We think of the political movement to "ban sharia" -- a movement popular on the political right and which has has its own website -- as being a modern phenomenon. As I wrote on Friday, the push to preemptively ban Islamic law in the United States is deeply intertwined with partisanship and terrorism fears. In other words, it's a good encapsulation of the recent political moment.
But in the archives of the New York Times, there's a weird blip in mentions of sharia back in the mid-1970s. That year, the paper ran the term "ban sharia" a number of times, all in the same context.
From the spring to late autumn of 1975, a thoroughbred named Ban Sharia ran in a number of races at tracks in New York: Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. According to the Times, it placed third on June 30, Nov. 8 and Nov. 26 -- paying out $4.60, $2.40 and $2.10 on a two-dollar bet.
Naturally, I was curious. Who would name a horse "Ban Sharia" in the 1970s, and why?
Naming a horse isn't like naming a pet dog. Thoroughbred breeders have to submit their proposed names to an organization called the Jockey Club, the executive offices of which are in Manhattan. The Club has strict guidelines -- 17 of them -- detailing how a horse can be named. They include the following:
- A horse's name may not be more than 18 characters long (so that the name fits on the signs at race tracks).
- Horse names may not end in "horse-related terms" like "filly" or "stud."
- Horse names cannot be all numbers.
- Horse names can't be disparaging.
- You can't re-use the name of a famous horse. (No more Secretariats.)
- Horse names can't be like the names of famous horses, either. (No Sekretariats.)
- Horse names cannot be the names of living people, unless those people say it is okay.
The Jockey Club's Bob Curran told me when we spoke by phone this week that the last point is not a joke. When a stable wanted to name a horse after then-first lady Barbara Bush, the Jockey Club received a letter on White House stationery saying it was alright.
But Curran also said that the Jockey Club didn't have any record of who owned Ban Sharia. In the pre-digital era, records were only kept for a decade or two, unless the horse was famous. And Ban Sharia was not famous.
Eventually, thanks to the site Pedigree Query, I was able to track down Ban Sharia's history. The horse was born in 1972 in Kentucky and ended up running in 18 races. It won twice, placed (that is, came in second) three times and showed (third place) five times. Over the course of its career, it earned $26,600 -- almost certainly a poor return on investment.
Pedigree Query had two other important bits of information. The first is that Ban Sharia came from a line of Middle Eastern-sounding names. Its parents were Damascus and Shahtash, and its parents' parents were Sword Dancer, Kerala, Jaipur and -- less to the point -- Rose O'Neill. (Which is a horse.)
The site also revealed the breeder: Cragwood Estates. And that's where things get interesting.
Cragwood Estates was a stable owned by the family of Charles and Jane Engelhard, who lived in New Jersey. Charles Engelhard was a very rich man, who made his fortune dealing in platinum, gold and silver. He inherited the business from his father, then expanded it across the globe, including a thriving business in South Africa (which, at the time, was an apartheid state).
He and his wife were strong supporters of the Democratic Party. The famous creche displayed each year in the East Room of the White House was a gift from Jane Engelhard -- born Marie Antoinette Jeanne Reiss -- during the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Jane Engelhard was formerly Jane Mannheim, from her mariage to her first husband, with whom she had a daughter -- Annette de la Renta, widow of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. Jane and Charles Engelhard themselves had four more daughters.
Charles Engelhard died in 1971, before the birth of Ban Sharia, meaning that he wasn't involved in the naming of the horse. The Times' obituary showed him with a more successful horse, the colt Nijinsky, which won the 1970 Epsom Derby in Britain (among other races).
Oh. Engelhard was also apparently the inspiration for Goldfinger.
Yes, that's right. Charles Engelhard was rumored to be the man who inspired Ian Fleming's 1959 book "Goldfinger" and the Sean Connery movie that followed in 1964. The parallels are immediate: Auric Goldfinger is a titan of precious metals who, as described to Bond in the film, also "owns one of the finest U.S. stud farms." (Bond's response to the name? "Sounds like a French nail varnish!") Bond visits that Louisville stable, which is where he discovers Goldfinger's evil plot.
The physical resemblance is almost as striking. Below, Goldfinger at left and a closer look at Engelhard from the top photo, above.
But this doesn't answer the question of why a stable owned by the Engelhard family named a horse "Ban Sharia" after his death.
For which I regrettably have no answer. No records at the Jockey Club, as I noted. I reached out to the Charles Engelhard Foundation in New York, hoping to be put into contact with one of the Engelhards' daughters, without luck. (I suspect that my mentioning to the person who answered the phone how interesting I found the Goldfinger connection did not do me any favors in prioritizing my request.) I reached out to the Engelhards' trainer from the early 1970s, a British man named Fulke Johnson Houghton, who retired in 2006 after four decades spent training race horses. No reply.
I pored over contemporaneous news accounts. Was there an uptick in Islamic sentiment that threatened the company's business interests? Something that might have spurred resentment? I reached out to experts on the Middle East. Does "ban" have some other meaning? Was there other history I was missing? No luck.
Ban Sharia, Pedigree Online reports, did not have any progeny. It died childless, so it seems, after a disappointing career.
Only four decades later would Ban Sharia be a huge success, in a radically different context.