What better way to relieve the pressure of racing in the 21st century than to go back and celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest races I have ever witnessed, a race the likes of which we will never see again.
Although the Suburban Handicap was uncharacteristically run on June 28 this year, the real anniversary of the one-time second leg in the Handicap Triple Crown is July 4.
Perhaps my reverence for the 1968 Suburban and its lofty ranking among the all-time great races is due to the fact that racing had just come into my life, and we all tend to look back at our fledgling days with a wide-eyed wonder and innocence. But 40 years later, the duel between racing’s titans Dr. Fager and Damascus still leaves me awestruck. There are nearly 2,000 words to follow, so to all those who stick it out to the end I hope you enjoy the ride.
The two future Hall of Famers had already faced each other twice the previous year, with Dr. Fager edging out Damascus in the Gotham and Damascus nailing down Horse of the Year honors with a rousing 10-length procession in the Woodward Stakes, in which Dr. Fager, who finished third, was victimized by a pair of rabbits – Damascus’ stablemate Hedever, a former world-record holder for a mile, and runner-up Buckpasser’s speedy pacesetter Great Power.
Both Damascus and Dr. Fager had strikes against them going into the ’68 Suburban, a showdown that people had been clamoring for since the Woodward. Damascus, a horse who thrived on racing, went into the race off only one easy allowance score at Delaware Park in the past five months. Dr. Fager came out as a 4-year-old sporting a new look that made the already intimidating colt even more intimidating. Trainer John Nerud equipped him with a figure-8 bridle and let his mane and forelock grow to give him more of a wild appearance.
After clear-cut victories in the Roseben Handicap and Californian Stakes, both under 130 pounds, Dr. Fager looked like a sure thing in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, despite the presence of another nemesis from the previous year, In Reality, who was in the best form of his life, coming off three straight wins, including the Carter Handicap and John B. Campbell. When Dr. Fager came down with a severe case of colic on the eve of the Met Mile, Nerud was forced to scratch him, leaving the race to In Reality, who won comfortably for his fourth straight victory.
So, Dr. Fager had to go straight into the Suburban coming off a serious colic attack and having to miss the Met Mile. Damascus, who needed a steady diet of racing to get himself fit, was a fresh horse and not as finely tuned as trainer Frank Whiteley would have liked. This was a horse who had raced 19 times in an 11-month period, 18 of them stakes, and actually kept getting better.
Damascus was assigned highweight of 133 pounds in the Suburban, with Dr. Fager at 132, and In Reality in with 125.
The morning of the race, as usual, I took the Pioneer bus to Aqueduct and made my way into the grandstand to find a seat around the eighth pole.
Just about the same time, in the racing secretary’s office, a mini-drama was being played out that would have a major impact on the Suburban. Nerud spotted Whiteley going into racing secretary Tommy Trotter’s office. As Whiteley was walking out, Nerud overheard a jockey’s agent say that Hedevar had been scratched. When Whiteley looked over at Nerud and didn’t deny it he knew it was true. Nerud promptly stood up and said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”
As the crowd of more than 54,000 began to settle in, the familiar voice of track announcer Fred Capossela could be heard over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the seventh race, number 1A Hedevar…has…been…scratched. That sent a murmur rippling through the grandstand.
The fans had what they wanted: Damascus vs. Dr. Fager; titan against titan one on one.
What made Dr. Fager and Damascus such compelling rivals was that they were nothing alike. Dr. Fager, although a pussycat in his stall, was an untamed brute on the racetrack. With his long mane blowing in the breeze, he resembled a wild mustang dashing across the plains with reckless abandon. Once the gates opened, the only thing he wanted in front of him was the wind. Once he got the lead he had no intention of giving it up. In the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, when In Reality came up on his inside to challenge down the backstretch, the Good Doctor tried to savage him.
Damascus liked to come from well off the pace, and needed constant urging to keep his mind on the race. But once he turned on the afterburners, he would explode, turning in the most devastating move I have ever seen, even after 40 years. Unlike Dr. Fager, who ran with his head high, Damascus would get down low and was amazingly quick and agile, pouncing on his foes like a cat its prey. His jockeys had to keep persevering with him once he caught the leaders, because on occasion he would show a tendency to refuse to leave horses. But when he was able to keep up his head of steam he would annihilate his opponents, as he did in the Woodward, American Derby, and other races. In the Travers, he came from 16 lengths back on the backstretch to win by 22 lengths, equaling the track record in the slop.
With In Reality in the best form of his career, the improving George Widener colt Bold Hour also in peak form, having won the Grey Lag Handicap, and the hard-knocking Rokeby Stable mare Amerigo Lady, the Suburban looked to be a race for the ages.
Dr. Fager was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Damascus 7-5. Damascus was always quick out of the gate, and, as usual, he broke on top from the rail before being taken back by jockey Manny Ycaza. Dr. Fager, under Braulio Baeza, shot to the lead as expected. Baeza gave a peek over his left shoulder to make sure he was clear of Damascus before easing over to the rail.
