This is Kentucky Derby Week, the only week when people who don't care about horse racing care about horse racing, and because exactly 20 years have galloped by since a great red horse did America the estimable favor of nuzzling Watergate off the cover of Time magazine, a lot of people are going to be talking this week about Secretariat. Will any of them mention Sham?
A son of Pretense might only naturally be called Sham. Still, it wasn't a fitting name for this dark, leggy, elegant bay who rode alongside history instead of into it. By the clock, Sham would have won every other Kentucky Derby contested at a mile and a quarter. Through 118 Derbies, Secretariat and Sham remain the only entrants who ever came in under two minutes.
He was the particular pet of Bull Hancock, master of Claiborne Farm, who bred a number of eminences during his fabled career but never had a Derby horse of his own. Sham, the handsomest young fellow in Lexington, was going to be that. By race time, as it turned out, they were parted.
Hancock was the man who brought Nasrullah from the green grass of Ireland to the bluegrass of Kentucky. That enormous stallion changed everything. His famous colts included Bold Ruler and Nashua. The former stood stud at Claiborne, siring Secretariat, among others. Bull tried for Nashua too, but his sealed offer of $1,250,000 was beaten out by the $1,251,000 bid of Leslie Combs ("Cuzzin' Leslie," as he called himself, the squire of Spendthrift Farm). They were arch rivals.
Nashua had come on the market the customary way, after an unplanned death. Inheritance taxes regularly turn the thoroughbred industry upside down. This time, the deceased was William Woodward Jr., who was shot by his wife when she mistook him either for a prowler or a private eye.
In a quieter way, just before Sham turned 3, Bull died. In order to keep all of the breeding stock, all of the racing stock had to be sold. The Hancocks begged the executors to make an exception of Sham, but they wouldn't. Sigmund Sommer got him.
Following a dazzling Santa Anita Derby, Sham returned east for the Wood Memorial, looking for Secretariat. Big Red had an abscessed upper lip that day. Of course, nobody knew it at the time. Sham's jockey, Jorge Velasquez, waited and waited for the brilliant chestnut, who never came. Meanwhile, Angle Light got away. Sham took second. Secretariat was third.
Laffit Pincay was substituted for Velasquez at the Derby, but Sham had the fat lip at Churchill Downs. Slammed into the starting gate at the bell, Sham ran a huge race to finish 2 1/2 lengths behind. He was second in the Preakness too, again by 2 1/2. Then, 25 years between Triple Crowns, Secretariat and Sham went loping ahead of just a five-horse field at Belmont Park.
From 10 lengths astern, Braulio Baeza on Twice a Prince and Angel Cordero on My Gallant could actually see Sham's heart breaking. They glanced at each other in unjaded astonishment. Sham's legs were splaying apart. He was swimming instead of running. He was crying out in frustration.
"I'm gonna get second, man!" Baeza declared.
"You gotta beat me!" replied Cordero. They picked up their whips.
Twice a Prince did get second -- 31 lengths behind the winner. Sham came home dead last, 45 lengths to oblivion. He never raced again.
When Secretariat entered the stretch alone, and kept coming and coming -- and he was still alone -- the country wept for joy without knowing why. Also alone in his Florida home, golfer Jack Nicklaus found himself on all fours in front of a TV set, pounding his fists into the carpet and crying.
"I don't know why I did that," he later told the writer and actor Heywood Hale Broun, who thought he knew the reason.
"It's because you've spent your entire life searching for absolute perfection," Broun said, "and you finally saw it." That's what Secretariat represented: perfection. When he died four years ago, the world sent flowers by the truckload. He was buried in the company of Omaha and Johnstown and Round Table and Bold Ruler and a lot of other horses with names like plucked harp strings. Secretariat was given the most honored plot of all. What did Sham represent? Nothing to speak of, really, maybe the putt that lipped out, the fly ball caught on the warning track, the touchdown drive that died at the 1, the girl who said "I don't." When Sham died on April 3, 22 days ago, the world didn't even notice.
He had ended up on Cuzzin' Leslie's farm dispensing sexual favors for $3,500 per live foal. After Combs died and the farm failed, he was moved in December to Walmac. For 20 years, Sham had put in an honorable life at stud. The Irish champion Jaazeiro may have been the worthiest of his runners, but they all had nice qualities.
At 3 a.m. on that last Saturday, Sham was fed by the night watchman. When the man checked on him at 4, Sham was dead in his stall. According to the pathologist, he died of heart failure. Without much ceremony, Sham was buried near a horse of mysterious accomplishment named Brent's Prince. They are the only two in the graveyard.
With a little better timing, a little better luck, one of them might have won the Triple Crown.