Memories of Sham Rekindled With New Book

I saw an ad yesterday for a new book on Sham, titled “Sham: Great Was Second Best,” by Phil Dandrea. It is the second book written on Secretariat’s adversary, the first being “Sham: In the Shadow of a Superhorse,” by Mary Walsh.

With Sham sort of back in the spotlight again, I went back to a 2009 column I wrote on the colt and felt enough years had passed to re-work and re-edit it by adding new material and tell his story once again even more comprehensively.

Since my original column, a feature-length motion picture about Secretariat was released by Disney that portrayed Sham and his trainer, Frank “Pancho” Martin in an uncomplimentary manner, making them nothing more than Hollywood stereotypes.

This was a gross injustice to a Hall of Fame trainer and a brave, brilliant colt. Martin was 84 when the movie was released and his glory days were  well behind him. Many had forgotten just what an outstanding trainer he was and the amazing success he had with the Sommer horses. He would pass away two years later having left an impressive legacy of accomplishments during a time regarded by many as racing’s Golden Age. Sham had been dead for seven years and was pretty much remembered as the horse with superstar potential who had the misfortune to come along in the wrong year.

So, as a new generation of racing fans flocked to theaters to see Secretariat come to life on the big screen, many were unaware of the numerous liberties taken by Disney to appeal to the masses. One of those liberties was portraying Martin and Sham as if they were Disney villains Cruella de Vil and Scar. This was not only unfair to Martin, but to his family. His late son Jose and grandson Carlos were both terrific horsemen and successful trainers in their own right. While Jose trained major stars such as Groovy and Noble Nashua and others, Carlos is still waiting for that one big horse, but retains the same enthusiasm and love of horses he showed growing up at the barn with his father.

Frank Martin, who made champions and grade 1 winners out of ordinary horses, came across as some street thug and obnoxious braggart in the movie, proclaiming “Secretariat is goin’ down!” Martin could be gruff and felt his horses could beat anyone, but he was nothing like the character in the movie. Even poor Sham, who suffered enough by coming along the same year as Secretariat, was portrayed as the equine villain, much as the infamous Postman was in the movie Kentucky. Even in the movie Seabiscuit, War Admiral came across as the evil antagonist, miraculously growing from 15.2 hands in real life to an absurd Goliath-like 18 hands in the movie to make him appear more imposing and intimidating.

Secretariat remains the standard by which all great horses are measured, and he continues to transcend the sport of Thoroughbred racing, being mentioned by President-elect Donald Trump in his victory speech. When Trump mentioned that had Secretariat finished second there would be no bronze statue of him at Belmont Park, he might as well have been referring to Sham. If it wasn’t for two of the most spectacular record-breaking performances in Triple Crown history in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it very well could have been Sham who was in position on June 9, 1973 to eventually be immortalized in bronze.

Here then is the real story of Sham and his unfortunate timing in life.

Lucien Laurin, wearing a bright burgundy sport jacket, bent down to tighten the girth on Secretariat, and then placed Meadow Stable’s familiar blue and white checked blinkers on the colt’s head. Big Red stood motionless on the Pimlico grass course saddling area staring straight ahead, his muscle lines rippling and his golden chestnut coat as radiant as ever.

Standing only a foot away and on the opposite side of the horse, with not another person near me, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, so I reached for my camera and quickly got the shot before the horse moved. Just as I clicked the shutter, Big Red, hearing the sound that had become so familiar to him, turned his head and looked directly at me. I clicked again and that second shot of Secretariat staring right at me through his blinkers remains one of the most special photos I’ve ever taken.

To be that close to Secretariat and see him in all his magnificence was an unforgettable moment. I then turned around to check out the other horses being saddled, and there before me was a vision as breathtaking in its own way as Secretariat.

This horse, however, was dark seal brown in color, with a coat that glistened like burnished copper. Like Big Red, he was big and powerful with an air of nobility about him. But he was more refined, like a chiseled sculpture. The horse was Sham, and having only seen him in the flesh briefly in the Aqueduct paddock on a cloudy afternoon and from the grandstand in the Wood Memorial, I had no idea what a magnificent creature he was. He was an athlete in the purest sense. That image of Sham in the Pimlico saddling area remains as indelible today as it did 43 years ago. I still have to wonder if two more spectacular-looking colts ever stood on the same track together.

It is said that a warrior’s greatness is measured by the courage of his opponents. The same applies to athletes. Beyond all of Secretariat’s record times and winning margins lies the horse who pushed him to three track records and helped secure his place in history. Sham will forever live in the shadows of Big Red, but once every few years he deserves to be thrust into the spotlight he was denied more than four decades ago.

