My father was sticking to his guns. All week long he had been saying he was going to bet Sham in the Belmont Stakes. Sounds a little crazy after the fact, but keep in mind, he was a horse who had run just about as good a combination of Kentucky Derby and Preakness as had ever been done, save one. And that one, was being sent off as a prohibitive favorite at 1-10, while Sham was being let go at a generous 5-1. Dad lost his bet that day, as we were treated to the greatest single performance by a flesh and blood athlete in American history. Engulfed by the hoopla that was Secretariat, was a majestic dark bay colt named Sham, who by all rights had the talent and courage of a champion. As Secretariat soared to unheard of heights that afternoon at Belmont Park, a valiant Sham could be found at the opposite end of the race.
Uncharacteristically full of nerves, Sham was washed out before the Belmont. The Test of Champions already marked his ninth race of the young 1973 season, and his fourth straight against the mighty Secretariat. Following the instuctions of trainer Pancho Martin, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. sent Sham winging for the lead. Inside of him and matching his blistering pace was Secretariat. The contrasts were striking, Secretariat, the big red colt in his blue silks, and Sham, near black, in his green silks were taking their rivalry to a whole new, and extreme level. Something would have to give. That something would be Sham. He was a tired horse, not having his best day, and he was overmatched by a once in a lifetime performance. Secretariat lengthened his advantage with every stride. In front of us and a manic crowd, Sham dropped back, falling into obscurity. Sham was simply too good to forget, though.
Early on, Sham was a Claiborne Farm homebred, trained by Woody Stephens. An impressive looking long-legged juvenile, he would make three starts in the late Summer of 1972 for Claiborne and Stephens. Each of those starts resulted in losses for the son of Pretense, out of the Princequillo mare Sequoia, as he ran 3rd in his debut, before consecutive 2nd place finishes, all at Belmont Park. In each race, Sham showed talent, but enough inexperience to do him in. He was recognized as a talented horse who needed to do some learning by his current trainer, and also one of the top owners of the day, Sigmund Sommer. When Claiborne owner Bull Hancock died in September of 1972, the farm’s racing stock was put up for auction at Belmont Park that Fall. One of the most expensive purchases at the sale was made by Sommer, when he bought Sham for $200,000.
Turned over to one of New York’s leading conditioners, Pancho Martin, Sham was ready to roll. The Cuban born horseman made one big condition change for the talented colt before his first start, equipping him with blinkers. The new found focus brought on by the blinkers paid immediate dividends. His first start for his new connections resulted in a six length romp at Aqueduct in December. While juvenile sensation Secretariat was securing Horse of the Year honors, Martin felt that he was sitting on something big in the new addition to his barn. Sent to Southern California for the Winter, Sham would continue his improvement and winning ways.
On New Year’s day, Sham annihilated a Santa Anita allowance field by 15 lengths in fast time, under new rider, Laffit Pincay. Sigmund Sommer, his wife, Viola, and Pancho Martin were now officially on the Derby trail with their new colt. Next up would be another allowance race and another romp. His running time of 1:41 2/5 was only a second off the track record. Three for three for Sommer and Martin, Sham was now clearly ready for the big time.
Despite some traffic issues, he rolled in a muddy edition of the Santa Catalina Stakes by 2 ½ lengths in his first stakes try. In his next race he would face the other highly regarded sophomore in the West Coast, Linda’s Chief. His four race winning streak would be snapped that day, as Pincay never found that hole to burst through that he did in the Santa Catalina. His tough luck trip in Linda’s Chief’s San Felipe ended only with a rally to finish fourth. Sent off as the second choice in the Santa Anita Derby, Sham gained revenge on his foe with a two length score. Final time for the nine furlong major Derby prep was 1:47 flat equaling the fastest ever for the race. Bobby Frankel was angry after the race, claiming Sham’s entry mate, Knightly Dawn, only participated to hamper Linda’s Chief. The confident Martin responded by challenging Frankel to a match race anywhere, anytime.
Eschewing a more traditional route to Louisville, Martin decided to bring his colt to the Derby from California via New York and the Wood Memorial. Pincay had commitments out West, so Sham was ridden by Jorge Velasquez in the first showdown with Secretariat. In a strange race, the two Derby favorites would run 2nd and 3rd to Secretariat’s entry mate, Angle Light. It looked like the stalking Sham could have ranged up to Angle Light at any time, but Velazquez felt he needed to save his horse for the sure-to-come rush of Secretariat. That rush never came, and Angle Light got real brave on the front end, and was able to narrowly hold off the late thrust of Sham. It was a strange result, but in defeat it gave Martin more confidence than ever that his star could win the Derby.
The strategy would change, though. Reunited with regular rider Laffit Pincay, the plan was no longer to worry about Secretariat. Rather they would take the lead when he was ready. The plan seemed to unfold perfectly as the near black colt took control of the race on the far turn. That control was destined to be short-lived, however. Secretariat quickly gained on the outside and the race was on. Sham gave it his all as the two valiant competitors drew away from the rest of the pack. Passing the eighth pole, the power of Secretariat proved to be irresistible, and the big red colt pulled clear of Sham. The final time of 1:59 2/5 crushed the previous track record. Even more telling was the final quarter mile in :23 1/5. Young three-year-olds do not finish in that kind of time in ten furlong races. Normal three-year-olds, that is. Sham’s time of 1:59 4/5 would have been a Derby winning track record, if only Secretariat was not in the field. Amazingly, the race that Sham ran became that much more impressive when you consider that he had hit his head on the side of the starting gate severely enough to knock out two of his teeth.
A bloody Sham had run the race of his life but was only second best in the Run for the Roses. Team Sham went on to Baltimore still full of belief in their colt. This time, Secretariat would make the first move, and what a move it was. Last to first in a matter of seconds went the big red superstar. Meanwhile, Sham was hampered by banging hard into the rail on the first turn. Sham shifted to the outside and made a spirited rally. It was a run strong enough to propel him far clear of 3rd place finisher Our Native once again, but alas against Secretariat, it was not enough. Unofficial time for the Preakness again shattered the track record. Secretariat was on his way to immortality. Sham was born the wrong year.
Secretariat’s Belmont virtuoso would make him the biggest star in modern racing, but without the topnotch competition given to him by Sham, who knows if he would have set three track records and be remembered quite the same way as he is now. Without Secretariat, Sham was eight lengths clear of the field in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and in great times. Without Secretariat, it is likely that Sham would have been an exalted Triple Crown winner. But of course, that is not how history remembers his career. Several weeks after the Triple Crown, Sham faced even worse luck. He suffered a fractured cannon bone in training, and although his recovery was good, the decision was eventually made to retire him.
Sham spent most of his long stallion career at Spendthrift Farm, where he enjoyed a successful, but not spectacular career as a stallion, before later moving on to Walmac Farm. He sired many stakes winners, but none of his progeny would possess the great talent or the heart of their sire. It would be that great heart that eventually gave way. On the morning of April 3, 1993, Sham was found dead in his stall, felled by a heart attack. Sham was 23. An autopsy would reveal his heart to be about twice the normal size for a thoroughbred. Ironic or telling, only Secretariat‘s heart was found to be bigger. He may have been second to Secretariat in life, and then in death, but there should be no shame in that. Sham was a fantastic horse, who in his greatness brought out the ultimate greatness from our sport’s very best. I remember you Sham.