The date September 30 is so ingrained in my mind I sometimes have to pause for a second so I don’t confuse it with the date of my wedding anniversary, which is September 28. (See the confessions I have to make for the sake of this column). I had already entered the portal into the world of Thoroughbred racing, but that was the day I broke through, never to turn back.
Patience has never been one of my virtues, and that is why I can’t wait until next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the race they called “The race of the Century,” the 1967 Woodward Stakes, which was run on September 30 to decide Horse of the Year honors…and much more.
What made this race such an epic event in racing history surprisingly was not the running of the race or the result, both of which many found unfulfilling because of the use of two rabbits and the total domination of one horse, but the actual showdown among three of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.
Buckpasser! Damascus! Dr. Fager! Their names resounded throughout the racing world, symbolizing the power, brilliance, and class of the Thoroughbred.
A showdown in the Woodward Stakes is what racing fans clamored for all year. And as summer ended and Damascus and Dr. Fager roared through impressive victory after impressive victory and Buckpasser appeared to be rounding back into top form following a nagging ankle injury, it finally looked like it was going to happen.
As the big day grew near, the race began to take on epic proportions. Gene Ward, racing columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote: “It’s a rare occasion when the two best colts of any given season are hooked up in a glamour gallop. But the true dream race arrives when there are three of them, as close talent-wise as your next breath, all in action together.”
As big a race as the ’67 Woodward was, no one at the time realized the true magnitude of the event. You had three Horses of the Year and three Hall of Famers who, between them, would capture an amazing 12 championships, equal or break 11 track records, set two world records, and win carrying 130 pounds or more 12 times. Six of those records have never been broken. When Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/4-mile track record at Aqueduct, he broke Dr. Fager’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/8-mile track record at Arlington Park, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga, he equaled Buckpasser’s previous record.
In 81 combined starts, they won 64 races, 54 of them stakes, and finished out of the money only three times – Dr. Fager on a disqualification after finishing first by 6 1/2 lengths in one of the most controversial stewards decisions of all time, Damascus after being eased in his final start with a bowed tendon, and Buckpasser in his first career start, in which he finished fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs. So, for all intents and purposes they never finished out of the money in 81 starts.
Rather than focus right away on the actual race, which many have dismissed over the years because it failed in their eyes to live up to expectations, I want to first focus more on the actual winner, because in my mind Damascus is the most underrated horse of my lifetime and never received the credit he deserved over the years and especially in the Woodward. Yes, there was the presence of two rabbits, Hedevar and Great Power, to kill off Dr. Fager, but the fact remains that Damascus defeated two Hall of Famers, not by two or three lengths, but 10 lengths after blowing the doors off both Dr. Fager and Buckpasser.
Imagine how popular Damascus would be if he raced today, although trainer Frank Whiteley likely would be widely criticized on social media for running the horse too often. But the bottom line is that Damascus actually got stronger as the year went on and no one knew their horses more than Whiteley, known as the “Fox of Laurel.”
Here was a true iron horse, best described back then as all hickory, competing constantly at the highest level. At 3, Damascus ran 16 times, winning 12, 11 of them major stakes. During his career 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. He won or placed at 11 different racetracks in seven different states.
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), a record that still stands. 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. Only two horses – Kelso and Prove Out – have won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in faster time. Despite battling a tendon late in his 4-year-old campaign, he still won stakes carrying 130 pounds and 134 pounds twice.
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, 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 promised Whiteley he would never get beat on Damascus again. As difficult as it may seem to believe today, Damascus followed up his Gotham defeat with a six-length romp in the Wood Memorial…one week later.
That is only one example of how truly remarkable Damascus’ 3-year-old campaign was. 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. As mentioned earlier, not only did he get stronger as the year wore on, he flew to California immediately after getting beat a nose by eventual Horse of the Year and grass champion Fort Marcy in the 1 1/2-mile Washington D.C. International in his first ever start on grass on Nov. 11 and won the Malibu Stakes on Jan. 6 and the San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 20.
