This past week, I put together a four-way poll on my Twitter page. I’d felt a desire to do some historical legacy-type pieces, so I asked about horses you, the reader, whose Hall of Fame credentials you’d want analyzed.
Naturally, instead of having a clear-cut winner, we had a tie. Rather than wuss out and pick only one (or do a run-off and be subject to yet another tie and/or shenanigans akin to what happens in some countries’ presidential elections!), I’ve decided to combine both opinions in this column, one that I hope gets people thinking and/or talking.
Okay, here’s the first unpopular opinion of the column, and it centers around the fact that Lady Eli is one of the most popular horses of the past decade for reasons that have little to do with her talent on the racetrack. She stepped on a nail coming back from her scintillating performance in the 2015 Belmont Oaks and eventually contracted laminitis. Of course, she conquered that and came back to the races, where she would win four of her final eight starts (including three Grade 1 events at as many venues).
Get the pitchforks ready: When it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, I don’t care about anything except what a horse does within the confines of its arena. Yes, Lady Eli’s story is a phenomenal one, and credit must be given to the people around her (owner Sol Kumin, trainer Chad Brown, and Brown’s staff). With one exception (which carries a logical excuse), she showed up every single time, even after coming down with a condition that can be fatal. All of that is fantastic, but my Hall of Fame ballot has very little to do with emotion, and very much to do with what a horse accomplishes in its career on the track.
In using the oft-quoted Bill Parcells philosophy, “you are what your record says you are,” here’s what we’ve got as it pertains to Lady Eli.
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Nine (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Three)
What we have here is a really strong resume, though one that is not without its flaws. First, the good: After breaking her maiden first time out, she raced exclusively in stakes company. She recorded Grade 1 wins in four different seasons, in an era where the most promising horses in the game sometimes struggle to finish a second year of competition. I put a pretty heavy emphasis on longevity and consistency when looking at the horses on the annual ballot, and she checks those boxes emphatically.
Her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf win was electric, and she nearly added a second such victory when falling by a nose two years later in the Filly and Mare Turf. Her lone clunker came in her final career start, but a reason for the poor effort was evident right away, as she suffered an ugly (though far from life-threatening) injury in last year’s Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar.
Now, the bad points: Turf horses, by nature, are up against it when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration. There’s a long-held stigma that dirt horses are superior to turf horses, and because of that, some of the best turf horses we’ve seen have to wait a while before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Lure, for instance, wasn’t enshrined until 20 years after completing a career that included two wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. For better or for worse, this hurts Lady Eli.
Additionally, her lack of a race against males is not ideal. Turf mares like Miesque, Goldikova, and even Tepin had multiple wins over the boys on big stages (Miesque and Goldikova are both Hall of Famers, while Tepin will likely get in at some point). None of Lady Eli’s 14 outings came against males, and while such a race isn’t necessary in determining her talent, it would’ve gone a long way at a point where voters are instructed, perhaps even encouraged, to nitpick. If she wins, say, the Grade 1 Fourstardave in 2017 instead of that summer’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa over fillies and mares, or even runs well in defeat in the former race, I don’t think there’s nearly as much question about her eventual Hall of Fame viability.
Ultimately, the question is this: If you take away the phenomenal, made-for-Hollywood story behind Lady Eli’s physical ailments and her recovery, is her on-track resume enough to enshrine her in Saratoga? There will undoubtedly be some that feel her credentials aren’t solid enough, or that she didn’t shine quite as brightly as Tepin (who Lady Eli somehow never ran against, in an oversight of epic proportions by racing offices with high-level, eight to nine-furlong turf races for older fillies and mares at their tracks!).
After minimizing the emotional element, perhaps she’s not a slam-dunk…but I think she did enough to merit induction. I simply cannot ignore a Breeders’ Cup winner that boasts four straight seasons with at least one Grade 1 victory, even if she may not have run against some of the top turf horses of her era.
THE VERDICT: HALL OF FAMER
Before we cannonball into the deep water, here’s a look at Shared Belief’s career, nutshelled in the same way Lady Eli’s was earlier in this column.
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Eight (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)
And now we get to the tough part. The discussion of Shared Belief’s career has to start with the antics that happened at the start of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Shared Belief had skipped the Triple Crown due to setbacks at the start of the year, but the son of Candy Ride came back with a vengeance, reeling off four straight wins to come into the Classic undefeated.
