Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sham - In the Shadow of a Superhorse

I already revealed my inner horse lover in last weeks review of "Old Friends", so I might as well dive all the way into the pool and review another horse book. Yesterday I finished "Sham" by Mary Walsh. Between watching the incredible inaugural and reading this book I shed a lot of tears and I have the swollen, and particularly unattractive, eyelids to prove it.

For those of you too young to have witnessed it yourself, Sham is the horse that ran second to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1973. He was also the only horse to run with Secretariat, at least for a while, in the Belmont that year. Of course, everybody knows that Secretariat won all three of those races and became this countries first Triple Crown winner in decades. Mary Walsh looks at it from the view of Sham who without Secretariat would have been the super horse that year and perhaps the Triple Crown winner as well.

She rights a poem at the beginning of the book that expresses exactly what she means.

"To those
Who tried their utmost
At something they strongly believed in
With their whole heart and mind
And gave it their absolute all
Only to find that it was not enough,
because they were in the wrong place in time."

I know how she feels about Sham. He was a great horse that just ran into a phenomenal horse. I remember watching those races. In the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness I was actually rooting for Sham. But by the Belmont I realized what we were dealing with as far as Secretariat was concerned and I rooted for him to win the Triple Crown but I still felt sorry for poor Sham.
Even Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, had a soft spot for Sham.

The author begins with the birth of both Sham and Secretariat each at their own farms. Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970 (only ten minutes from the exact time that Man o War was born 53 years before) and Sham just a little over a week later on April 9th. She follows Sham's early years and training before embarking on his racing career at the age of two. Walsh does a good job of describing his races even though sometimes her language becomes a bit over the top.

Walsh tries to parallel the racing careers of the two horses as they work towards their destiny as rivals in the Triple Crown. After Sham won the Santa Anita Derby the owners knew they wanted to race in the Kentucky Derby. They also knew that their number one competition would be the big red horse called Secretariat who had also had very impressive racing results.

The rest of the story is just a heart breaking tale of the big, beautiful dark colt trying and failing against Big Red. Reading Walsh's description of the Belmont reminded me of something I read in "Seabiscuit" during his match race with the great War Admiral. Hillenbrand quotes Seabiscuit's jockey George Woolf as he described the race later, "Woolf looked back. He saw the black form some thirty-five feet behind, still struggling to catch him. He had been wrong about War Admiral; he was game. Woolf felt a stab of empathy. 'I saw something in the Admiral's eyes that was pitiful," he would say later. 'He looked all broken up. I don't think he will be good for another race. Horses, mister, can have crushed hearts just like humans.' "

After the Belmont Sham was also dispirited. Unlike the previous two races, his jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. did not push the horse past his limits to catch Secretariat. Sham had tangled with Big Red at the start of the race going head to head at ridiculously high speeds with Secretariat not even trying hard. Sham had been pushed to the point of breaking and Laffit knew it. He pulled him back.

Walsh uses a column in The Thoroughbred Record by Arnold Kirkpatrick to express how people felt about Sham after the Belmont. "To digress briefly, the one distressing facet of this year's Belmont to me was the damage to Sham's spirit.....a horse of great beauty, speed, and heart, who was, far and away, the best of the others of his generation....Secretariat had broken his heart like a twig, and Sham was fading to finish last, beaten by 42 lengths. Whether he will have the fortitude to return from his trouncing after a layoff, or if his spirit is broken altogether will remain to be seen, but it was indeed a sad thing to see the magnificent Sham come back an ordinary horse."

The epilogue was especially interesting to me since Mary Walsh gives us a rundown of what eventually happened to Sham's competitors - the ones that were not Secretariat. One named popped off the page - Stop the Music. Stop the Music was one of the few horses to beat Secretariat in a race even though it took a disqualification to pull it off. He was a great race horse who also became a great sire and grandfather to 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo. The reason his named jumped at me was because he is featured in "Old Friends." When Livingston visited him at Gainesway farm he was 31 years old! According to Walsh he died at 35 years old from complications of old age.

Mary Walsh's sentiment for the horse aside the book is only adequately written. This is not Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit." The past conversations Walsh creates with the horse's owner, trainer and jockey are a bit stilted and don't sound very natural. She also takes a lot of license in describing the feelings of the horses and the people involved. But overall it was wonderful to remember that great horse and the part he played in horse racing history.

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