It is the Fourth of July weekend and the New York Racing Association thankfully is still running the historic and prestigious Suburban Handicap, even if the Graded Stakes Committee is still asleep keeping it a grade II event, despite its history, as the second leg of the Handicap Triple Crown, and being won by such notables as Easy Goer, Invasor, Skip Away, Mucho Macho Man, Mineshaft, Lemon Drop Kid, Albert the Great, Flat Out, and Effinex since 1990.
I have written numerous times about that epic, gut-wrenching duel in the 1968 Suburban between Dr. Fager and Damascus, who carried 132 and 133 pounds, respectfully, with Dr. Fager equaling the track record of 1:59 3/5. Damascus would break that record 16 days later in their rematch in the Brooklyn Handicap, in which he carried 130 pounds to Dr. Fager’s 135. Damascus’ record of 1:59 1/5 still stands 48 years later.
That race and those times brought back memories, not only of being at Aqueduct for both races, but, as a wide-eyed novice to the sport keeping scrapbooks on both horses. Those were the days when scrapbooks were filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, written by some of the most respected turf writers and sports writers in the country. Newspaper clippings and most magazine clippings (from Thoroughbred Record and Turf and Sport Digest) have all but gone the way of the dinosaurs, so today’s internet racing fans must find new ways of preserving their special moments.
Gone is that smell of day old newspapers and carefully cutting out the articles of photos and lining them up just right in your scrapbook. For some, the all important final touch was putting just the right amount of glue on the edges and in the center of the clipping so that it didn’t smear onto the page itself or seep through the article. For others, the clippings were kept in albums, preserved under a thin layer of plastic. But glue often had to be dabbed on anyway to prevent the article from sliding out of place.
My scrapbook days lasted only until 1972 when the last of my early favorite horses, His Majesty, retired. Before him were scrapbooks on Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Arts and Letters. By then I was head librarian at the Daily Racing Form and shortly after, in the mid ‘70s, I began writing freelance on occasion, with pipedreams of following in the hallowed footsteps of Bill Nack, Charlie Hatton, and David Alexander, knowing full well I would never come remotely close to attaining that status. But it at least helped keep me moving forward, trying to improve whatever writing skills I may have had.
But even after all these years, I still treasure those early scrapbooks that helped to preserve my memories of a time when you could actually feel those stories in your hand and protect them from time and the elements as you would a fragile plant or that intricate model of Old Ironsides, with its hundreds of pieces, that it took you weeks to glue together.
So, in honor of the Suburban Handicap, and that unforgettable battle between Hall of Famers, here are some memories from those old scrapbooks.
New York Post writer William Rudy reports on Dr. Fager's Suburban Handicap victory in the Blood-Horse.
One of my favorite photos was this New York Times photo of Dr. Fager being led into the winner's circle following the Suburban. Check out the massive crowd and see how many females and how many men, or anyone for that matter, under the age of 40 you can find. Where are all the youngsters?
This is how the Thoroughbred Record reported on Dr. Fager's memorable finale in the Vosburgh Handicap.
The New York Times covered Dr. Fager's departure from the racetrack as he left for Tartan Farm in Ocala. As he walked out of his barn a gust of wind blew his mane on end, giving him the appearance of a Spartan warrior going to battle. It was an appropriate final look at this magnificent horse.
In their rematch in the Brooklyn Handicap, it was Damascus this time coming out on top and going over the million-dollar mark in earnings; a rare feat in those days. This photo appeared in the New York Daily News.
In a race billed as "The Race of the Century," Damascus crushed Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes, as reported in the New York Daily News.
Sports Illustrated captured Damascus's domination in the Woodward, a race that featured three future Hall of Famers.
Arts and Letters became more invincible as the year wore on, easily winning the Travers Stakes.
How popular did Arts and Letters become in the summer of '69? The crowd that gathered around his tree before the Travers was believed to be the largest ever at Saratoga, as shown by Sports Illustrated.
This headline was indicative of the atmosphere before the Belmont Stakes, as Arts and Letters' reputation grew by the day following his impressive score in the Met Mile and a blazing workout.
The greatest front page of all time.
The greatest back page of all time.
The newspaper clippings may have yellowed with time, but back then they were the Holy Scriptures for racing fans, our link to a time that has long passed us by.
(To read about the 1968 Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps in detail and the story behind the rivalry, here is a link to my column from last year in case you missed it -- http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2015/08/15/nerud-the-fox-and-the-rivalry.aspx)
(To read about the story of Arts and Letters and that fantastic crop of 3-year-olds, here is a link to my column from 2011 -- http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2011/09/20/hangin-with-haskin-my-favorite-year.aspx)