Thursday, August 25, 2011

Talent Vs. Luck - Or What's A Horse Race For?

Sham (left) and Secretariat (right)
Re-watching the movie Secretariat recently got me thinking about the roles luck and talent play in so many aspects of our lives, writing included.

Secretariat, for those of you unfamiliar, was Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old in 1972 and took the title again as a 3-year-old in 1973. He won 16 of the 21 races he ran, including the Triple Crown. I remember sitting in front of the TV watching his 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes and gawking at that incredible ground-devouring stride of his.

The movie takes some leeway with the facts to create a more exciting and streamlined version of Secretariat's racing career. Most notably, it plays somewhat loosely with the rivalry between Secretariat and Sham, a bloodline cousin who Secretariat raced against several times. I don't know if Sham's owner really was as big a jerk as he's made out to be in the movie, but my guess is that the script writers needed a villain and Sham's owner -- and by extension, Sham himself -- was written to fill the bill.

What's only hinted at is just how good a race horse Sham was in his own right. In a different year, competing with a different crop of foals, Sham may well have taken The Horse of the Year titles. He may have won at least the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Maybe even the Belmont too, if he didn't have to match the brutal early pace Secretariat challenged him with.

The movie excuses Secretariat for losing the Wood Memorial to Sham when it's discovered Secretariat ran the race dogged with the pain of a mouth abscess irritated even more by bit and bridle. What the movie fails to acknowledge is that Sham broke two teeth on the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby and, mouth bleeding, still ran the second fastest Derby race of all time, a record beaten only by the Derby winner, Secretariat.

Sham had speed, talent and heart. Literally. One of the genetic traits he shared with Secretariat and others in his bloodline was an abnormally large heart, which gave him improved oxygenation and increased stamina. Sham had everything on his side. His only misfortune: being born in the same year as an athlete as phenomenal as Secretariat.

In that big red horse's shadow, great just wasn't good enough.

As writers struggling to be noticed in the slushpile or on the shelves, we sometimes have to accept that the biz is as much about luck as it is about talent. We can't control who our competition is or the fickleness of readers. We can't control world economics or the advent of new technology. What we can control is developing the talent given us. And despite everything you do to improve your lot as a writer, sometimes you have to accept that the genre you write in has dried up, the agent you'd give up your firstborn for signed a similar work the week before she got around to reading yours, or readers are snatching up a similarly themed series that hit the shelves a month before yours and calling yours -- which had publication delays out of your control -- derivative.

Talent will out, true. But sometimes being great still isn't enough.

How many of you remembered the name Sham?


Sarah Laurenson said...

Not being a fan of horse racing, I've never heard of Sham. Of course I heard of Secretariat but only at the end.

I do find it very interesting that all horses involved in racing share one of two birthdays depending on what hemisphere they happen to be born in. A horse who is really only 2 years old could be competing with ones that are much closer to 3. And somehow that all makes sense in that world.

I like how you brought that around to writing.

Sandra Cormier said...

Wow, poor Sham. He really got pushed to the rear because of Secretariat.

I was a big Big Red fan, drawing him in all poses.

vkw said...

It's an interesting point and an interesting story.

However, Sham may not be as famous as Secretariat and may be his worth wasn't as great as Secretariat's. However -

1. I bet that he was worth a pretty penny for having not only come from the successful bloodline but alos for the races he won.
2. I think as far as horses go, he probably had a good, long, comfortable life with a nice home, people who loved him, good food and good medical care.
3. I am not a huge horse fan - I'm actually kind of an anti-horse person due to the fact that every horse I've ever dealt with has been smarter than me, bigger than me and more stubborn than me and they didn't love me so I couldn't count on their mercy - I would imagine that Sham loved to run and loved to run in races and loved to do what he was bred to do - so he probably had a pretty happy life. I bet he didn't mind not being as famous as his cousin.