With no one like a Hedevar or Great Power to get his blood boiling, Dr. Fager rated kindly and cruised to a clear lead going into the clubhouse turn. He quickly opened up by two lengths and took complete control of the race. In Reality, who was supposed to put pressure on The Doc, had broken on his wrong lead and apparently took a bad step, causing a minor injury that would lead to his retirement. He raced in fourth during the early going, about four lengths back, before retreating to finish last.
With Dr. Fager loose on a slow, uncontested lead, Damascus was now on a solo mission, and Ycaza had no choice but to put the colt into the fray early and test Dr. Fager, who had managed to get away with an opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5, which was trotting horse time for Dr. Fager.
Ycaza took Damascus off the rail and starting pushing hard to get him to close the gap on Dr. Fager. Although taken completely out of his game plan, Damascus was able to use his quickness to collar Dr. Fager as they headed down the backstretch. The battle everyone had wanted to see for so long was on. Damascus pulled to within a neck of Dr. Fager, but that was as close as the Doc would let him get. He loved a challenge; that’s when those nostrils would flare and the daggers would shoot from his eyes.
The pair battled through the third quarter in a spectacular :22 3/5, and that’s with over 130 pounds on their back. With his initial attack thwarted, Ycaza backed off slightly and let Damascus regroup. This was not his game, and Ycaza had to make sure he saved something for the end, especially with Damascus not being fully cranked up. Once he and Damascus were able to catch their breath, Ycaza began pushing hard once again, trying to crack Dr. Fager, which was like trying to crack a walnut shell with two fingers.
Dr. Fager, with his head held high, seemed to dwarf Damascus, even though the two were about the same height. Damascus was now straight as a string as he mounted his second attack. The Doc knew he was in for a fight, and dug in once again. As hard as Ycaza pushed he couldn’t get by the tenacious Dr. Fager.
Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began inching away, putting a good half-length between him and Damascus. But, amazingly, Damascus wasn’t through. He gave it one final desperate try, pulling back alongside Dr. Fager for the third time, and actually might have gotten his nose in front nearing the quarter pole after a quarter in :23 3/5.
As they came out of the turn locked together, the crowd let out a deafening roar. Dr. Fager refused to yield. If you were trying to capture this moment on canvas you’d surely have smoke blowing out of Dr. Fager’s nostrils. Turning for home, a weary Damascus had no more to give. As fresh as he was and having to play Dr. Fager’s game, he began to retreat under the impost following a brutal mile in 1:34 3/5. Dr. Fager, who was built to carry weight, bounded clear, opening up by two lengths at the eighth pole.
The improving Bold Hour, carrying only 116 pounds, had been eyeing the battle several lengths back and moved in for the kill, hoping to pick up the pieces. He collared Damascus, from whom he was getting 17 pounds, and set his sights on Dr. Fager. But Baeza was sitting chilly on the Doc and paid little attention to Bold Hour. He merely hand rode Dr. Fager to the wire, maintaining his two-length advantage. Despite the sluggish opening half and carrying 132 pounds, Dr. Fager still was able to equal Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5.
Damascus, who wound up third in the Suburban, came back nine days later in the Amory Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and finished third again behind Bold Hour under 131 pounds after stumbling badly at the start. He returned a week later in the Brooklyn Handicap for his rematch with Dr. Fager. When I went to the paddock to look at Damascus, I knew this would be a different story. Not only did he have Hedevar back, he bounced around the paddock on his toes with his neck arched and muscles bulging from his shoulders and hindquarters. He had actually needed both those races and finally was ready to tackle Dr. Fager, who was carrying 135 pounds to 130 for Damascus.
Briefly, Hedevar, as expected shot to a clear lead, as Baeza took a stranglehold on Dr. Fager. After a half in :45 4/5, Baeza couldn’t hold the tempestuous Doctor any longer and had to let him go. He blew right on by Hedevar and opened a big lead through three-quarters in a blazing 1:09 2/5, but Damascus, sitting back a dozen lengths, was flying, and it was obvious this time it was Damascus who had the advantage. With one of his typical explosive moves, he collared Dr. Fager at the quarter pole and drew clear, but the Doc wouldn’t give up, despite the pace and staggering weight. He fought hard through the stretch, but Damascus was always in control, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived record, and amazingly still stands 40 years later.
And this was Damascus’ third stakes in 16 days, carrying 130 pounds or more in all of them. Dr. Fager, of course, would never lose again, turning in what many believe to be the single greatest season in racing history, in which he earned an unprecedented four championships – Horse of the Year, Handicap Horse, Grass Horse, and Sprinter. In the Suburban and Brooklyn he ran back-to-back 1 1/4-mile races in 1:59 3/5, one off a slow pace and the other off a blistering pace, carrying 132 and 135 pounds.
After watching this year’s Suburban and Hollywood Gold Cup won by horses carrying 114 and 113 pounds, respectively, who had never even placed in a stakes race in North America, I couldn’t think of a better moment to look back at a special time in racing; a time of true greatness.