At 4, when he won the Brooklyn in track-record time, he was making his third start in 16 days, all at 1 1/4 miles, all in grade I-equivalent stakes, and all carrying 130 pounds or more. Imagine a horse today carrying 130 pounds or more in grade I stakes three times in 16 days.
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 to this day. He ran low to the ground, and when he took off nearing 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.
When I think back to those days, I think of colors. Damascus’ Belair silks of white with red polka dots and red cap are ingrained in my memory and still evoke images and feelings of a time long gone; of innocence, and the unbridled joy of victory and the gut-pounding sadness of defeat, and butterflies in the stomach. That is the magic of entering a new world and discovering one’s passion in life– everything is so pure and pristine.
It was Damascus who thrust me into a world I never knew existed; one of grace and beauty and boundless thrills. It’s been 49 years since my life-altering encounter with Damascus and Thoroughbred racing, and those colors still get to me. In fact, racing to a spellbound neophyte was a tapestry of colors – a kaleidoscope of rich hues and intricate patterns. I can still see them. The red silks and tartan sash of Dr. Fager. The black silks and red cap of Buckpasser. I can see all three horses parading to the post on that late September afternoon and seemingly flowing in perfect unison around the Aqueduct oval. Although Damascus’ overpowering victory had me leaping off my couch, looking back now, it was the sight of all three horses primed for battle and the colors they wore that remains embedded in the mind. And of course those white silks and red polka dots in isolated splendor down the stretch.
The 1967 Woodward may not have stood the test of time, but on that day, before a crowd of over 55,000, racing showed the world why it was truly the Sport of Kings. And when it was over, one horse sat alone atop the throne.
The days leading up to the race were filled with excitement and anticipation. Charles Hatton wrote in the Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form, “The prospect of a battle royal in the Woodward has gripped the imagination of the entire Turf world.”
Eddie Neloy, trainer of Buckpasser, assured everyone that the defending Horse of the Year, who hadn’t run in two months, was “fit and fine,” and proved it by working him a mile and an eighth in 1:49 1/5. Buckpasser had scored victories in the Met Mile under 130 pounds and the Suburban Handicap under 133 pounds. His two defeats came in his grass debut in the Bowling Green Handicap under 135 pounds and the Brooklyn Handicap under 136 pounds, in which he was conceding 20 pounds to the Allen Jerkens-trained speedster Handsome Boy, who won wire to wire in a swift 2:00 1/5. Earlier in the year, Buckpasser captured the Malibu and San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita.
John Nerud, trainer of Dr. Fager, was confident his horse finally was ready to take on Damascus at a mile and a quarter, but condemned the use of rabbits by Damascus and Buckpasser, saying, “I think if I was confident I had the best horse I would not be using up two to beat one.”
And lurking in the background was The Giant Killer, Allen Jerkens, who had Handsome Boy primed for another upset.
The big day finally arrived. In addition to being televised by WPIX (Channel 11) in New York, special arrangement was made for the race to be shown on closed circuit at Atlantic City Race Course and to stations in Philadelphia, Ocala, Fla,, and Miami. The race was also broadcast around the world via Armed Forces Radio.
Despite heavy rains the day before, the track was upgraded to fast by post time, but still held a great deal of moisture and was not producing fast times. The crowd had a tough times deciding on a favorite, sending the Buckpasser entry off as the 8-5 favorite, with the Damascus entry and Dr. Fager both 9-5. Handsome Boy was given some respect at 10-1.
As if Dr. Fager wasn’t in enough of a precarious situation, he drew post 2, with the two rabbits, Hedevar, a former world-record holder at a mile, and Great Power, directly to his inside and outside. With the Doc’s regular rider Braulio Baeza committed to Buckpasser, Bill Boland was given the mount. So that was another strike against him, having a new rider on his back.
