If Damascus Raced Today

Racing fans of today embrace a different breed of hero than their predecessors back in the days when horses raced often and were rarely retired at 3.

Sometimes, you have to wonder, what if some of those horses raced in today’s cyber world and accomplished the same feats they did back in their day. How would they be perceived? Most people immediately think of superstars like Secretariat, Dr. Fager, Forego, Spectacular Bid, and a number of others. But there is one horse who deserves to be put in that category and usually never is. I admit to being prejudiced when it comes to Damascus, but I will let his statistics speak for themselves, while interjecting my personal involvement with the horse.

The following is a compilation of past writings on Damascus that may put this remarkable horse’s career in a better historical perspective. Also included is a look at the volatile times in which he ran.

In 2000, I wrote a book on Dr. Fager for the Thoroughbred Legends series. My admiration for the good doctor knows no boundaries, as he is the swiftest, most dominating, and in general, most breathtaking Thoroughbred in action I have ever laid eyes on. No horse ever looked like Dr. Fager and it is safe to say no horse ever will. But, as much as I have come to revere The Doc over the years and his trainer John Nerud, not one second went by while writing the book that I didn't feel like a traitor.

It was his arch rival Damascus, you see, who got me interested in Thoroughbred racing. Here was the ultimate athlete, whose heroics thrust me into a sport that would soon encompass my entire being. A 20-year-old stock trader on Wall Street at the time, I found myself feeling like 20 going on 12. Aspiring stock brokers are not supposed to fall in love with a racehorse. So, the next year I left Wall Street for good and followed Damascus into his world.

Almost four decades later, a new Legends book was published on Damascus. Once again, I felt like a traitor for not writing it, but it had been assigned to someone else. The purpose of this copy, however, is not to rehash old memories, but to bring to light the true greatness of Damascus, who in my mind is the most underrated horse of all time.

Damascus' career record speaks for itself. He won at distances of six furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, a mile and 70 yards, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 1 1/2 miles, and two miles. In all, he won stakes at eight different distances. He ran seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5 (Malibu Stakes), 1 1/8 miles in a track-record 1:46 4/5 (American Derby), and 1 1/4 miles in a track-record 1:59 1/5 under 130 pounds (Brooklyn Handicap). He also equaled the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga in the Travers, coming from 16 lengths back in the slop to win eased up by 22 lengths (More on that race later). And only two horses – Kelso and Prove Out – have won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in faster time.

In the Woodward, billed as the Race of the Century, he demolished Horses of the Year and future Hall of Famers Buckpasser and Dr. Fager by 10 lengths. Twice at 4 he carried 134 pounds to victory. In one of those, the Aqueduct Stakes, he gave major stakes winner More Scents 20 pounds.

But here is why Damascus ranks among the greatest horses in racing history, and certainly among the most durable horses ever seen. After winning his 3-year-old debut, an allowance race at Pimlico, in which he was slammed into so hard in the stretch it turned him sideways, he raced in 15 consecutive stakes that year alone, winning 11 (including the Preakness and Belmont Stakes) and finishing second twice by a nose and once by a half-length to Dr. Fager, in which Bill Shoemaker blamed himself for the defeat. And here is the truly remarkable part. The intervals between his races were 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 1 week, 2 weeks, 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 10 days, 3 weeks, 1 week, 3 weeks, 2 weeks, 16 days, 26 days, 28 days, and 2 weeks. And he actually got stronger as the year went on.

The following year, when he won the Brooklyn under 131 pounds in track-record time, which still stands after 41 years, he was making his third start in 16 days, all at 1 1/4 miles and all carrying 130 pounds or more (His two memorable duels with Dr. Fager that year -- mainly the Suburban -- were written about last year in my blog dated July 1). Today, a horse would be considered a sure thing to “bounce” off that kind of effort and three huge performances in such a short period of time. But Damascus came back three weeks later and won the William du Pont Handicap carrying 134 pounds.

When he was 3, he was beaten a half-length in the Gotham by Dr. Fager in a gut-wrencher, in which poor tactics by Shoemaker allowed Dr. Fager to get outside him. Despite the heart-pounding stretch battle and 1:35 1/5 mile, Damascus came back one week later to win the Wood Memorial (yes, one week later) by six lengths.

