It was July 20, 1968. The entire racing world was focused on Aqueduct Racetrack, where Damascus and Dr. Fager were meeting for the fourth time in the Brooklyn Handicap, in what was regarded as one of the most volatile and intense rivalries of all time.
When Damascus crossed the finish line 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Dr. Fager, I stood in the grandstand cheering for my favorite horse. Was I cheering because he had gotten revenge on his arch rival after being defeated by the good doctor in the Suburban Handicap? Was I cheering because he had broken Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record of 1:59 3/5, blazing the mile and a quarter in 1:59 1/5 (a record that still stands 48 years later)? Was I cheering both horses’ feat of carrying 130 pounds or more (Damascus 130 and Dr. Fager 135)?
The answer to all those questions was no. At least that’s not what I was cheering the most. I was cheering the most for Damascus’ rare accomplishment of going over the $1 million mark in earnings, becoming only the eighth millionaire in racing history.
Dr. Fager would join the exclusive club later that year in his career finale, just pushing his earnings over the million-dollar mark at $1,002,642. By the time Damascus retired, he had amassed earnings of $1,176,781. To demonstrate just what a feat this was, five years later, at the end of 1973, only four others had joined the club – Fort Marcy, Cougar II, Secretariat, and Riva Ridge. There were now 13 millionaires and all would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Now, when a horse becomes a millionaire no one notices or cares much. In last fall’s Breeders’ Cup alone, in the nine races for 3-year-olds and up, there were a total of 41 millionaires entered, with 11 of them earning over $2 million.
Yes, of course, earnings in all endeavors have skyrocketed over the years with inflation, and we’ve had several seven-figure bonuses over the years, but there was something special having such an exclusive club at a time when, with the exception of two or three stakes, all major stakes were run for a purse of $100,000. That was the standard for top-class races – how many hundred-granders did he win?
With the expansion of International racing and the rapid growth of racing in Japan, Thoroughbred earnings have gotten completely out of control. By comparison, in the U.S. we had Curlin crack the $10 million mark for the first time in 2008, and his name is now buried on the list of leading international earners, with 14 horses, most of them trained in Japan, ahead of him. The leading earner now is pushing $20 million.
Another dramatic difference in racing’s leading earners of the past compared to the present is their number of career starts. When Curlin broke the $10 million mark, with the help of a victory in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the average number of starts of the top eight earners in the U.S. was 21.8. When Damascus won the Brooklyn, the average number of starts of the eight millionaires was 51.1.
Three of the top eight current earners captured the two richest races – the Dubai World Cup and Breeders Cup Classic, and those three horses – Curlin, Invasor, and Pleasantly Perfect – averaged only 13.3 career starts. The other dual winner of those two races was Cigar. Smarty Jones, whose earnings were bolstered by a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park, made only nine career starts
The only filly back then even remotely close to being a millionaire was the chestnut amazon, Shuvee, who swept the NYRA Filly Triple Crown and captured the Alabama, Diana, Top Flight, Ladies Handicap, Beldame Stakes, and back-to-back runnings of the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. She no doubt would have also beaten the boys in the Woodward Stakes, but was interfered with and bounced off the rail while making a winning move. She retired with 44 starts and earnings of $890,445.
There is no point being made here, just a little history lesson and a reminder of how different racing was then compared to now – in money won and number of career starts.
At the start of 1973, before Secretariat launched the Triple Crown boom of the 1970s, five of the 10 millionaires did not compete in a single Triple Crown race.
To demonstrate how special each horse was, in order of earnings:
Kelso was voted Horse of the Year an unprecedented five straight years, winning the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup five straight years and coming within a nose winning the Woodward Stakes four straight years. He also equaled or broke nine track records on dirt and grass.
Round Table equaled or broke an amazing 15 track records – 11 on dirt and five on grass at nine different racetracks. He became the first horse to break the 2:00 mark for 1 1/4 miles five times and the first horse to break the 1:59 mark twice – running 1:58 3/5 on dirt and 1:58 2/5 on grass.
Buckpasser captured 15 straight races, setting a new world record for the mile. He was so dominant, Hialeah ran the 11-horse Flamingo Stakes as an exhibition race, dubbed the “Chicken Flamingo.” He won at 10 different distances from five furlongs to two miles.
Nashua set a new track record in the Preakness that would stand for 16 years and set a new track record in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup that would be broken by Kelso. He equaled or broke track records at six furlongs and two miles and defeated Swaps by 6 1/2 lengths in a much-publicized match race at Washington Park.
Carry Back won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, despite starting a remarkable 21 times as a 2-year-old, making his first start at 2 on Jan. 29 in a three-furlong race. After 13 starts, he still had not raced farther than 5 1/2 furlongs. He ran seven times as a 3-year-old before winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. At 4, he won the Met Mile, equaling the track record of 1:33 3/5 and became one of the few American horses to compete in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Damascus won 11 major stakes at 3 by an average margin of nearly six lengths, winning the Wood Memorial by six lengths; the American Derby by seven lengths, breaking the track record that still stands; the Travers Stakes by 22 lengths, equaling the track record; and the Woodward Stakes by 10 lengths, defeating Horses of the Year and Hall of Famers Dr. Fager and Buckpasser. In the Travers, he not only won by 22 lengths, he came from 16 lengths back down the backstretch. At 4, he finished third in the Suburban Handicap under 133 pounds, third in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 131 pounds, and won the Brooklyn Handicap in track-record time under 130 pounds, all in the span of 16 days.
Fort Marcy had the distinction of being voted champion grass horse in 1967 and 1970 and became the first pure grass horse to be named Horse of the Year (in 1970). He also defeated fellow millionaire Damascus in the 1967 Washington D.C. International. Although based on the East Coast his entire career, he won or placed in eight major stakes in California.
Citation captured the Triple Crown, after which there would be a 25-year gap until the next Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. He also won 16 consecutive races and became racing’s first ever millionaire after missing his entire 4-year-old year due to injury.
Native Diver won the Hollywood Gold Cup three straight years at ages 6, 7, and 8. He equaled or broke seven track records, all in California, where he raced in 80 of his 81 races. In all, he won 37 races, 34 of them stakes. He ran six furlongs in 1:08 2/5, seven furlongs in 1:20 flat, and 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 4/5, the last one as an 8-year-old, when he captured six stakes at five different distances.
Dr. Fager is still the only horse ever to win four championships in a single year – Sprinter, Grass Horse, Handicap Horse, and Horse of the Year. His combination of weight carrying ability and speed were unprecedented, setting a new world record for the mile of 1:32 1/5 carrying 134 pounds and winning by 10 eased up lengths, a record that would last for three decades; setting a new track record of 1:20 1/5 for seven furlongs, carrying 139 pounds and winning by six lengths; equaling the track record of 1:59 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles, carrying 132 pounds; running the fastest mile ever by a 3-year-old in New York, winning by six lengths in 1:33 4/5; and shattering the track record by three full seconds for 1 1/4 miles at Rockingham Park, winning in 1:59 4/5.
Yes, that millionaire’s club was something, and it took a very special horse to join.