January 20, 2018

Sham and his brief reign as king of Santa Anita

Sham decisively captured the 1973 Santa Anita Derby (George Andrus, Bill Mochon Archival Photo)

Barring any letup this week in the ice box conditions hovering over the northeast, specifically New York, the first 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) points race will not be the $100,000 Jerome at Aqueduct, postponed from New Year’s Day, but rather Saturday’s $100,000 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita.

As the humblest student of racing history can tell you, the Sham is named in honor of the colt who bravely attempted to give Secretariat a run for his money in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness of 1973 before Big Red landed a devastating, heartbreaking knockout midway through his epic Belmont Stakes performance.

Sham won four of his five career starts at Santa Anita (George Andrus, Bill Mochon Archival Photo)

It’s often been taken as gospel that if not for the presence of Secretariat, fans of the past 45 years would still be singing the praises of Sham. Not only did he also break the two-minute mark while finishing second in the Derby, he was eight lengths clear of his closest pursuer, Our Native, both at Churchill Downs and in the Preakness at Pimlico.

How Sham might have fared in the Belmont off two easy “wins” that were nonetheless strenuous is pure conjecture, but chances are he wouldn’t necessarily have run so fast in the early stages of 1 1/2-mile classic and folded like an accordion.

Sham has been the subject in recent years of a published biography and lengthy reminisces of turf writers that were eyewitnesses to his 1973 campaign, thus there’s little I’m qualified to add. However, a few interesting nuggets are worth recalling.

While Secretariat was running rough-shod over his juvenile rivals en route to Horse of the Year honors in 1972, Sham was a relatively late developer. A son of Pretense, he made his first three starts for breeder Claiborne Farm, but was sold that fall to Sigmund Sommer upon the death of Claiborne master A.B. “Bull” Hancock Jr.

Sham’s debut, at Belmont Park on August 28, 1972, proved to be one of the saltiest maiden races of the year as he finished third behind Angle Light and Timeless Moment. Angle Light, of course, was Secretariat’s stablemate who wound up beating both he and Sham in the Wood Memorial the following April. Timeless Moment was later a multiple Grade 3-winning sprinter who also placed in the Met Mile, Vosburgh, and Carter.

It’s fitting that Santa Anita plays host to the Sham as all but one of his career wins came at the track. After breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in early December in his fourth start, Sham was sent west for the winter and won at first asking over the Arcadia oval in a 1 1/16-mile allowance on New Year’s Day by 15 lengths. The story was the same on February 2 when he won over the same distance by six lengths in an allowance, and 10 days later he captured the then-restricted $30,000 Santa Catalina by 2 1/2 lengths in the mud.

Sham’s lone reversal at “The Great Race Place” occurred in the $60,000 San Felipe on March 17, when he finished 7 3/4 lengths fourth to even-money favorite Linda’s Chief. The chart footnotes tell the tale of Sham’s loss:

SHAM took up from close quarters on the rail around the first turn, lacked room into the far turn, went to the inside approaching the three sixteenths pole then took up in mid-stretch when shut off and could not threaten.

Linda’s Chief was made the odds-on favorite for the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby two weeks later, but with better racing luck Sham made amends by 2 1/2 lengths in a snappy 1:47, which remains the co-fastest final time in the race’s 80-plus year history.

Sham and Secretariat’s final Derby prep came in the aforementioned Wood Memorial, with Sham falling a head short to the loose-on-the-lead Angle Light, who was coupled in the wagering with an ailing Secretariat.

The form reversal between Sham and Secretariat in the Triple Crown series is well-documented, and Sham was retired a month after his last-place finish in the Belmont when a fractured cannon bone was discovered.

Sham sired a few useful runners, the best being Jaazeiro, who won the Irish 2000 Guineas and the Sussex. His best U.S.-based offspring were the Grade 1-winning fillies Arewehavingfunyet, Safe Play, and Sherry Peppers. Daughters of Sham produced Grade 1 winners Defensive Play, Sham Say, and Dixie Brass.

On a personal note, Secretariat passed away in October 1989, more than 2 1/2 years before my first ever trip to Kentucky in June 1992. While I never had the privilege of seeing him in the flesh, Sham was one of the notables I did see on the public tour of Spendthrift Farm available at the time.

My lone encounter with Sham was memorable in the sense that he quite evidently had love on his mind when he was being shown outside his stall, earning a verbal rebuke and an apology to the audience from his handler.

The timing of my visit proved good as Sham was moved to Walmac Farm later that year to live out his remaining months. He passed away on April 3, 1993 at age 23.

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