February 22, 2019
Book Review: Sham
by Nancy Brannon
You've seen the movie Secretariat and relived the Penny Tweedy story. Now learn about the great horse who rivaled Secretariat, but has garnered little public attention. Phil Dandrea's Sham profiles the horse who, under other historical circumstances, might have claimed greatness for his own.
"A dark brown colt with dark black legs, 'graced with a beautifully muscled and streamlined conformation,' writer, photographer Raymond W. Woolfe Jr. wrote," 'he looked fast when he was just standing still.' He stood roughly the same height [as Secretariat], 16.2 to 16.3 hands, his sleek musculature presented a speedy appearance over brute strength."
Early on Dandrea recounts the 99th running of the 1973 Kentucky Derby, including the difficulties that handicapped Sham from before the starting gates opened. Despite injuries, "Sham refused to give up anything; Sham and Secretariat seemed stuck side-by-side as Sham's dark black legs traded even strides with the one red and three white of Secretariat."
Then Dandrea returns to Sham's beginnings, from his races prior to the Derby, back to his ancestry dating to the "stallion Lister Turk, foaled in 1683." Dandrea equally details the lives of the people involved with Sham, including "Helidoro Gustines," aka "Gus," a regular rider for trainer Woody Stephens who first rode him as a two-year-old from breeder Bull Hancock's Claiborne Farm. "You can feel a nice horse," Gus recalled, "Nice and smooth." Of the secret to his success at Claiborne, Bull Hancock modestly said, "We just try to do the usual, unusually well." Bull Hancock called Sham "My great horse."
Then came Sham's move to Pancho Martin's stable, acquired by Sigmund Sommer whose "strength was claiming horses. The nickname 'Pancho' came from the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. He could be moody, impulsive, defiant, or cocky, if his confidence in a runner justified it."
From here, Dandrea weaves back and forth between Secretariat's and Sham's careers in races and events leading to their famed Triple Crown rivalry. His narrative of the races gets the reader's adrenalin flowing just like watching the actual races.
On race day before the Wood Memorial, a veterinarian discovered an abscess under Secretariat's upper lip. In the race, "Secretariat never made the closing drive on Sham and finished four lengths behind him in third. Momentum was shifting, allowing Pancho Martin to state boldly, 'Sham is a better horse than Secretariat or any other three-year-old in America.'"
Dandrea reveals curious characteristics of the horses. "After his final gallop before the Derby, Lucien Laurin stopped by at 2 o'clock to check on Secretariat. 'He was laying down flat in his stall like he's dead,' Laurin remarked. Laurin asked groom Eddie Sweat what the problem was. 'Boss, he does that every day,' Sweat replied."
Dandrea takes the reader through the Derby and the Preakness, with play-by-play descriptions and the astounding records set. The climax is his recount of the Belmont Stakes, beginning at the stables at 5:00 am, in which Secretariat finished an unfathomable 31 lengths in front! Sham trotted home last, 45 1/2 lengths behind Secretariat."
The denouement comes when, eleven days after the Belmont Stakes, Sham "fractured the third metacarpal bone (canon bone) on his right front leg. The surgery to repair the fracture was a success; his veterinarian called Sham "an ideal patient" and predicted his return to racing. Sham did not return to the racetrack, but was syndicated and retired to stud duty at Spendthrift Farm in 1974, joined there by his sire Pretense. "Sham took well to retirement."
The author is a member of National Thoroughbred Racing Association and owner of the winning colt Big Brown.
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