It Started With Damascus 50 Years Ago

It is 2017. That means it’s been 50 years since Thoroughbred racing entered, encompassed, and changed my life, altering its course forever. It pulled me out of the frenzied, often cutthroat world of Wall Street and brought to my life a passion and a spirit I had never experienced before.

For half a century I have tried to share that passion and spirit, and as readers of this blog can attest, I have often attempted to bring the early superstars that lured me into this wondrous new world back to life.

Heading that list will always be Damascus, who then paved the way for Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Gallant Bloom, and the numerous great horses to follow.

Yes, this year will mark the 50th anniversary of Damascus’ Herculean feats that still resonate throughout the history books, if only one looks deep enough. Over the years I have felt privileged and in some ways obligated to keep reminding today’s racing fans of what Damascus accomplished over a remarkable 32-race career.

Just seeing color photos of those historic Belair white with red polka dots silks that Damascus carried to so many spectacular victories brings back special feelings that only a wide-eyed novice can experience. Those colors are ingrained in the 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.

It was Damascus who helped lure me into a world I never knew existed; one of grace and beauty and boundless thrills. Now, 50 years later, I appreciate a horse like Damascus more than ever. Here was a horse held together by sinews of steel, who raced 16 times at 3; who won at 10 different distances from six furlongs to two miles; who set track records under heavy imposts; and who won the equivalent of 12 grade I stakes.

It was Damascus who breathed life into a hollow existence, numbed from years of toiling mindlessly on Wall Street. It was because of Damascus that I felt as if I was 20 going on 12.

Back then, 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. The dark grey silks, yellow braid, and yellow sleeves of Arts and Letters. The black and gold stripes of Majestic Prince. And the brown and white silks and Running W of Gallant Bloom. They were as identifiable as the noble steeds beneath them.

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 to me it is Damascus who always asks the question: what if he raced today and accomplished the things he did.

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 should rank among the greatest horses of all time, 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. That’s 15 races with an average length time between races of 16 days. And he actually got stronger as the year went on.

Damascus was a horse who needed to be raced into shape. The following year, with only one easy allowance victory in five months after recovering from a grueling three-race trip to California, he was a short horse when he tackled Dr. Fager in the mile and a quarter Suburban Handicap, Carrying topweight of 133 pounds, with no speed to run with the good doctor, he was forced to eyeball his archrival early, making four separate moves at him. Four times Dr. Fager turned back his challenge and went on to equal Aqueduct's track record of 1:59 3/5, with Damascus tiring to finish third. Damascus came back in the mile an a quarter Amory Haskell Handicap carrying topweight of 131 pounds, and after stumbling badly at the start, he ran well to again finish third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by the top-class Bold Hour, in receipt of 16 pounds. Those two races actually got Damascus 100 percent fit when he took on Dr. Fager again in the mile and a quarter Brooklyn Handicap. This time carrying 130 pounds and getting five pounds from Dr. Fager, he took advantage of the rapid pace set by stablemate Hedevar and finally was able to use his devastating turn of foot to roar by Dr. Fager and win by going away by 2 1/2 lengths in a new track record 1:59 1/5, breaking Dr. Fager's short-lived record. That mark amazingly still stands after 50 years.

So, Damascus had run third going a mile and a quarter under 133 pounds, pushing Dr. Fager to a track-record equaling time, ran a close third going a mile and a quarter under 131 pounds after an eventful trip, giving the winner 16 pounds, and then won convincingly going a mile and quarter in track-record time under 130 pounds defeating Dr. Fager...all in the span of 16 days.

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 (yes, one week later) to win the Wood Memorial 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 (See farther down for more details). 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. To this day, I have never seen a more consistently devastating move on the far turn. His turn of foot and ability to make up great amounts of ground in a flash has never been equaled.

As a newcomer to the sport, it was difficult to come to terms with the sight of Damascus being loaded on to an ambulance after his career finale in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Frank Whiteley did not want to run him because of a tendon issue, but was overruled. Damascus, equipped with front bandages for the first time in his life, bowed his tendon during the race and refused to be pulled up until he crossed the finish line, where jockey Larry Adams finally was able to get him to come to a halt. It was a sad way for such a sound and durable horse to go out.

I never could have imagined that a racehorse would pave the road I would take in life. But here I am after five decades, and the road Damascus paved for me still is as magical as the day I first set foot on it.

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

Kentucky Derby Mystery and a Gotham Gone Awry

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.

Derby week marked the arrival in Louisville of Rev. Martin Luther King. 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.

In addition to civil rights protests, 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. A year later, Martin Luher King and Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated and hundreds of unarmed civilians would be killed in the My Lai massacre, which outraged Americans.

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.

Damascus’ Travers Demolition

As Saratoga approached in 1967, 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.

The memories go on an on and are still fresh in the mind’s eye 50 years later.

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