Sham: Great Was Second Best

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.

25 thoughts on “Sham: Great Was Second Best

  1. I have always had a “Sham obsession” as I was already way into horses when Secretariat came along, when I was 11 years old. Sham would have been considered one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time if not for his unfortunate birth year. That is why I bought the book “Sham, In the Shadow of a Superhorse” by Mary Walsh, back in 2007. Unfortunately, the book was an almost unreadable mismash of endsources. So, I will put Mr. Dandrea’s book on my Christmas wish list and hope for better!

  2. There was another recent book written about Sham (the name escapes me at the moment), but I remember reading it and thinking it really ended up being more about Secretariat, which was a shame, as I really wanted to learn more about Sham’s life and career.

    I’ve always felt badly about Sham, he was one of the greats who had the misfortune to have to race against an insanely great horse. In spite of the fact that a minor injury was the official end to his career I always wondered if was because Secretariat simply broke his heart that June day 😦

  3. Fascinating story (I remember Sham, too, so I’ll have to look for Mr. Dandrea’s book) but – what? “Racing fans aren’t supposed to fall in love with horses, and authors aren’t supposed to fall in love with their subjects”? Journalists, perhaps, need to maintain a dispassionate distance in order to report objectively, but I never heard that racing fans weren’t supposed to fall in love with horses or that authors shouldn’t be passionate about their subjects. If fans and authors can’t show their enthusiasm, then why bother to follow a horse or write a book about it?

  4. I’m really glad this book was written; I’ll be anxious to read it. Sham was before my time, but once I got into racing history, I’ve always felt for him. He was a lovely horse who never got the acclaim he deserved. Like Linda, I’ve always feared that Secretariat did indeed break his heart.

  5. Sham was a very good racehorse and was clearly second best of that magnificent crop of 1970 {3yr olds of 1973}. The Belmont was his undoing as he laid his body down and gave it all only to wind up staggering home to the running machine known as Secretariat. No horse at no time could have stayed with Big Red that day. Has anyone ever seen a horse sprint for a mile and a half? I know I haven’t and I’m still waiting for another one to do it. Getting back to the subject, Sham, no doubt, would have been a Triple Crown winner in most other years. I have always felt badly for the horse. He deserved much better.

  6. In almost any other year, Sham would have been the top three year old in the sport. He had the misfortune of being born in the same crop as Secretariat and Forego (let us not forget Forego was also in that crop, and we know what he would do the next three years as he was for me the first “big horse” I watched growing up) in what to me is the second best crop the sport has ever had.

    The only crop better in my opinion was the foals of 1964-three year olds of 1967, the only crop ever to produce three different Horses of the Year (Damascus in 1967, Dr. Fager in 1968 and the much forgotten Fort Marcy in 1970, who also was a three-time turf champion and only was denied a fourth turf title by Dr. Fager in 1968). I have myself for years wanted to do a fictional story set around the memorable Damascus-Dr. Fager-Buckpasser Woodward that was contested at Aqueduct on Sept. 30, 1967 at Aqueduct.

    The worst thing Sham’s connections probably did was run him in the Belmont after chasing Secretariat all over the place. He clearly was a tired horse before that race, and they would have been better off giving Sham a breather as there were plenty of big-money opportunities in the summer and fall for him. Even without Sham, Secretariat probably does what he did in that Belmont Stakes, but then a rested Sham might have been able to get the best of Secretariat a couple of months later, and probably win the Travers (that Secretariat missed after his poor effort in the Whitney).

    Perhaps if he didn’t run in that Belmont Stakes, Sham would have go one to be a big rival of Forego at four and five.

  7. Walt, you’re certainly correct on several points: Forego, indeed, was a member of that crop and had a pretty rough trip in that Derby. At that time not many people were aware of what would develop with Forego. He was still green and growing into that monstrous frame. Second, I, too, often think of that memorable Woodward in 1967. I recall that Buckpasser really wasn’t anywhere near his peak form for that race. Still, it was a race for the ages and one I will never forget. I was stunned by the magnitude of Damascus’ victory and saddened that my all time favorite horse, Dr. Fager, lost. I know he had excuses because he was engaged for the lead by that speedball of Whiteley’s, but you can’t take anything away from Damascus – a magnificent horse. Oh, how I long for those days …..

