Sometimes the second fiddle gets to play in the first chair. Alydar finally beat Affirmed (albeit through disqualification) in the Travers; Easy Goer vanquished his nemesis Sunday Silence in the Belmont. Though often on the losing end of the rivalry, both Alydar and Easy Goer have, over the years, garnered nearly as much ink as their winning rivals.
But when writer Phil Dandrea tried to learn more about Sham, he came up empty. “There wasn’t anything on the internet about him, let alone a book, which was what I was looking for,” he recalled.
At the turn of the last century, ESPN produced a series on the century’s greatest athletes. “Secretariat was one of them, and I thought, ‘That’s different,’ so I watched,” he said.
At that point, more than a decade ago, Dandrea had never heard of Sham. Even to the man who would spend years absorbed in his life, Sham lived, at first, in Secretariat’s shadow.
“I remember hearing Secretariat’s name because he was everywhere, but I hadn’t heard of Sham,” recalled Deandra.
“Everything made it sound like no horse could come near Secretariat, arguably the greatest horse of the 20th century,” he said. “But in the Kentucky Derby, he barely beat Sham, and the Preakness was another close race, with Sham coming in second again.”
Intrigued, Dandrea tried to learn more about Sham, who raced against Secretariat four times and finished ahead of him only once, in the 1973 Wood Memorial: Sham was second, Secretariat third. But to his surprise, he didn’t find much about the horse who finished in the top three in 11 of his 13 lifetime races.
So in that void, Dandrea set out to write what he had been trying to read, to give Sham the prominence Dandrea feels the horse deserves, independent of the connection to Secretariat.
Dandrea didn’t bring a horse racing history with him. Now 49, he went to his first horse race about 10 years ago, at Suffolk Downs, not far from his Massachusetts home. He says that his family had “no interest” in racing when he was growing up. “My father respected the power and beauty of horses, but if a race would come on the television, he’d get up and leave. He wouldn’t say anything, and he wouldn’t turn it off, but he couldn’t stand to see that a horse might get hurt.”
A medical writer by trade, Dandrea attended Emerson College in Boston, earning an M.A. in writing and publishing. Sham: Great Was Second Best began as an article for a column writing class and eventually became part of his thesis project.
He travelled the country researching the book, conducting interviews at Belmont and Santa Anita and researching contemporary accounts of Sham’s races at the Keeneland Library. He visited public libraries in Boston and New York and spent hours reading microfilm and newspapers.
“I’m not an expert on horse racing,” he admitted. “I wanted to get to the point where I could write about it and comment on it intelligently, as more of a fan.”
Given the dearth of readily available information about his subject, Dandrea was initially concerned about find enough material for a book. He eventually had the opposite problem.
“It got challenging when it got the point that I had to chop it down; it was getting too long,” he said. “I had to cut what didn’t directly relate to Sham, though my interest in the other horses in 1973 got more intense the more I read.”
At times, perhaps inevitably, Sham can read a little bit like Secretariat, with the Triple Crown winner taking over the narrative.
“I did try to tell it from Sham’s point of view, but at times when Sham was making things tough for Secretariat in a race, Secretariat would kind of take over,” Dandrea admitted. “I tried not necessarily to write about Sham and exclude Secretariat. I tried to do two converging storylines: here’s Sham making a name for himself out West, but here’s this big name, even bigger, in the East, America’s horse. The stories converge with the two horses meeting in New York at the Wood.
“I spent time on Secretariat so that readers would know the challenges Sham was up against and thus how good he was.”
Racing fans aren’t supposed to fall in love with horses, and authors aren’t supposed to fall in love with their subjects. Dandrea fails on both counts, using his affection in the service of his book.
“I love that horse,” he said, “and if I were going to presume to speak for Sham, I wanted to do it right.”
Dandrea can’t change racing history; he can’t go back and make Sham finish first in any of those races against Secretariat. But with his book, he at least ensures that the next time racing fans go looking for information about the horse who had the bad luck to be born in 1970, the best horse of 1973 bar one, they won’t search in vain.
Click here for information on Dandrea and Sham: Great Was Second Best.