Sham always had pretensions of being something special and not just because his daddy is a stallion named Pretense. More important, his dam Sequoia is from a family of champions. Among the tribe are Tom Rolfe and How and Pocahontas and Ack Ack.
Now Sham, despite his name, seems to be living up to the high hopes everyone has had for him, especially his owner, Sigmund Sommer, who purchased the colt for $200,000 four months ago. Last Saturday the horse scored a convincing 2½-length victory over favorite Linda's Chief in the Santa Anita Derby.
Several winners of this West Coast classic—Hill Gail, Determine, Swaps, Lucky Debonair and Majestic Prince—have crossed the Rockies and captured the Kentucky Derby, and Louisville, of course, is where Sham is headed. But before then—in fact, in just two weeks—he is to challenge the king of the 3-year-old crop, Secretariat. The meeting is to be in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.
Last weekend there were Derbies in Florida and Louisiana, too, but only Santa Anita's seemed likely to produce a worthy foe for Secretariat. At Gulfstream Park a blue-blooded colt named Royal and Regal, winner of four of 11 previous races, finished first, and at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans Leo's Pisces, winner of just one of nine other starts, came in and paid an astronomical $109.80 for $2.
The caliber of the competition in California was significantly better, and Sham impressed by winning in near-track-record time: 1:47 for the mile-and-an-eighth distance. The only horse to win a Santa Anita Derby with that swift a clocking was Lucky Debonair.
In the San Felipe Stakes on March 17 Sham had finished fourth, eight lengths behind Linda's Chief, but he had excuses. He was in trouble constantly and Jockey Laffit Pincay found it difficult to steer the awkward and still green colt out of jams. Early this winter Pincay, on the advice of his astute agent, Vince De Gregory, chose Sham over Linda's Chief as his Kentucky Derby hopeful, but after the San Felipe, Pincay wondered if the decision was a good one. He would stick by it, however. "I pay my agent for his advice," Pincay said, "and I take it."
Trainer Frank Martin, the cool and crafty Cuban who handles Sham, retained confidence in the horse. "He's a large, long-striding colt," said Martin, "and when he gets into traps it's sometimes difficult to get him out of them. He needs to be in the clear, running on the outside, to show what he can do."
There was to be a good deal of trouble in the Santa Anita Derby, but Sham, for once, managed to avoid it. However, a stablemate named Knightly Dawn was slam-bang in the middle of the scuffle. To Braulio Baeza on Linda's Chief, and to that colt's trainer, Bobby Frankel, it suddenly seemed as if they were involved in a gang war.
There were just six starters. Sham drew the No. 2 post position. The swift Ancient Title was in No. 4, Linda's Chief in No. 5 and Knightly Dawn in No. 6. Looking at the lineup, Martin decided on his strategy. He would send Knightly Dawn to the front immediately to duel with Ancient Title. Sandwiched between the speed horses, Baeza on Linda's Chief would be forced to take back momentarily. And in that brief pause, Martin hoped Pincay on Sham would be able to gain position just behind the pacemakers and just in front of Linda's Chief.
Actually, when the gates sprung open. Ancient Title added a new twist. He leaped forward and swerved to the right, barging into Linda's Chief. On the outside Knightly Dawn broke quickly and he, too, veered to the right, toward the middle of an empty track. But his rider, Milo Valenzuela, whacked the horse right-handed and the blow startled Knightly Dawn so much he immediately took a sharp left—bang, into Linda's Chief. Martin had wanted Baeza to take back, and, boy, did he ever. Meanwhile, Ancient Title and Knightly Dawn recovered and barreled down the track, eager for the lead. Pincay dropped Sham into third place, just where he wanted the colt to be. Linda's Chief recovered magnificently and soon was running fourth.
Martin had instructed Valenzuela to hang onto the lead for as long as he could. (There are some who suggest that knocking Linda's Chief into one of the spouting infield fountains also was part of the game plan.) Valenzuela pressed his horse hard and Knightly Dawn lasted nearly six furlongs (in a quick 1:09[4/5]) before fading from the pace. Now Ancient Title took over. As the horses headed into the homestretch Sham charged in front. Baeza and Linda's Chief were just behind, but an eighth of a mile from home it was obvious that Sham was in no danger of losing the $79,400 winner's purse.
Baeza, not surprisingly, claimed foul against the winning entry. But the stewards ruled that it was not Sham's stablemate but Ancient Title that had started all the trouble at the break. So Linda's Chief had to settle for second. Out of the East finished third.
Sham hasn't had the racing experience of Secretariat, but his best performances should be ahead. Pincay respects Secretariat as a rival, and well he should. The jockey rode Linda's Chief as a 2-year-old and never got close to the chestnut champ. "I've seen Secretariat go around five or six horses with one enormous move," Pincay says. "He is truly fantastic. I don't know if Sham is in his class." The answer will come in the mile-and-an-eighth Wood on April 21. Is Martin apprehensive about the meeting? "No," he says. "It's the best way to get a good Derby line."
Meanwhile, Linda's Chief wants no more trouble with the likes of Sham and Secretariat. He will be aimed for the California Derby and after that—win or lose—Trainer Frankel says he would like to keep his colt in the West and start him at Hollywood Park.
So Sham is left as Secretariat's major rival. There is talk in Florida of a horse named Mr. Prospector, who has won his only three starts. They say he's good as gold and he has won minor events by amazing distances—5¾, nine and 12 lengths. In his latest race last Saturday at Gulfstream Park he broke the six-furlong track record by three-fifths of a second, running the distance in a sizzling 1:07[4/5].
Mr. Prospector would seem to be another horse with pretensions. But the Kentucky Derby is only a month away. And time flies, as well as horses.