  8. Walt, I totally agree they should have skipped the Belmont and let Sham have a nice fall 3 year old campaign, and possibly 4 year old and beyond. Their obession to beat Secretariat cost Sham his career, IMO.

  9. Media coverage was quite different in 1973. Secretariat was the NY house horse with the right connections. Sham was from the wrong side of the tracks with a wacky trainer.

    In today’s media climate Sham would have been portrayed in a more positive light and received his due.

  10. Bill:

    Buckpasser certainly was not near his peak for the 1967 Woodward, as the same hoof problems that likely cost him any chance at the Triple Crown a year earlier continued to plague him at four, with the Woodward (a race he was the defending champion going into) turning out to be his final career race.

    That race from what I’ve read over time dominated the national sports media in a way that you’d never see today outside of what happened in 2004 when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown. To put that in perspective, keep in mind the night before that Woodward, you had Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti going 15 rounds at Shea Stadium in what was their third fight in what was arguably the biggest rivalry of that era (and I believe to that point, the largest crowd ever at Shea Stadium) and that weekend you had a three-way race for the American League Pennant (there were no divisions then) between the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox (who for years up to then had been near the bottom of the American League standings), Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, which the Red Sox won. That was what that running of the Woodward (seen in syndication on WPIX-TV, Channel 11 in New York and WPHL-TV, Channel 17 in Philadelphia among other places) was up against when Boxing and Baseball were much bigger than they are now and the NFL was far from the 800-pound gorilla of sports it is today.


    Had they not had their obsession with beating Secretariat (which the likely could have done later in 1973 had they been patient), Sham likely would have come back at four and five as most top horses did in those days. It’s not like today where the three year olds were everything, in fact, the largest crowd for a day at the race in New York that year was NOT Secretariat’s Belmont, but in fact a few weeks later on July 4 at Aqueduct when Riva Ridge won the Brooklyn Handicap (they used to go back to Aqueduct for a few weeks before Saratoga back then).

  11. Nice to see all the comments! I hope that the author has a chance to read them and see your devotion to and knowledge of Sham.

  12. I’ve read the comments and certainly appreciate how many fans Sham has. He’s got quite a fan club out there, something I hadn’t realized before writing the book. I have also met Sham fans at book events, and I enjoy hearing about their experiences (like Kathy getting to met Sham at Spendthrift).

    I agree with the comments that say Sham had a good chance to beat Secretariat later in the year. Secretariat did lose two races after the Belmont, and there was a good chance Sham would have improved with age (having Pretense and Princequillo in his line).

    –Phil Dandrea

  13. Ahh Walt,
    Now you’ve mentioned the horse of my heart. I loved Riva Ridge long before I became enamored of Secretariat. I had the privilege of meeting Penny Chenery this summer at Colonial Downs and told her I’d wanted to meet her since I was 10 years old and fell for a floppy eared horse named Riva Ridge. I cried when Secretariat beat him in the first Marlboro Cup.

    I was young but I remember the days when horses ran past age three and a big crowd at the track was the norm, not the exception. Would that we could return to those glory days of racing.

  14. Linda:

    Riva Ridge probably would have won the Triple Crown had it not been for a sloppy track in the Preakness (Riva Ridge absolutely, positively hated wet going).

    A lot of people today would be like “Huh?” if they saw that Riva Ridge’s winning the Brooklyn at Aqueduct was actually the largest crowd for a day at the races in New York in 1973. They had 73,000 at Aqueduct for that running of the Brooklyn (then at 1 3/16 Miles as the second leg of the old Handicap Triple Crown) while Belmont “only” had 69,000 for Secretariat’s Belmont (which was actually a big crown in its own right and just over 13,000 off the then-record of 82,000 set two years earlier when Cannanero II failed in his bid to win the Triple Crown), as back then, races for older horses were much more important than the Belmont or any of the Triple Crown events in New York. For instance The Met Mile for instance in 1966 drew over 65,000 to Aqueduct while the Belmont Stakes, which had Kauai King going for the Triple Crown five days later drew only 55,000 (it should be noted that Belmont Park was closed from 1963-’67 as they had to tear down the old plant and build the current facility after the old one was condemned, with other than the four weeks of racing at Saratoga all racing conducted at Aqueduct).