The start was quite a sight, as Ron Turcotte, on Hedevar, pushed hard coming out of the gate, and then gave his mount two right-handed whacks with the whip, while Bob Ussery stung Great Power four times in rapid succession. Turcotte then went to the whip two more times entering the clubhouse turn. All the time, both riders were screaming in an attempt to stir up Dr. Fager even more. Here were two of the fastest horses in the country in an all-out drive under the whip and neither could outrun Dr. Fager, who was under a stranglehold by Boland.
Ussery later said, “Mr. Neloy never said to kill off Dr. Fager. He just said to go to the lead at all costs. That’s what the man wanted and he was paying me to do my job.”
Great Power didn’t last very long and quickly retreated after a quarter of a mile, but the classier Hedevar clung to Dr. Fager and pushed him through torrid fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 1/5. Boland, like most riders, was no match for Dr. Fager and couldn’t hold him any longer. When he let him go, The Doc blasted away from Hedevar and opened a 1 1/2-length lead after three-quarters in a suicidal 1:09 1/5, with a gap of six lengths between Hedevar and Handsome Boy in third.
Meanwhile, Bill Shoemaker, on Damascus and Baeza were content to sit at the back of the pack, about a dozen lengths off the lead. Buckpasser’s big late run had become such a common sight, track announcer Fred Capossela, who never editorialized in the slightest, called, “…and Buckpasser is last and hasn’t made his move…as yet.”
Around the far turn, Dr. Fager finally shook free of Hedevar, but Boland had lost control of him and was merely a passenger as Damascus and Buckpasser began to close in for the kill. It was obvious passing the three-eighths pole that Buckpasser on this day was no match for Damascus, who was all over Dr. Fager in a flash and was a half-length in front by the time they hit the quarter pole. Damascus was now the proverbial runaway train and charged past Dr. Fager with his head low and body angled to the inside by sheer momentum. It was now only a question of how far he would win by. He was five in front at the eighth pole and continued to pour it on, winning by 10 lengths, with Buckpasser just getting up for second over a weary-legged Dr. Fager.
The Race of the Century didn’t turn out like most had expected or hoped. No one could have foreseen it becoming a procession and coronation for Damascus following a long, arduous campaign. Most of the talk after the race was about the use of the rabbits instead of Damascus’ demolition of two of the greatest horses of all time. It no doubt was a classic case of two horses ganging up on one, and as a result, Damascus never really received the proper credit for his visually breathtaking victory in 2:00 3/5.
A totally frustrated Nerud approached New York Racing Association chairman James Cox Brady after the race and said, “You tell them (Damascus’ owner Edith W. Bancroft and her husband Tom) I’ll put up $50,000 and the association will put up $50,000. Winner-take-all, Dr. Fager against Damascus. They put up nothing.” But Brady quickly dismissed the idea, so Nerud sent Dr. Fager to Chicago for the Hawthorne Gold Cup three weeks later where he won easily, while Damascus romped again in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.
And so the Race of the Century was history. No one would ever use that term again. Personally speaking, I will always be grateful that Damascus came into my life at a time he was greatly needed.. 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.
Dr. Fager would also become a very special horse in my life, and I had the privilege of calling John Nerud one of my dearest friends until his death at age 102. I also had the privilege of writing Dr. Fager’s biography.
One of the greatest honors ever bestowed me was when Frank Whiteley’s longtime assistant Mike Bell called me up during Derby week of 2008 and told me that Whiteley, who was very ill at the time, had requested right before his death that I write his obituary.
Through my lasting friendships with Whiteley and Nerud, and countless memories, the legacies of both Damascus and Dr. Fager have remained an integral part of me for half a century.
It’s been 49 years since the Woodward and I can still feel that excitement of watching Damascus draw away in the stretch. The race may have been forgotten by many, but all I know is that on September 30, 1967, Damascus stood among the mighty and towered above them all.