A Sham

Those of you with an interest in anthropomorphizing American thoroughbreds might find some interest in this piece. The other 99% will want to find some hearty HBD sustenance elsewhere.

I was mildly interested this weekend in the annual Belmont Stakes race in New York state. Therein a heavily favored colt named California Chrome became the 13th horse since 1978 to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to falter at the Belmont. As someone quite uninterested in the sport generically, it’s an event that strangely tugs whenever a potential Triple Crown winner begins to emerge. And I think this is so because we all find a certain majesty in greatness. In the scintillating awe of watching a kind of mortal transcendence. In observing the truth that has always been so self-evident: we are not all created equal. And this is why there always forms a cresting of national excitement around these events…the opportunity to see, to be a part, of greatness–even where it is only found in a dull beast running from the lash.

But as I mentioned, the horse this year failed as so many before. And comparisons to probably the greatest equine who ever lived–Secretariat–were briskly retracted. I presume readers here are familiar with Secretariat, even those who would rather watch a gay pride parade than a horse race. He won the 1973 Triple Crown and, with the possible exception of Man-O-War, is considered unparallelled in racing history. “Big Red” as he was called still holds the fastest time in Kentucky Derby history, and his victory in the Belmont is a legend of shuddering dominance. Alpha male this horse was. Yet who has ever heard of the second fastest horse in Derby history? As fates sometimes malign, that would be the second place finisher to Secretariat in *1973…a horse named Sham.

To imagine racing one of history’s greatest horses in the transcendent shadow of Secretariat must have been cause for rueful contemplation for Sham’s owners. Though they should feel little but pride at the tragic courage of that valiant horse. In the first leg of that year’s Triple Crown–the Kentucky Derby–Sham inadvertently banged into the starting gate, instantly ripping two teeth from his head at the race’s onset. The creature persevered through what would have likely halted any human’s endeavors and finished blazingly just behind the legendary winner. Two weeks later Sham was beaten in the Preakness, finishing second again to Secretariat.

And then came the almost mythical Belmont of that year. Sham’s trainer was determined to push Secretariat to exhaustion in this longest race of the three legs. He dispatched his jockey with orders to carpe diem from the outset–and run Secretariat into the ground. No quarter, no respite. And the great Sham executed.

The horses burst from the gate in a tight knot, jostling for early position. As the riders settled into a pace, Sham’s jockey urged him forward–and he exploded on the outside. And to his left was Secretariat running stride for stride. Sham accelerated further–horse and jockey determined to break the will of their nemesis. Secretariat ran in stride.

Sham dug deeper, his enormous gait grinding dirt into spray. Sham and Secretariat ran together. The rest of the field collapsing behind them. Five lengths, eight lengths, ten lengths, twelve. The camera could no longer even keep the furious leaders in a frame with the plodding draft mares that were now only props in a war of spirit between two.

Sham continued the pace. Galloping like no horse that stakes had ever seen. As Secretariat began to surge even faster. Accelerating more with each passing pole. Untiring. Relentless. Pulling ahead of Sham on the inside.

One length.
Five lengths.
Ten.
Fifteen.

Sham kept sprinting, utterly exhausted…watching Secretariat grow smaller in the distance. Until finally the red colt passed the finish line without another horse in the same zip code–as the crowd roared in delirium.

Sham continued to run…chasing nothing more now than dignity. And in that too he would fail. The great Sham finished in last place in the Belmont. His glorious early charge spending the horse nearly to its death, as stragglers passed the shell of a creature who had deposited its soul in the dirt behind.

For me there is a sentimental humaneness in watching flesh fail the will. Almost tender in its earnestness. This sentiment obviously not limited to saddled animals, but in all who possessed the spirit for greatness and victory, but not the capacity to achieve it. And in watching them strive, even to failure, we can appreciate that so much of life’s beauty is not just in the win, but in the fight.

*there is some debate of actual times and so second fastest in history is arguable.

4 thoughts on “A Sham

  1. As someone quite uninterested in the sport generically, it’s an event that strangely tugs whenever a potential Triple Crown winner begins to emerge. And I think this is so because we all find a certain majesty in greatness. In the scintillating awe of watching a kind of mortal transcendence. In observing the truth that has always been so self-evident: we are not all created equal. And this is why there always forms a cresting of national excitement around these events…the opportunity to see, to be a part, of greatness–even where it is only found in a dull beast running from the lash.

    Yes, I think you captured it. And, boy, do I remember watching that race as a 7-year-old. The family was at the beach. I remember (almost correctly) that he won by 23 lengths. And I remember learning about Riva Ridge, the horse that had won two of the three legs the year before.

    • It was a remarkable scene in such an innocent and optimistic time.

      I went back today and read and watched some more. It seems that Man-O-War gets the nod by most horsemen, with Citation a close third. Also watched the electric Affirmed/Alydar series as well as the more recent Real Quiet and Smarty Jones losses.

      I think we’ll probably see another Triple Crown winner in our lives. But we’ll never see another Secretariat…or another 1973 America.

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