    As for returning to having horses run past age three, that is exactly what new Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural is looking to see happen on the Harness front with the new rules that bar horses sired by horses who were four year olds or younger when they were conceived allowed to race in major stakes at his tracks (besides The Meadowlands, Tioga and Vernon Downs). Woodbine-Mohawk (the other major circuit in Harness Racing) has followed suit and will be doing the same, in both cases beginning with the foals of 2012 when they turn two in 2014 and three in 2015.

    This is where Thoroughbred Racing needs to go, only I would expand it further and make such so that top horses have to race through their five year old seasons. That would also force major changes in the way horses are bred to where they are for stamina and endurance rather than speed and precociousness. I’ve written quite a bit on this subject.

  15. Riva’s achievements tend to get lost in the discussions of ‘almost’ Triple Crown winners because it was the Preakness, not the Belmont, that kept him from the crown. He, like Sham, has largely been lost in the mists of time….

    I like the idea of making horses race through five before being sent off to breed, but what happens to a horse that is unfortunately injured at a young age? Would owners be willing to support them until they came of age to breed?

  16. There’s more to it than this, but that would hurt another’s feelings, so let it be simply said that I noticed yet didn’t stop by the author’s stand at Saratoga in late August, which I regret.

    A copy will be ordered soon!

    Terry, your Daily News BC reporting was a pleasure to read.

  17. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Riva was beaten on a sloppy track – remember that year’s Everglades Stakes in which Elliot Burch beat him with Head Of The River {who couldn’t get within 10 lengths of Riva on a fast track}. What is and was surprising is that he was beaten by a horse whose claim to fame was a win in a restricted 2yr. old stake at,of all places, Timonium! Bee Bee Bee, trained by Del Carroll, ran the race of his life that day at Pimlico. It’s still hard to believe he was able to win that race. He never reproduced that effort and was what I would call a one-hit-wonder. It would not have been surprising if Key To The Mint had beaten him since he was a superior mudder and as it turned out a superior horse. If I had to bet that race today I wouldn’t have settled on Bee Bee Bee.

  18. Bill:

    Bee Bee Bee is the horse that Mike Warren (one of the top “scamdicappers” for his work on Sports Betting ever since) apparently gave out all over the place for the 1972 Preakness to launch his career as I remember reading a while back. He apparently picked Bee Bee Bee to upset Riva Ridge that day and was the only handicapper that did.


    The idea of requiring horses to race through age five would have obvious exceptions where it’s obvious a horse can’t return, however, in a case like Vindication (2002 BC winner who was injured early at three and never raced again), that horse, even if he misses his entire three year old season would have to come back at four and five and show he is raceworthy again (something I actually would have done anyway if I had him) so long as he could make a complete recovery from an injury (though if for instance it occurs late in his three year season, would have to miss all of his four year old year but would be healed to return at five, he could be bred at four but would have to return at five). If it’s something where the horse can’t make a sufficient enough recovery from injury to race, but can be bred, then that would be an exemption.

    The main purpose of this would be to force changes in the ways horses are bred. By requiring them to race at five, they would have to be bred for durability and stamina instead of speed and precociousness, which is why I say age five instead of four as Mr. Gural is doing and Woodbine-Mohawk has followed suit with.

  19. Walt, it’s an interesting idea and I do agree breeders need to get back to durability and stamina. Otherwise I fear I will never see another Triple Crown winner, let alone another one to come even close to the thrill of a Secretariat.

  20. Sham was a great horse as are many that aren’t the great champions who win the classics or win the triple crown. It sounds almost as if Mr Dandrea is trying to reduce Secretariat to make Sham better. They both stand on their records–wins and losses. However, to say that Secretariat barely beat Sham in the Derby is not accurate. 2 1/2 lengths in not barely; a neck is barely. There is no doubt in my mind that Secretariat could have pulled further with a little encouragement.

  21. I hope I can get an answer from this site…. I’ve posted this question and can’t get an answer that makes sense… I’ve read that Secretariat’s record time in the Belmont has not been broken in all these years… it’s only 2 seconds… 2 seconds is nothing… why can’t another horse beat his record if it’s only 2 seconds??

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