When an athlete pushes another to perform great feats, and still stands apart from the others, it suggests a fine line between himself and the history books. Going strictly by the numbers, take Secretariat away and Sham wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by eight lengths, both in record time. It has become a cliché to say “in any other year…” But there is no denying that Sham, like Alydar, was born in the wrong year.

Let’s not forget that there is much more to Sham’s resume than finishing second to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Before he came face to face with his nemesis, Sham won the Santa Anita Derby in a stakes record-equaling 1:47 flat and captured the Santa Catalina Stakes over a deep, muddy track. Prior to those races he won a pair of 1 1/16-mile allowance races by six and 15 lengths. In his six-length score, his time of 1:41 2/5 was only a second off the track record. In his final start at 2, he broke his maiden at Aqueduct by six lengths, also in the mud, in hand the length of the stretch.

There have been many eagerly anticipated Kentucky Derbys, but few final preps for the Derby as eagerly anticipated as the 1973 Wood Memorial when the seemingly unbeatable Secretariat would square off against the best 3-year-old in California in a showdown that normally is reserved for the first Saturday in May.

Sham did beat Secretariat, but to the shock of everyone at the Big A, he fell just short of catching Big Red’s far less heralded stablemate Angle Light. Some were down on Sham for getting beat a head in the Wood Memorial to Angle Light, even though he finished four lengths ahead of Big Red. But the track had been playing dead all week, so much so that Secretariat turned in a dull mile workout in 1:42 2/5 four days before the race. Angle Light also worked a mile that day in 1:42. Sham, however, also working that same day, blazed five furlongs in :58 flat. It certainly is not inconceivable that Sham worked way too fast over that surface and left his race on the track.

In the Wood, Angle Light controlled the pace with slow fractions of :24 3/5, :48 1/5 and 1:12 1/5, with Sham sitting 1 1/2 lengths back the whole way. Secretariat, as was learned later, had an abscess in his mouth and was in great discomfort from the bit. Sham’s jockey Jorge Velasquez, substituting for regular rider Laffit Pincay, could have taken on Angle Light whenever he pleased, but he felt he needed to save as much horse as possible to brace for the oncoming assault of Secretariat, which never came.

By the time he realized it was just him and Angle Light, they were inside the eighth pole and by then it was too late. And let’s not forget that Angle Light was coming off a good third, beaten only a length, in the Louisiana Derby, and before that romped by 10 lengths in a one-mile allowance race at Aqueduct, run in a swift 1:35 3/5. In his previous start, he was beaten two heads in the Flamingo Stakes, by Our Native and My Gallant, after going head and head the entire race. So, this was no easy opponent by any means, especially when loose on an easy lead. And Velasquez, who had ridden Sham only once as 2-year-old, most likely was not as familiar with the colt as was Pincay.

Sham was owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and trained by Woody Stephens as a 2-year-old. When Claiborne owner A.B. “Bull” Hancock died in late 1972, the racing stock was put up for auction. Among the 2-year-olds on the block was Sham, a son of Pretense, out of the Princequillo mare Sequoia, who was purchased by Sigmund Sommer for $200,000, a pretty hefty price back then.

Sommer, a New York businessman, was looking to expand his breeding operation and saw Sham as a potential major stallion prospect. Stephens told him he was very talented horse, but he didn’t fully blossom until he was three. Sommer turned Sham over to his regular trainer Pancho Martin, who brought him to California for the winter.

Sommer’s wife, Viola, recalled several years later, “The Santa Anita Derby was really a high point. I remember, he was so relaxed while he was being saddled I turned to my husband and said, ‘Doesn’t he know he’s about to run in a very important race?’

“But that’s the way he was. After he ate up every afternoon, he’d lie down in his stall and take a little siesta. He was a lovely, beautiful animal and we enjoyed him so much. He was so well-behaved, you had to love him.”

In the Kentucky Derby, Pincay was back on him, and this time they weren’t about to have a repeat of the Wood. This time there would be no waiting; Pincay would get the jump on Secretariat and make him try to catch him. Pincay moved Sham up from fifth to second behind the fast sprinter Shecky Greene. Around the far turn, Pincay felt it was time to try to bust the race wide open and asked Sham for his move, feeling he could blow right on by Shecky Greene, who was coming off a five-length, wire-to-wire victory in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs a week earlier. But although Shecky Greene was a fast sprinter, having won the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes in 1:20 4/5, he did follow that up with a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes over a “slow” track.

