Being Sham in Secretariat's year.
It's a long race ahead.
Maybe you’re not aware of Sham, the horse with the broken heart.
He died in 1993, near the end of my first year in college, the year I lost my grandma.
Sham’s death was certainly meaningless for most; there wasn’t much press coverage for a race horse who, had he been in his prime any other year but 1973, probably would have been a Triple Crown winner.
But that was Secretariat’s year, and though Sham tried hard in those races and ran impressive times, he always ended up eating Secretariat’s shadow. You can watch the videos of those three races; towards the end of the last race, the Belmont Stakes, Sham attempted to go nose-for-nose early on—and he did for a while—but you can almost see his heart breaking. He came in last, when it was all said and done. His speed and skill were tremendous, but it wasn’t enough. He never raced again after that race.
Secretariat died in 1989; either he beat Sham to the finish line again, or, if you look at it differently, Sham won the final race. His endurance finally beat Secretariat.
As a kid, I grew up riding horses like the rest of my sisters. And because I also liked to read books about horses and had an active imagination, I spent much of the time riding pretending I was re-enacting scenes from those books.
Perhaps I was Alec Ramsey, from Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series, imagining furlongs and finding the rail as I slow-galloped around the farm with my sister. Or I was saving Black Beauty, a story that broke my heart. The Year of the Black Pony made me think about sacrifice. The Billy and Blaze books showed the kinds of adventure that could be had, just sitting on a horse’s back. There were so many books, at home and at the school library. When I was lonely or wanted to escape, I’d find company in the characters in my books.
Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague had a special place, since we had a horse named Misty. Her book King of the Wind introduced me to the Godolphin Arabian, which led to reading books about horse breeds and horse racing. The Godolphin Arabian’s line has Man O’ War, War Admiral, and Seabiscuit flowing through it.
I also drew horses a lot. Sam Savitt was my favorite artist for years.
In my dad’s garage, there are two chalkboards and one day, the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I drew a horse with a rainbow and dad never erased it. It’s still there, as you read this.
When I went to college for art, my preference for drawing horses changed some because it was clear that figurative and “meaningful” art was more important, and you had to draw still life and life drawing to learn. But I would still bring in drawings or paintings to critique sessions, now and then, with horses in them. Sometimes it felt like my classmates didn’t really know how to critique them because critique was often about the “meaning” of the image rather than the quality of it.
To be fair, art history is prolific with the horse.
I loved going to museums and finding the room with the Chinese art to see the ceramic horse sculptures.
I always take photos of statues that have horses, no matter where I’m traveling.
I bought expensive tickets to see the Lipizzaner stallions when they came to North Dakota, and drove two hours just to see them by myself. I paid for my sister and I to take some Pat Pirelli classes with two of her horses. I jumped at the chance, as a reporter for a small newspaper, to interview a man traveling through the area who was training horses like Monty Roberts.
But mostly, I just loved drawing horses, finding those familiar lines like the mid jaw, jutting into the cheek on up to the ear, then curving down the neck to the chest. Such expressive animals; you can exaggerate them in a million ways. I could draw pages of them and not get tired and if I’m in a boring meeting and start to doodle, it’s either a cartoon about how boring the meeting is, or it’s horses.
A few years after college, when I was living back on the farm, I entered a local art show in a town about 30 miles away. This was a time in life where, on the racetrack of life, I was getting a taste of the gap between the big dreams you have when you graduate from high school to what life actually ends up looking like. Lofty dreams run really fast, and they start to pull away from you bit by bit.
I felt like a Sham, in more ways than one. I was designing T-shirts and working night shifts at the post office and random odd jobs and doing nothing of value, it seemed.
I showed up at the gallery with my two pieces, both of which were of horses.
“Oh, of course,” the lady in charge of the gallery said to me, rolling her eyes, when I laid my framed drawings on the registration table. “You would be bringing in something with horses. With Julie, it’s always horses.”
Others standing around the registration table chuckled.
I knew she didn’t mean anything by it, and I tried to be glib and laugh it off, but I was crushed. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t my first art show, and I’ve been through brutal critiques in college. But that moment sticks with me.
As an artist, I’m a joke, I thought, which was not comforting, considering a decade of student loan repayment for an art degree still lay ahead on that racetrack. I went into college drawing horses and I came out drawing horses, some pie-in-the-sky little loser kid who daydreamed about her horse stories all the way into adulthood.
I stopped drawing horses after that.
My horse had died by then, anyway, so, like I learned in the Jean Slaughter Doty’s book Can I Get There By Candlelight?, there wasn’t a way to go back to an earlier time.
There’s a significant gap in my art where horses don’t appear, after that art show; I don’t date my work so you probably wouldn’t notice. But I do.
I tried to draw more “significant” things, like landscapes and multi-media collages and pet portraits (hey, gotta pay bills) and thematic pieces to fit a series. It’s not that any of that was bad; I enjoyed drawing and painting those things I’m sure.
But no horses.
Not for several years.
Countee Cullen wrote a poem about a childhood visit to Baltimore, where despite six wonderful months of seeing people and the sights, all she can remember is one awful insult another child said to her.
It is strange, the things we choose to remember, what drowns out the rest.
By now, I have a collection of those moments. We all do, as we get older. And even though I’m aware of this being the scenario, and even though I draw horses now and then, I still get a sense of failure, like someone on a diet downing a box of Twinkies. It’s a reminder I never moved on.
The thing I love the most (drawing) and the thing I loved drawing the most (horses) now brings a sense of failure.
This might not make a lot of sense to you. I’m not sure it does to me, either.
All I know is that when I watched Rich Strike win the Kentucky Derby (and I watched that video over and over and over and made my family watch it, too) I had a moment where I remembered.
You used to really like this.
You gave a speech during college speech class on the history of the Triple Crown.
Do you remember the horse books?
Do you remember how much you loved to just pick up a charcoal and pull it over the paper until a horse emerged?
I made my friend listen to me yammer on endlessly about Seabiscuit and War Admiral and the amazing race at the Pimlico. I talked about rope drops versus gates. I talked about the blue and white silks of Secretariat, and how he had to wear a hood, and about Sham, Citation (also a jet!). I talked about time comparisons between Secretariat and American Pharoah, and how Justify had to deal with sloppy, heavy tracks in his trek to the Triple Crown.
It may surprise you, but I’m not actually the horse person in the family. My sister is.
I ghostwrite books and articles for a living, from a basement home office where I have to look up past ground level to see the sun, books that tell you how to improve your life and achieve your dreams, and it’s like sandpaper to the soul sometimes, writing those words from my view at the back where it seems like I’m eating the dirt those in front are kicking up.
It seems like the world is Secretariat, it’s the Belmont, I’m falling behind despite being at full speed, and my heart is breaking and the will to run is failing as I fall to the back of the pack.
Secretariat was a giant, perfect specimen of a horse, a running machine, though you’ll get some argument on whether he, or Man O’ War, is the greatest of all time. Sham didn’t have a chance against him.
But then I remember that book, King of the Wind, and the name of the horse that would become the Godolphin Arabian, the horse that was sent from the Middle East to France, rejected, shipped to England, and ended up a workhorse. Only by accident did people realize his (and his progeny’s) racing potential, a bloodline that trickles through winning racing history.
The name of that horse in the book?