In the end I want to do what I love, be comfortable enough to do it and make a bit of money doing it. The more famous authors can reap the larger rewards of fame and fortune. I just want to develop my writing skills and have a bit of luck.

I would be more than happy with being Sham or even the 5th runner up. I would be honor just to be able to be invited to the race.


Landra said...

I'm in the boat with Sarah, my knowledge of Sham is definitely lacking. Secretariat, the film and popularity made his name unforgettable.

I get your point though, not every book can make it to the big grandslam where everyone knows the book and who the author is. Like vkw, I'm happy to be in the race regardless of the place I finish. If one reader can experience pleasure from my story that means something to me. All the horses in that race brought pleasure to someone, made memories for them too. While winning the race is the goal, if you even make it to one of the races in the Triple Crown that's sayin' something. :)
Great post!

Michelle4Laughs said...

Amen sister. It's not only talent. You need a vast scoop of luck.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Sarah: I like how you brought that around to writing.

That's called desperation. I had no idea what I was going to write for a post! ;o)

@Sandy: Oh, I bet your illustrations are lovely. He was such a big, long-legged horse. I think they measured his stride at an incredible 25 feet.

@vkw: You're right that Sham didn't live as a pauper!

@vkw and Landra: The analogy drawn isn't entirely apt since Sham did get invited to the race; he just didn't finish first or get the prizes and accolades. (See above note re: deadline desperation.)

I'm seeing a lot of authors who have talent but can't snag an agent, who have an agent but can't sell their book, or who have a book but it doesn't get attention from a publisher because a better prospect comes along and so their book dies before launch. It isn't that these guys aren't worthy -- they are hugely talented (I know some of them personally) -- but luck seems even more hugely against them. It makes me sad.

@M4L: Here's to an extra scoop of luck for us all!!

vkw said...

There is no question that luck plays a factor. No question at all.

Luck, Karma, God, whatever you may want to believe in, is with us always.

However, I believe there are two things that are also present - Persererance and Talent.

Then you have to add a willingness to work hard and learn the busines.

Being a published author, to me, is no different than any other JOB. I know alot about employment - getting employment and keeping a job.

Here's the list:

1. Don't Give Up
2. Have the credentials necessary through education or experience or, in publishing, get the MS done and polished.
3. Have the talent
4. Know the business
5. Be willing to start at the bottom
6. a little bit of luck and prayer won't hurt but don't count on this - because you have no control over it. Luck comes when it is ready to come but it can't get the door open for you if you not standing at the doorstep knocking.

I've seen people count on luck too much and blame luck too much when they are not successful. Sometimes I think it's an good excuse to give up.

To have peace in one's life is to have a willingness to not depend on or try to control things you don't have control over and willingness to deal with what you do have control of.

I loved the post Phoenix. It's well written, its a valid point and I like how you wrapped it around writing. Anything that gets people thinking is a good thing. :)

Wilkins MacQueen said...

One of my fav horses was Seattle Slew. Although he never sired a stellar winner, his daughters went on to produce top notch winners.

Northern Dancer stole my heart. That litte boy romped home and something like 97% of all Thoroughbreds today have a degree of his blood in them. Dash for Cash is another great. A popular bloodline and very fashionable in the US and S. America today.

Regrets that registered Thoroughbreds can be bred by live cover only.

Sham was born at the wrong time. a different year and he could've been THE horse. Not too many could stand up and take on Secretariat and beat him.

Thoroughbreds make great pets, and superior jumpers. I've had a few and miss them. Thier intelligence and sweet natures.

Now I'll have to do a story on Barney. Great story, true coming to my blog. Great horse, miss him so much.Epitome of beauty, brains intelligence and kindness, in a gag bit which I threw away and replaced with a soft snaffle.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@vkw: Excellent words to work by. You're right, of course, in that you discount any of the factors for your success at your peril. And the blame game is only too easy, isn't it?

@Mac: It's nice to have others around who are old enough to remember some of the greats :o). I can't wait to read about Barney!