Shared Belief’s hind hit the starting gate when it sprang open, while defending champion Game On Dude shot to the lead.
For a split second, Mike Smith wondered if had chosen the right horse to ride.
In the end, he did.
Shared Belief won the $1 million Pacific Classic by 2-3/4 lengths at Del Mar on Sunday, improving to 6 for 6 in his career.
The 3-year-old gelding ran 1-1/4 miles on Polytrack in 2:00.28 and paid $4.40, $3.20 and $2.80 as the 6-5 favorite in the field of 10.
"After we got away bad, sometimes you have to pull a rabbit out of your know what," Smith said. "I had a rabbit."
Game On Dude, the 7-year-old gelding Smith jilted to ride the younger unbeaten horse, finished fourth after being pressed on the pace by Mystery Train.
"They always want to go after him," said Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude. "I hate to see that. I think he was going to win if they hadn’t gone after him like that. It’s frustrating to train a horse and get him ready for his biggest race and have a horse who has no shot to win take that chance away."
In changing horses, Smith figured Game On Dude is much closer to the end of his career than Shared Belief.
"I wanted this race so bad," he said.
Toast of New York returned $5.20 and $4.60, while Imperative was another 2-1/4 lengths back in third and paid $8.40 to show.
There was a stewards’ inquiry involving Shared Belief and Toast of New York in the stretch, but they made no change to the order of finish after reviewing video. Toast of New York was in the middle, with Shared Belief on the outside and Game On Dude on the inside.
"I don’t believe I caused any trouble in the stretch," Smith said. "When I came over, I had room."
Victor Espinoza, aboard Toast of New York, disagreed, saying, "Mike’s horse did come over on us, and I had to take a hold. Maybe it’s different if I don’t."
With the victory, Shared Belief earned an automatic berth in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall at Santa Anita, setting up an anticipated showdown with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.
"What a great thing for racing," Smith said.
Foot problems kept Shared Belief off this year’s Triple Crown trail. He returned with a victory at Golden Gate Fields on May 26 and won the Los Alamitos Derby on July 5, with Smith aboard. The jockey, who turned 49 two weeks ago, won four races and had three seconds in eight races Sunday.
Shared Belief was just the second horse to enter the Pacific Classic with a spotless record. His sire, Candy Ride, was also 5 for 5 going into the 2003 running, which he won while setting a track record.
"The whole thing is so surreal," said Jim Rome, Shared Belief’s co-owner and a sports talk host. "Some of the greatest days of my life have been spent at the track."
Frac Daddy was scratched because of a left front tendon injury, believed to have been happened in his stall on Friday night. Trainer Ken McPeek said the injury is potentially career threatening, and the 4-year-old colt would return to Kentucky on Monday for further tests.
In other stakes races on the Del Mar card:
* Goldencents won the $250,000 Pat O’Brien Stakes by 4-1/4 lengths, covering seven furlongs in a track-record time of 1:20.99. That bettered the old mark of 1:21.12 set in last year’s race by Fed Biz, the 7-5 favorite who finished second this year. Trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Goldencents earned an automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita this fall. He paid $5.40 to win.
* Tom’s Tribute rallied to win the $250,000 Del Mar Mile by one length. He ran one mile on the turf in 1:33.75 under Smith and paid $8.20, $4.20 and $6.40. Rock Me Baby was second and Handsome Mike third. Obviously, the 2-5 favorite and two-time defending champion, turned his head as the gate opened, causing him to break awkwardly from the rail. He went on to lead into the stretch but faded to fourth.