Saturday marked the 139th running of horse racing's premier event, the Kentucky Derby, held annually at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. It was also the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's 1973 record setting performance at the storied track. Big Red, as Secretariat was affectionately called, was the first horse to break the 2:00 barrier, clocking in with an astonishing time of 1:59.4. The old record had been set in 1964 by Northern Dancer, with a time of 2:00 even.
The mile and one quarter race is often described as the most exciting two minutes in sports. Over 151,000 fans showed up Saturday to watch another "Run for the Roses" in less than ideal weather conditions. This year's winner was Orb, whose time on a muddy track was a somewhat slow 2:02. Secretariat's record remains safe for another year. It's a mark that many say will never be broken.
But one horse came awfully close, because did you know that out of the other 138 Derby winners, the second fastest time in history belongs to the thoroughbred that finished runner-up to Secretariat in 1973? Yes, it was Sham, who finished a mere 2 1/2 lengths behind Big Red with a sizzling time of 1:59.8, who holds the dubious distinction of being the mother of all bridesmaids. Did you also know that despite running the mile and one quarter oval faster than any of the other winners, Sham's time is not even on record? Only the winners have their times posted.
The 1973 Kentucky Derby was billed as a battle between Secretariat and Sham. Sham had beaten what most people consider the greatest thoroughbred in history in the Santa Anita Derby earlier that year, and was a slight favorite entering the first leg of the Triple Crown. Sham was antsy as he entered the starting gate and broke two teeth before the race began. The bloody colt stormed down the track but couldn't quite catch Big Red at the end. One wonders, had Sham not injured himself just prior to coming out of the gate, would the outcome have been different?
Horse racing, unlike other sports, is a one-time shot. There is no wait until next year. Thoroughbreds are three years of age when they are entered in the Kentucky Derby, and get just one chance at victory. It's now or never. The owners, trainers and jockeys all have opportunities for redemption, but not the horse. Sham's owner, Sigmund Sommer, and trainer, Frank Pancho Martin, never won a Kentucky Derby; however, Sham's jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., finally entered the winner's circle, claiming the 1984 race aboard Swale.
So, as Orb's name is written in the Kentucky Derby record book with other winners of the legendary race, it seems sad that the great Sham, despite a spectacular bid for greatest, remains an afterthought in most horse racing fans' memories.
By the way, did you also know that Sham's heart was twice the size of the normal thoroughbred, only slightly smaller than Secretariat's? Maybe it's no coincidence that these two great horses hold the quickest times in the history of the Kentucky Derby.