling in horses, a condition that rarely has a positive outcome.
When it was announced earlier in the year that he was going to race at Charles Town in West Virginia in the Charles Town Classic, I loaded up the truck and made the 342-mile trek to see Jim Rome’s horse with great excitement.
I was more excited to see this horse than any I can remember in recent history. At the time he was the top-ranked horse in the world and it was his first trip to the East Coast. The CT Classic was going to be a stepping stone for the Met Mile at Belmont, and ultimately the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Halloween night.
The gelding was already having a season starting to sniff Horse of the Year honors, winning the Big Cap and besting dual Classic winner California Chrome in the San Antonio early in the year. His only career loss at the time came in last year's Breeders’ Cup Classic when Bayern decided to run the ‘ole picket fence, but forgot to tell everyone in the race and Shared Belief was wiped out at the start. Miraculously he recovered to finish fourth and his backers only wondered what could have been.
The momentum behind the son of Candy Ride was at an all time high when he captured the Big Cap in March and the thoughts of him running on the Belmont Stakes undercard in the Met Mile could only pump up his followers, bolstered by Rome’s influence on his nationally-syndicated radio show. I dared to compare him to the great mare Zenyatta, based on his popularity and dominance on the track.
A packed crowd showed up in force at the little track in the mid-Atlantic to see the former 2-year-old champion of 2013, continue on his way to a championship season. That’s when things started to go wrong.
He broke awkwardly and watching from the winner’s circle as he passed us for the first time, you knew that something was off when he was in the back of the field, a position uncharacteristic for him, and not making up any ground.
Jockey Mike Smith pulled him up on the backside and he never finished the final race of his career. The whole racing community around the country was watching and were sent into panic-mode thinking the worst when Smith hopped off him quickly, ultimately avoiding a situation that would have been disastrous if he kept riding him.
I was one of the few reporters on hand, due to the locale and after the initial shock, I found myself sprinting down the track after Smith and trainer Hollendorfer to see what had happened and obtain a reaction. Smith was beside himself, but ultimately a hero that day for sensing that something was wrong with his prized mount and acting accordingly. Hollendorfer was non-responsive and had nothing to say, worry was in his eyes.
Needless to say my phone was blowing up wondering what happened to the dark brown gelding. At that point I realized how beloved this horse was across the country. After relaying Smith’s thoughts via Twitter, and seeing the reaction, I knew just how special this horse was.
The injury he suffered that day, a non-displaced fracture of his hip, ended his season and hopes of a showdown with California Chrome in the Classic at Keeneland that never materialized. American Pharoah came onto the scene and with possibly his biggest threat on the sidelines in Shared Belief, he captured all the headlines.
While Pharoah was making history, Shared Belief was making strides in his rehabilitation. Just recently he was back in training with hopes of returning to the track in 2016, to defend his Big Cap title and take up where he left off in West Virginia in April.
That plan came crashing down yesterday after an episode of colic suffered after morning training, he underwent surgery at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and did not survive the procedure.
Jim Rome, part-owner posted the following on his Jungle Racing Facebook Page: "Today we have suffered a devastating loss. He was a champion, a fighter, and an unbelievable talent who impacted and changed all our lives. He loved to compete and run, and as heartbreaking as today is, we consider ourselves so fortunate to have been a part of this amazing animal's life."
In a season that put racing in the nation’s spotlight with a Triple Crown winning champion, the highest of highs in this sport, it delivered one helluva gut punch in losing a horse that had a bright future in Shared Belief.
We’ll never know how great Shared Belief could have been. It’s unfortunate that we were not able to experience him in the Triple Crown races, which he missed due to injury, or in a Breeders’ Cup Classic where he wasn’t compromised.
His untimely death invoked memories of other stars who died young, before their prime, like Hank Gathers, Ernie Davis and Thurman Munson.
He was that good.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.