With the recent resurgence in popularity of Secretariat due to the 2010 Disney movie, many new racing fans who did not experience that historic 1973 Triple Crown want to get more details, as the movie barely scratched the surface. One key character in the movie was hot-headed trainer Frank "Pancho" Martin, who sent out California invader Sham to take on Big Red. Much has been written about Secretariat and his connections, but his main rival has mostly been forgotten. In his new book, Massachusetts-based author and IEAH Stables partner Phil Dandrea seeks to correct this.
Dandrea put in hours of research along with interviews with Sham's connections, especially trainer Pancho Martin, to piece together the story of the forgotten horse. Sham's career began in New York under trainer Woody Stephens for owner-breeder Claiborne Farm. However, after Bull Hancock died from lung cancer, his horses were auctioned off in a Fasig-Tipton dispersal sale held at Belmont Park in November 1972. Pancho Martin, whose horses had finished behind Sham earlier in the season, recommended to owner Sigmund Sommer that he should bid on the horse. The gavel fell at $200,000 and Sham was on his way to California. Martin was an old-school trainer, serving Mountain Valley Spring Water to Sham, specially imported from Hot Springs, Arkansas in large jugs, the mineral content proving beneficial to his horse.
Dandrea shows how Sham and his connections were the "Rodney Dangerfields" of the Triple Crown, as several turf writers misspelled their names in major publications including the New York Daily News. During the Triple Crown, Penny Chenery received plenty of Secretariat fan mail, on the other hand Pancho Martin received by mail, unsolicited advice on how to train Sham. As if it was a set-up for a comedy routine, Sham and Secretariat were at opposite ends of the same barn at Churchill Downs. Writers would get a quote from Martin about Secretariat, and then promptly go over to repeat it to Lucien Laurin to get a response. One publication wrote that Martin was offering a $5,000 wager with Laurin on which of their horses finishes in front of the other; such an offer was never made. The scene was repeated at Pimlico where again the two trainers were at the same barn.
The Triple Crown of 1973 is familiar territory for most racing fans, but Dandrea takes the reader behind the scenes, to how it was experienced by owners Sigmund and Viola Sommer, trainer Pancho Martin, and jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Despite the betting odds, a poll by the Louisville Courier-Journal found that turf writers from around the country were picking Sham to beat Secretariat in the Derby by a 2 to 1 ratio. After the race, in which Secretariat and Sham both finished faster than Northern Dancer's 2 minute track record, Sham returned to be unsaddled, bleeding heavily from deep gashes in his mouth which required teeth to be extracted later that evening. Unfortunately, Sham's losing effort in the Belmont Stakes would be his final career start. Martin intended to switch him to the turf in the Hollywood Derby but Sham was injured in a workout, fracturing his cannon bone in the right front leg. Successful surgery and recovery allowed Sham to go to stud duty and he was syndicated for $2.88 million.
Dandrea spends the final chapter to discuss Sham's legacy. He points out that Sham's heart weighed a stunning 18 pounds, not as large as Secretariat's 22 but still twice the normal. Charles Hatton said that Secretariat's "only point of reference is himself." Dandrea offers a rebuttal, that his point of reference was actually Sham. Clearly, Sham suffered from bad luck, having been of the 1970 foal crop that included Secretariat. But he played a key role in the Secretariat story, pushing Big Red to those record-breaking efforts, especially the suicidal fractions in the Belmont. With this in mind, fans of racing history will enjoy this work, learning more about the other horse in that 1973 Triple Crown. Sham could have been the superhorse had he been born any other year, and Dandrea attempts to keep his name in the limelight, in this well-written, entertaining account of the sleek sturdy bay who brought out the best in Secretariat.
Sham: Great Was Second Best can be purchased from Amazon.com in softcover for $12.21 or hardcover for $18.96.
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