As reported several times before, this is my 50th anniversary in racing, which means the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable year of Damascus, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, In Reality, and so many other talented horses. Throughout the year, I will be writing retrospective columns on some the most memorable races and events.
As a celebration of this anniversary I have already written about my humble beginnings in the sport
Dr. Fager’s New Hampshire Sweepstakes
And, of course, the iconic 1967 Woodward Stakes
But there is one race that was seen by virtually no one, not live or on tape, even after all these years. Racing fans nowadays, who are able to watch any race anywhere in the country as many times as they wish, know of the greats of the ‘60s only by reputation and the occasional black and white film clip, most of which are of extremely poor quality.
Other than Dr. Fager’s historic world record performance in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap, which can barely be seen on the badly faded clip that was preserved only through a Sports Illustrated produced feature, the vast majority of great races from Arlington Park have never been seen. And Arlington Park was one of the great tracks of that era, with dirt races like the American Derby, Arlington Classic, Washington Park Handicap, Chicagoan Stakes, and the rich Arlington-Washington Futurity and Lassie all attracting the nation’s top horses. Later in the year, at Hawthorne Race Course, the Hawthorne Gold Cup also drew many of the sport’s top stars.
Because of that, racing fans missed one of the most electrifying performances ever witnessed in the state of Illinois, or anywhere for that matter; one which has gone unseen and unappreciated over the years.
Those who follow the speed sheets figures would be astounded at what Damascus accomplished, not only in the American Derby, but in the subsequent Travers Stakes. This was a time when the word “bounce” had absolutely no meaning and horses took five and six weeks off between races only if they had a physical problem. This was an era of horses actually racing. Considering most of the great ones were homebreds, there were no breeding farms beckoning with megabucks in an attempt to lure horses into the breeding shed prematurely.
Damascus went into the August 5 American Derby having already run 10 times as a 3-year-old, including victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. To this day, no one has been able to explain Damascus’ third-place finish as the 8-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, other than trainer Frank Whiteley suspiciously saying that the colt was not acting right that day and fretted badly going to the track and in the post parade.
To demonstrate how the Derby trail has changed drastically over the years, Damascus, in the first of his epic clashes with Dr. Fager, was beaten a half-length by the Good Doctor in a hard-fought Gotham Stakes, in which Bill Shoemaker took responsibility for the defeat and vowed that Damascus would never be beaten by Dr. Fager again as long as he was on his back. The pair ran the mile in a sharp 1:35 1/5, with a five-length gap to third-place finisher Reason to Hail.
Despite the hard race, Damascus came back to win the Wood Memorial by six lengths…one week later. Then came the Derby in two weeks, the Preakness in two weeks, the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, and a victory in the Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware Park two weeks after the Belmont. That’s six stakes races in a period of 10 weeks, including all three Triple Crown races.
When Damascus was beaten by a nose at 1-5 by the older horse Exceedingly in the William DuPont Handicap on July 8, giving the 4-year-old eight actual pounds and 17 pounds on the scale, Whiteley decided to wheel him right back in the 1 1/4-mile Dwyer Handicap one week later, despite Damascus having to carry topweight of 128 pounds. The track came up sloppy, and Damascus, after making his patented explosive move on the far turn, going from 12 lengths back to one length back in a quarter of a mile. But in the stretch, he couldn’t shake free from a stubborn Favorable Turn, who was getting 16 pounds. Damascus dug in gamely and pulled out the victory by three-quarters of a length.
By today’s standards, the obvious move would be to wait the five weeks for the Travers. That would be perfect timing, especially after such a hard race in the slop under that kind of weight. But back then, when a horse was in top form, you ran him, and Whiteley had no interest in waiting five weeks with the 1 1/8-mile American Derby sitting there three weeks later.
Dr. Fager was suffering from a virus at the time, so Whiteley didn’t have to worry about him. His main concern was In Reality, who had run a solid second to Damascus in Preakness after having won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby earlier in the year. He then was placed first in the Jersey Derby after the egregious disqualification of Dr. Fager, in what is regarded as one of the worst disqualifications in racing history, due mainly to the personal vendetta one of the stewards had against jockey Manny Ycaza, who had a nefarious reputation to begin with. It wiped out a brilliant 6 1/4-length victory by Dr. Fager.
In Reality then went home to Monmouth Park where he captured the six-furlong Rumson Handicap and 1 1/16-mile Choice Stakes.
Because Damascus had to carry 126 pounds in the American Derby and give away substantial chunks of weight to top-class stakes horses, Whiteley, not wanting to give Damascus another strenuous race with the Travers only two weeks later, decided to feel out In Reality’s trainer Sunshine Calvert, asking him what his intentions were.