In the Kentucky Derby, in which he finished third, he was noticeably upset walking to the track, and then became very rank early in the race. A perplexed Whiteley said he’d never seen him like that before or after, and could never come up with an explanation for it.

Not only was Damascus durable, brilliant, classy, and one of the soundest, healthiest horses ever, he possessed the most devastating turn of foot I have ever witnessed. He ran low to the ground, and when he took off around the half-mile pole, he made up ground so quickly it was if as if he were moving in a different time frame than his opponents. He didn't catch them, he pounced on them like a cat its prey, and in many cases he left them floundering far up the track.

I never could have imagined that a racehorse would pave the road I would take in life. But here I am after four decades, and the road Damascus paved for me still is as magical as the day I first set foot on it. And I still get that same special feeling inside whenever I see films or photos of him decked out in his familiar Belair silks. I guess you could say that 20-year-old going on 12 is still going on 12.

For many, the spectacular images of Damascus and the herculean feats he performed sadly have faded with the years. But for one person, they remain a beacon that still guides his way.

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Kentucky Derby week in 1967 was eventful, not only for Damascus and Frank Whiteley, but for the City of Louisville. Five days before the Derby, five black youths leaped the fence during the first race and dashed out onto the track in front of a field of 10 horses. Eight of the youths were arrested and 20 others were ejected from the grounds for creating a disturbance and singing civil-rights songs. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the incident reflected the volatile atmosphere that would surround this year’s Derby.

With additional threats of disturbances from civil rights advocates, the Pegasus Parade, scheduled two days before the Derby, was canceled, as was a country music show. At the request of Louisville mayor Kenneth Schmeid, Kentucky governor Edward T. Breathitt called in additional National Guardsmen and Kentucky State Police for Derby Day.

Appropriately, the day was bleak and misty, with a foreboding feeling in the air, especially with the sight of National Guardsmen lined up along the inside rail. When the University of Louisville refused to send its band to play at Churchill Downs, members of the Louisville Musician Union came in at the last minute dressed in their street clothes to play “My Old Kentucky Home.”

As for Damascus, for reasons still unknown, the normally professional colt lost his composure going to the paddock and then became uncharacteristically rank during the race.

“He wasn’t himself that day, Whiteley said. “He was kickin’ and raisin’ hell all the way to the paddock. They thought there was gonna be a riot down there, and I don’t know why but everything got messed up. I can’t answer why he acted like that.”

Damascus wound up third behind 30-1 shot Proud Clarion, and the morning after the race Whiteley called Shoemaker and told him emphatically, “You ride this horse back in the Preakness.” Shoemaker replied, ‘Not only will
I ride him back, you get him there quiet and I’ll win it.”

Damascus was back to his old professional self at Pimlico and unleashed one of his patented explosive moves on the far turn to win going away, defeating In Reality and Proud Clarion. After that, Damascus was virtually unbeatable the remainder of the year.

A month earlier, he had begun his heated rivalry with Dr. Fager in the Gotham Stakes, which, like Derby Day, was gray and bleak. There had been doubt whether the race would even be run when the New York horsemen boycotted the entry box a week before the race after a proposed bill to increase purses was allowed to die in committee. Aqueduct had already lost two racing days in March when a surprise blizzard hit New York, dumping eight inches of snow, which immediately froze due to the frigid temperatures.

After several more missed days due to the boycott, racing finally resumed four days before the Gotham following a settlement.

Despite an early morning rain that soaked the track, leaving it deep and holding, a crowd of 50,522 showed up on a damp, foggy afternoon to see the much-anticipated showdown between Damascus and Dr. Fager. The race, which was described briefly earlier, was everything racing fans had hoped for, as the two titans battled to the wire, with Dr. Fager prevailing by a hard-earned half-length. Damascus broke from the outside post and had Dr. Fager pinned down on the inside, but Shoemaker let The Doc come around him and get a clear run at him. Being on the outside gave Dr. Fager a big advantage strategically. The final time of 1:35 1/5 was exceptional considering how deep the track was. After returning, Shoemaker was upset at himself for the ride he gave Damascus and told Whiteley, “Frank, he beat him today, but he never will again as long as I ride him.”

Although Damascus and Dr. Fager would meet only four times, their rivalry was one for the ages. Years later, Peb’s Equine Comedy in The Morning Telegraph showed two survivors of a shipwreck floating on debris. While clutching to their “buoys,” one says to the other, “You’re crazy, I still say Damascus was better than Dr. Fager.” That’s pretty much what it was like.

