Being in Louisville during Derby week in 1973 was magical for me…never mind the media frenzy it has become these days. Silly hats, the gold jewelry of star the athletes, etc. It used to be that Wide World of Sports did the real story on T.V. They showed us gorgeous horse farms, lots of beautiful horses, past champions and owners as well. The focus was the horses and they alone attracted attention. And crowds. Sadly, racing has changed, but another story for another day.
Going around that track, below that grandstand, made me feel as if I were in a dream every morning, but…it was real. My life’s dream had come true, thanks to a very knowledgable lady, her husband, a great trainer and a very special horse. A nice bunch of Spanish speaking young men at the barn also helped along the way.
Now, here we all were, together, competing in the Greatest Horse Race on Earth. Talk about Nerves!
On May 5, 1973, SHAM was not the only stable star. Knightly Dawn, left out of the Derby, won another stake race on the card. That gave all involved a good omen for a great day ahead.
The day began as any other. While horses ate their 5 A.M. morning meal, stable hands brushed, bandaged, checked equipment and went about daily chores. On race day, most horses are fed a lighter breakfast and lunch. They’re walked around the shedrow a few turns with trainers watching for soreness or signs of stress. Gato and I walked SHAM, Frank Martin seemed nervous. The colt was not.
Mr. Sommer was early as usual, bringing coffee and pastries for us all. While the guys took a break, I went over to the track, walked around, still in awe of where I was, and the reason that I was there. I’ve often thought since then, that anyone connected with a racehorse, or just a fan, should go out very early morning to walk around Churchill Downs. I still have the jar of sand I collected on that special day.
Back at the barn, Mr. Sommer and Frank were talking quietly, looking over the morning paper. I went into the tack room to see another copy. I just looked at photos of all the horses. Now, years later, I think of what a great souvenir it would have made.
Mrs. Sommer also paid a visit to the barn before lunch. Break time was over for horses and helpers. Stall cleaning, horses getting shined, ready for the exciting afternoon, was fast approaching.
As I was helping groom Knightly Dawn, Mrs. Sommer went to each of her beloved horses, petting them, leaving secret messages for those competing…
She wore a white hat, stylish, not outrageous like some now, with yellow roses. When she got to SHAM’s stall, he stretched out his neck, and took her hat in his teeth, shaking it as he went back into the stall. Mrs. Sommer, being the horsewoman she was, simply laughed, bent down under the stall guard, and retrieved her hat, what was left of it. She tried to uncrumple it and put it back on. When a groom asked her what she was going to do with it, she replied, “Proudly wear it.” And she did.
I spent the afternoon in the paddock. Dawn was in the eighth race, SHAM in the ninth, so the three guys and I were busy. We again wiped down the horses. Oh, how they shined; Dawn’s dapples, and SHAM’s dark coat. Pedro and I took Dawn to the paddock, removed his bandages while Frank saddled him. He pawed impatiently and tossed his head a bit. We walked him around the ring to keep him calm. He always liked being led about. Then Pedro mounted Moody, the stable pony, and to the track they went. Meanwhile, Gato and Jose prepared SHAM, which I had wanted to do, but Frank sent me with Dawn. He said it because I was nervous, and being in the paddock longer would calm my nerves. He was the boss, and I was very nervous that day. We could not transfer that onto SHAM.
Dawn easily won his race in front, and the Sommers’ were quite pleased. Mrs Sommers got to wear her hat to the Winner’s Circle! I remember giving Dawn a big hug after. We were all so happy. Then Jose went with Dawn and Frank for the post race test. After, Pedro would parade SHAM, then he would take Moody back and help Jose cool out Dawn, giving the guys time to get back in time to see SHAM’s Run for the Roses. That was how the Martin barn was run: very efficiently, as a team. No one was left out, and all chores were done and on time.
The Race, The Derby
SHAM stood calmly while Frank put the pads and saddle on his beautiful, strong back. You could see he had a special place in his trainer’s heart, as he spoke quietly to the colt non-stop. After Gato and I took the bandages off and walked the tall colt around the paddock ring, Laffitt Pincay got a leg up by Frank. He bounced a bit when his jockey sat down. Other than that, all was good. A lot of people were complimenting our horse’s appearance.
Then there was a flurry of noise and excitement. Secretariat had entered the walking ring, and all eyes looked his way. I have to admit, that up until recently, I was never a fan (for obvious reasons). He was, however, to those who have never seen the Big Horse, an awesome sight to behold that day.
At approximately. 5:45 P.M., the horses went to the post. Twice a Prince reared, not wanting to go in the starting gate. His rider was thrown as he kicked and bounced sideways, disturbing the other colts, namely SHAM, who had loaded early, and stood…waiting. As a result, he stepped on his heel, cutting his ankle. No one knew this until after the race. After he was calmed, The Prince went in with the others. Secretariat was not in early, and just walked around, as SHAM normally would have. Most of the assistant starters, men who have the dangerous job of being in the small space with some horses, went to help with The Prince.
Then, the bell rang, SHAM reared, shaking his head and banging it in the metal gate. Bang went his poor head.
They were off!
So was SHAM; off balance that is! A race is a race, and everyday, many unforeseen incidents happen. Trust me, I was there. Perhaps NO horse alive was going to beat the big red guy on that day. However, if our SHAM had not had such trauma at the start, he could have been closer. Or just maybe…he could have been The One. We’ll never know. Such is fate. And horse racing.
I won’t replay the entire race. All of that is available on You Tube or any number of video media sources. We all know our brave SHAM ran second that day to a very exceptional opponent.
What many people don’t know, unless you were there in the backstretch, or get accurate info on SHAM’s Facebook page, is that he was a bit injured in the gate. When he banged his head, two of his teeth were knocked loose. He came back to us, dripping blood from his mouth, his jockey was also wearing some. It was such a terrible sight that one of the other grooms became dizzy, and had to be helped away. It took a long time to stop the bleeding, and a vet had to knock him out to repair the damage.
We’ve all at sometime, had a mouth, or tooth injury, and know the pain that goes with it. Imagine, being nearly knocked out, banged into by another horse, running a mile and a quarter faster than any other horse ever, except the one who just outran him, and still finishing a game, very determined second.
At the turn into the stretch, that brave, noble boy, actually was in front. Yes, SHAM, the tall, honest dark beauty made Secretariat run that afternoon, and run he did!