Many anticipated a showdown with dual classic winner (and future Hall of Famer) California Chrome. Unfortunately for racing fans, the 3-year-old Shared Belief had to worry about the most was Bayern, who took a hard left turn out of the gate and sent horses inside of him (including Shared Belief) pinballing into one another. When the dust settled, Bayern was left alone on the lead and held off Toast of New York and California Chrome, with Shared Belief left spinning his wheels in fourth.
Shared Belief rebounded from his first career defeat with three straight victories, each more impressive than the one before it. After a workmanlike win in the Grade 1 Malibu, he beat California Chrome on the square in the Grade 2 San Antonio before putting forth one of recent racing history’s most underappreciated brilliant performances in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.
Think about all of the talent that was on the racetrack in early-2015. American Pharoah would win the Triple Crown. Beholder would destroy the boys in the Pacific Classic. California Chrome was headed to Dubai (followed by a planned start at Royal Ascot), and Bayern was still kicking around in Bob Baffert’s barn. Following the Santa Anita Handicap, though, you’d be hard-pressed to say that any of those horses, on their best days, would’ve been able to beat the Shared Belief that waltzed home in 2:00 and change and seemed capable of so much more.
Alas, fate intervened. In addition to star-crossed California Chrome getting sent to the sidelines, Shared Belief would race just once more. He did not finish the Charles Town Classic after suffering a minor injury that could’ve been much worse if not for the expert skills of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who pulled him up immediately. Shared Belief was sent to Washington for rehabilitation, and a return was planned, but he suffered an attack of colic in December and was euthanized.
What I’m about to say may seem like a weird tangent, but go with it. I’m a big fan of Bill Simmons’s magnum opus, “The Book of Basketball.” In it, he refers to a theory that applies to a number of players that bordered on greatness, but could’ve been even greater. It goes something like this: If we’d had the ability to simulate a career 10 times, what we got was the worst possible outcome. Athletes that could’ve been great were hampered by injuries, or bad situations, or by things completely outside their control, and if some celestial force were to come and offer a one-time “do-over” as it pertained to one such career, we’d take it without a second thought.
That theory can more than adequately be applied to the career of Shared Belief. He showed brilliance as a 2-year-old, but did not contest the Triple Crown. When he came back, he routed older horses in a pair of Grade 1 races before the Classic, where a series of events produced more outrage than just about any other imaginable scenario (try to think of one that would’ve made people angrier and doesn’t include the words “sniper on the roof;” don’t worry, I’ll wait). After the Classic, he won three times, but was injured in his final career start and never got a chance to come back.
There’s an alternate universe where Shared Belief and California Chrome race each other multiple times at ages three, four, and five. Shared Belief wins a few. California Chrome wins a few. Horse racing gets a rivalry the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the days of Skip Away, Formal Gold, and Wills Way, with longtime horsemen and friends Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman at the forefront, playfully uttering one-liners at each other like, “Well, if I don’t win, I hope you don’t, either.” Add in a rotating cast that includes the likes of Beholder, and perhaps even Arrogate near the end, and how exciting do some Saturdays become?
Feel cheated by the racing gods yet? I know I do. The fact is that there’s absolutely no telling how good Shared Belief could have been. He could’ve been the dirt version of Wise Dan, running his competition into the ground for years due to his status as a gelding rather than a full horse. Instead, he was a comet streaking across the sky, imperfect but undeniably memorable in a way many very talented horses of recent years are not.
Is he a Hall of Famer? That’s about the toughest question the nominating committee will be faced with in a few years, and I’m pretty happy I don’t have to make the decision. At his peak, he may have been the best horse in the world. However, I don’t think he had the opportunity to do as much with his talent as he should have. This is not his fault, nor the fault of those around him. Circumstances conspired to give us the unluckiest possible outcomes with regard to Shared Belief, all the way down to his early passing.
Will I protest if Shared Belief is eventually enshrined in Saratoga? No. Horses without his immense ability have been voted in before, and they’ll be voted in in the future. However, based solely on what he achieved on the track as compared to similar horses from his era, he likely won’t be on my ballot.
THE VERDICT: NOT A HALL OF FAMER