Well before Palace Malice captured the 145th Belmont Stakes, we knew the 36-year Triple Crown drought wasn’t going to end Saturday. The Belmont has the sometimes unenviable position as the third jewel in the Triple Crown, a fact that makes it can’t-miss TV some years and a sporting afterthought most others.
But the weekend was still special in Elmont, New York, because Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont victory — the most impressive run in horse racing history and maybe the most overwhelmingly dominant performance sports has ever seen:
One of the most important, and overlooked, pieces of the Secretariat story is Sham, the horse that finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and began the Belmont by matching him step for step. Sham ran, by some estimates, no worse than the third-fastest Derby of all-time. He is among the fastest Preakness horses ever. He was good enough to win most of the 144 Belmonts that have taken place in years other than 1973, maybe good enough to win the Triple Crown in most of those years too. Sham was a great horse. Secretariat was something more. So instead of becoming Frazier to Secretariat’s Ali, Sham is Patrick Ewing, a great foil to a champion who never actually foiled that champion on the sport’s biggest stages, an athlete prevented from his rightful position among the greats only by the cruel curse that allowed something so much better to come along at the exact same time.
That fate was sealed for good that Saturday in New York, where Secretariat wasn’t content merely defeating Sham. For a half-mile, Sham led the race, a nose ahead of Secretariat and a dozen or so lengths ahead of everyone else. For the next half, he was alone, fading into obscurity as the horse ahead of him sprinted toward immortality. Sham trudged soulless toward the finish, decimated and destroyed because he dared push Secretariat beyond all logical limits of endurance only to discover those limits didn’t exist. The official telecast never actually shows Sham cross the finish line, and its likely no one in Belmont Park that day saw him do it either. Secretariat had so thoroughly destroyed his biggest competitor that an outstanding horse was almost totally forgotten. Sham never raced again.