Calvert assured Whiteley that he wanted no part of Damascus, feeling that after the Preakness defeat there was no sense trying him again. So Whiteley went ahead and sent Damascus to Arlington Park, which still would be no stroll in the park with Blue Grass Stakes winner Diplomat Way, getting eight pounds from Damascus; Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind, in receipt of six pounds; Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight, who had finished ahead of Damascus at Churchill Downs and was coming off a victory in the one-mile Assault Handicap at Arlington Park in 1:33 1/5, getting 10 pounds, and Favorable Turn, who had given Damascus all he could handle in the Dwyer, and Gentleman James, third in the Belmont Stakes, both in receipt of 14 pounds from Damascus.
But when Whiteley arrived at Arlington after vanning Damascus there, he was in for a surprise. He went into the track kitchen, and sitting there was none other than Sunshine Calvert.
“You little lyin’ s.o.b.,” Whiteley growled at the diminutive Calvert, who tried to defend himself.
“Well, I saw you had to spot me six pounds, so I felt if I was ever going to beat him this would be the time.”
Despite the weight concessions, Damascus was sent off as the 4-5 favorite. He would have been lower if it wasn’t for the presence of In Reality, who took a lot of money at 7-2. Barbs Delight also was getting played at 5-1.
At the start, Barbs Delight, as expected, shot to the lead and quickly opened a two-length advantage after a sharp opening quarter in :22 4/5. Around the clubhouse turn, the seven-horse field was already strung out, with Bill Shoemaker and Damascus 15 lengths off the lead. In Reality, farther back than usual under Earlie Fires, had settled in fifth, about five lengths ahead of Damascus.
Down the backstretch, Barbs Delight maintained his two-length lead, followed by Favorable Turn and Diplomat Way, with the half in a lively :46 flat.
Going into the far turn, Barbs Delight kept up his brisk pace, hitting the three-quarter marker in 1:10 1/5. It was time for Shoemaker to step on the gas. Damascus had amazed racegoers several times with his spectacular turn of foot, pouncing on horses like a cat its prey. When Shoemaker unleashed Damascus, he took off after the leaders, but despite running his next quarter in a blazing :23 flat, he still was six lengths back with only one horse beat.
Passing the three-eighths pole, Shoemaker switched into second gear and the result was devastating. Damascus, as usual, lowered his head slightly, and with lightning-quick strides, he circled the field, sweeping by horses in a flash. Six lengths back the three-eighths pole, he was two lengths in front at the top of the stretch.
Damascus had a tendency to loaf, which cost him several races in his career, and he usually needed an early wake-up call to turn on the afterburners. Shoemaker gave him six or seven right-handed whacks with the whip to keep his mind on business and Damascus just kept pouring it on, opening a four-length lead at the eighth pole.
After another blistering quarter in :23 1/5, Damascus continued to draw clear with every stride, as an overmatched and overwhelmed In Reality tried futilely to keep up. Shoemaker just hand-rode Damascus the rest of the way, cruising to a seven-length victory, with In Reality drawing three lengths clear of third-place finisher Favorable Turn.
Damascus’ final time of 1:46 4/5 erased Buckpasser’s track record and missed the world record by only two-fifths of a second. Even more impressive was Damascus’ final five-eighths in a spectacular :58 2/5.
The superlatives came flying in immediately after the race. Arlington Park race-caller Phil Georgeff and Blood-Horse writer Joe Agrella both called it “electrifying.” Daily Racing Form columnist Don Grisham called it an “illuminating demonstration.” And Elmer Polzin, writing in the Thoroughbred Record, used the words, “explosive,” “blistering,” and “demoralizing.”
Georgeff, who had been calling races at Arlington for over 40 years, added, “That was absolutely amazing. He suddenly went into overdrive and that was it. I’ll never forget it.”
It was also a rude awakening for Earlie Fires, who always felt In Reality was by far the best horse he’d ever ridden. But after the American Derby, he finally threw in the towel, trying to beat Damascus.
“I didn’t think Damascus was quite that good, but when the proof is right there in front of you at the eighth pole, there isn’t much you can do.”
And what did Sunshine Calvert have to say after the race?
“I'm heading back to New Jersey.”
So, following a performance of such magnitude in near-world-record time, Damascus surely was going to regress (or bounce) coming back in only two weeks in the Travers, right?. Yes. Damascus bounced. He bounced all the way around the sloppy racetrack, going from 16 lengths back at the five-eighths pole to win by a staggering 22 lengths, equaling the track record, despite being on cruise control almost the entire stretch.
And believe it or not, the best was yet to come, as the legend of Damascus reached its zenith in the September 30 Woodward Stakes, in what many called the “Race of the Century.” A race that Damascus once again would turn into a procession.
But before there was the talk of rabbits and Damascus’ 10-length annihilation of future Hall of Famers Buckpasser and Dr. Fager, there was the American Derby, and a performance that lives on only in the imagination.