|Sham (left) and Secretariat (right)|
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?