So, when Sham moved up to challenge for the lead on the turn, he found a stubborn Shecky Greene, who wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. He pushed Sham through a fourth quarter in :24 2/5, softening him up for Secretariat’s big closing kick. Big Red came charging up on the far outside nearing the quarter pole and looked as if he were going to draw off, but Sham still had plenty left. He ran with Secretariat until inside the eighth pole, but he couldn’t keep pace with Big Red’s spectacular record final quarter in :23 1/5, which resulted in a track-record final time of 1:59 2/5. Not only had Secretariat smashed Northern Dancer’s track record of 2:00, Sham also bettered the record, going in 1:59 4/5 and equaled Whirlaway’s previous record closing final quarter of :23 3/5. It would take 28 years for a horse to equal Sham’s final time. Sham was beaten 2 1/2 lengths, but was eight lengths ahead of third-place finisher Our Native. In defeating Sham, Secretariat did the unthinkable by running every quarter in a mile and a quarter race faster than the previous one.

What made Sham’s performance all the more impressive was the fact that he had hit his head on the side of the starting gate at the break with such force he knocked out two of his teeth and returned bleeding heavily from his mouth. When he returned to be unsaddled, his two teeth were dangling, held together by only a thin strip of his gum. Back at the barn, it took three-quarters of an hour to stop the bleeding and cauterize the wound.

The Preakness was pretty much the same story, as Secretariat again beat Sham by 2 1/2 lengths, with a gap of eight lengths back to Our Native in third. This time, Sham’s misfortune came when he banged into the rail going into the clubhouse turn, just as Big Red was beginning a spectacular last-to-first move on the first turn that had never been seen before and caught everyone by surprise. Secretariat opened a clear lead on Sham down the backstretch and maintained it to the wire, with Sham once again hanging tough.

By the time Belmont day rolled around, it became apparent that Sham was not the same horse. He became uncharacteristically nervous before the race and was wringing wet by the time he got to the gate. He outran Secretariat early, as planned, but had little challenge for Big Red when he moved alongside down the backstretch, especially with the blazing fractions they were running. After three-quarters in an unheard of 1:09 4/5, Sham faded into the footnotes of history, while Secretariat kept pouring it on, shattering the record books and establishing his place in the pantheon of the immortals. It is one performance in all of sports that no one believes will ever be broken or even threatened.

Several weeks after the Belmont, the unfortunate Sham suffered a fractured cannon bone. Following a two-hour operation, in which three screws were inserted in his leg, the prognosis looked good for a complete recovery. But later in the year, it was decided it would be in the colt’s best interest to retire him. Some believe Sham's problems actually began in the Belmont and he was not right during the running of the race. One of those was Ron Turcotte. The myth that has circulated over the years was that Secretariat broke Sham's heart. But there was little or no doubt that he went wrong physically at some point in the race.

“We all cried because he was such a brave horse and had his career end so early,” Viola Sommer said. “All I kept thinking was, ‘What if?’”

Although Sham came along in the wrong year, as everyone agrees, Sommer still has fond memories of his battles with Secretariat. “The rivalry was so good for the sport,” she said. “It gave racing a real revival. Penny Tweedy was a great ambassador, and everyone got caught up in it.”

Sham was retired to Spendthrift Farm, and then later moved to Walmac. In the early morning hours of April 3, 1993, the nightwatchman checked in on Sham and found the 23-year-old stallion dead in his stall, the victim of an apparent heart attack.

“I was really saddened, but I felt good that he had a very peaceful, happy life and didn’t endure any pains or illnesses,” Sommer said. “He wound up being an excellent broodmare sire, and all things considered, I feel warm about his place in history.”

(Late addition -- Last fall I led a tour of farms in the Bluegrass that had a Secreatriat-related theme. One of our stops was Walmac. As I stood over Sham's grave and told his story, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness. It was as if Sham at that moment had become a long lost friend I wish I had gotten to know better, as the whole world would have had he been born in a different year. I can't remember feeling as close to a horse as I did standing over his grave, staring at his fading name inscribed on the headstone and just being mesmerized by it. All I could think of was the sight of that magnificent-looking colt with the sun glistening off his dappled coat in the Pimlico saddling area).

After his death, an autopsy revealed that Sham’s heart weighed an incredible 18 pounds, more than double the normal Thoroughbred heart, which is 8.5 pounds. By comparison, the great Eclipse’s heart weighed 14 pounds, which was unheard of at that time. It was so large, a London surgeon decided to weigh it following the horse’s death in 1789. The only heart believed to have weighed more than Sham’s was, you guessed it, Secretariat, whose heart was estimated at 22 pounds by Dr. Thomas Swerczek, head pathologist at the University of Kentucky.

Even in death, Sham broke all records, only to finish second to Secretariat.

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