This was the height of psychedelia, with The Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary representing the drug culture, and The Beatles releasing their Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums. America was embroiled in the Viet Nam war, and the Middle East became a hotbed during the Six-Day War, in which Israel turned back the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in only six days.

The Damascus--Dr. Fager rivalry, which was played out against this backdrop, was as intense as any ever seen and it all began on a gray April afternoon at Aqueduct, when the racing world got its first glimpse of two horses who ignited a fire and a passion as seething as the times in which they lived.

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Speaking of the Six-Day War, the hero of that brief conflict in June of 1967 was Israel's defense minister and military leader Moshe Dayan, recognizable by the patch he wore over one eye.

Once again, we turn to Peb, who was never one to let current events go by without incorporating them into his racing cartoons.

That summer, Peb melded Dayan and the equine juggernaut known as Damascus into an unforgettable sketch, showing Damascus' jockey, Bill Shoemaker, decked out in owner Edith Bancroft's famed Belair (polka dot) silks and wearing a patch over one eye, driving a tank, representing Damascus.

As Saratoga approached, everyone in racing had one common goal: to have the sport's two 3-year-old superstars -- Damascus and Dr. Fager -- lock horns in the historic Travers Stakes.

Damascus had been narrowly defeated by Dr. Fager in the one-mile Gotham Stakes in April, after which Shoemaker vowed to trainer Frank Whiteley that Dr. Fager would never again beat Damascus while he was riding him. Over the next three months, Damascus would win the Wood Memorial, Preakness, Belmont, Leonard Richards, and Dwyer Handicap. Then, on Aug. 5, he journeyed to Arlington where he put on a spectacular show in the American Derby, beating In Reality by seven lengths with one of the most explosive moves ever seen. His time of 1:46 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles was a new track record.

Damascus was on a roll and it looked like no one could stop him. No one with the possible exception of Dr. Fager, who went on to run the fastest mile by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, winning the Withers Stakes eased up in 1:33 4/5. He then romped in the Jersey Derby only to be disqualified in a controversial decision, and then won the Arlington Classic by 10 lengths and the Rockingham Special in track-record time.

It seemed obvious to everyone that Damascus and Dr. Fager were on a collision course that would culminate in the Travers. Then came word from trainer John Nerud that Dr. Fager would instead return to Rockingham for the rich New Hampshire Sweepstakes, which also was the target for In Reality and Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight.

Many felt Nerud was ducking Damascus; that he wanted no part of the colt going a mile and a quarter. Nerud was shrewd and knew how to pick his spots, and he felt Dr. Fager still had some maturing to do, and his big confrontation with Damascus could wait another six weeks when the 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year would be on the line in the Woodward Stakes.

That left the Travers as a virtual walk in the park for Damascus. Every top 3-year-old stayed away. The three who did show up – Reason to Hail, Tumiga, and Gala Performance – were decent colts, but not in the same league as Damascus. Tumiga, in fact, was a top-class sprinter/miler who was stretching out, assuring a hot pace for Damascus.

That year's Travers should have been a total bore. But there was never anything boring about Damascus, who knew how to put on a show with his amazing turn of foot and devastating move. 

The Travers set up perfectly for him. The track had come up sloppy, and Tumiga and Gala Performance went at each other tooth and nail. After a blistering half-mile in :45 4/5, they were still separated by only a half-length, and had already opened up some 16 lengths on Damascus, who was biding his time in third.

No one had any worries about Damascus making up 16 lengths, but there was no way they could have predicted the total annihilation that was to come. Shoemaker finally got into Damascus, and it can be said that no horse ever made up 16 lengths so quickly.

From that far back at the five-eighths pole, he was six lengths in front by the time he reached the quarter pole. He was 10 in front at the eighth pole, and with Shoemaker sitting motionless on him, Damascus continued to draw clear of Reason to Hail, who had taken over second, winning eased up by an incredible 22 lengths. Despite the ease of his victory, Damascus still equaled the track record of 2:01 3/5 that was shared by Buckpasser and Jaipur.

Although it was the Woodward Stakes that most people remember, Damascus' Travers victory remains one of the most devastating performances of all time.

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