2018 Brings a Volatile and Special 50th Anniversary

Boy, do we have some amazing 50th anniversaries in Thoroughbred racing to look forward to in 2018; anniversaries of some of the greatest horses in history, some of the most amazing performances, and certainly one of the most controversial stories of the century. Many of these will be addressed in columns throughout the year.

To put everyone in the right frame of mind to understand just what a volatile and special year 1968 was, and how racing reflected the times, here is what the world was like that year.

To begin with, the average yearly income in America was $7,800, and a new house cost $15,000. Gas was 34 cents a gallon.

This was the year of Vietnam War protests and the march on Washington D.C., and the election of Richard Nixon as President. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated two months apart. The horrors of the Vietnam War would eventually be brought to the public’s awareness with the disclosure of the My Lai massacre in 1968, where 400 to 500 Vietnamese civilians, including men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered by American troops in the village of My Lai.

San Francisco was going through the psychedelic drug scene following the summer of love in 1967. America was introduced to the new 911 emergency phone number and the first heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in December, 1967. At the movies, The Graduate became the quintessential coming of age film.

One of the ways Americans escaped from all the political turmoil was going to the track, as some 14 million people attended the races in New York and California alone. One of the most anticipated events of 1968 was the opening of the new Belmont Park, which had closed down in 1962 and was demolished in 1963 to be rebuilt at a cost of over $30 million. Crowds of 50,000 on a Saturday were commonplace at Aqueduct through the ‘60s, and swelled to over 70,000 on Memorial Day and Labor Day.

On May 25, five days after the opening of Belmont Park, the diminutive Dark Mirage, to this day the tiniest Thoroughbred racehorse I have ever seen, romped by six lengths in the Acorn Stakes, and then followed that up with 10-length and 12-length demolitions in the Mother Goose Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks to become the first ever Filly Triple Crown winner. This was a filly who stood barely 15 hands and weighed less than 800 pounds, and who was by the obscurely bred Persian Road II, out of a deaf mare named Home By Dark. She was so lightly regarded at 2 she was sent off at odds of 112-1 and 101-1, but would go on to win 10 races in a row, nine of them stakes, and be elected into the Hall of Fame. When I think of the opening of Belmont Park in all its magnificence I always think of the mighty mite Dark Mirage. My first visit to Belmont was with my father and it was to see Dark Mirage win the Mother Goose.

Of course, 1968 in my mind will always be highlighted by the titanic battles in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps between those two legendary rivals Dr. Fager and Damascus. I have written about these two epic confrontations on several occasions. In the Suburban, Dr. Fager defeated Damascus, equaling the track record of 1:59 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles, while carrying 132 pounds to 133 pounds for Damascus. Then in the Brooklyn, only 16 days later, Damascus, carrying 130 pounds, broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived record, with
his time of 1:59 1/5 still a record after 50 years. Dr. Fager ran one of his greatest races to finish second carrying 135 pounds, while having to contend with Damascus’ rabbit Hedevar and a brutally fast pace, yet still running the same time he did in the Suburban, a race in which Hedevar was a late scratch.

What was even more amazing was that Damascus actually ran in between both races, finishing a troubled third to Bold Hour in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 131 pounds, conceding 15 pounds to the winner. So Damascus raced three times carrying 130 pounds or more in a span of 16 days, breaking the track record in the third of those three races. In other words, he actually got stronger, despite the weights and cramming three races in a little over two weeks.

But 1968 will always be the year of Dr. Fager, just as 1967 was the year of Damascus. The Good Doctor won seven of his eight races, carrying weights of 130, 130, 132, 135, 132, 134, 134, and a staggering 139. His most memorable victory was his world-record mile of 1:32 1/5 in the Washington Park Handicap, carrying 134 pounds and winning by 10 lengths eased up the length of the stretch. No horse has broken that record in half a century. In his career finale, the Vosburgh Handicap, he set a track record of 1:20 1/5 over a track that had just been winterized and was about a full second slower than normal. And he did it winning by six lengths under 139 pounds, again eased up.

At the end of the year, by winning the United Nations Handicap on sheer guts over a slippery course in his grass debut, defeating record holder Advocator, future Hall of Famer and Horse of Year Fort Marcy, and the Australian wonder horse Tobin Bronze, Dr. Fager became the first and only horse ever to win four championships in a single year – Horse of the Year, Handicap Horse, Sprinter, and Grass Horse.

Damascus’ career unfortunately ended with a pair of controversial defeats, which infuriated trainer Frank Whiteley, who was against the decision to put Dr. Fager’s jockey Braulio Baeza on Damascus. Baeza did win the Willian Du Pont Handicap and Aqueduct Stakes on Damascus, carrying 134 pounds each time, but Whietely never forgave Baeza for his rides on Damascus in the Michigan Mile and an Eighth and Woodward Stakes. With Damascus apparently starting to have a tendon problem, his owners wanted him to go out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, feeling he had one more good race in him. With Larry Adams aboard for the first time, Damascus, one of the soundest and most durable horses of all time, came out in front bandages, which sent up warning flares. The colt went lame during the race and was eased coming down the stretch, but refused to come to a stop until he crossed the finished line. One step past the wire he finally pulled up and was loaded on an ambulance; one of the saddest sights I have ever seen on a track.

In addition to Dr. Fager and Damascus, there was also the plucky little In Reality, who played bridesmaid to these two great colts for two years, but had been on a roll in 1968, winning the John B. Campbell Handicap, Carter Handicap, and Metropolitan Handicap, when Dr. Fager came down with a bad case of colic that forced him to miss the race.

One day in 1968 I will never forget was arriving at work at Pershing and Company and seeing the back page headline, “Derby Winner Drugged.”

So began the Dick Francis-like tale of Dancer’s Image’s disqualification and loss of purse money in the Kentucky Derby. The culprit was the pain killer Butazolidan, today one of the most common and benign medications in racing. The court battle that followed went on interminably and cost Dancer’s Image’s owner Peter Fuller some $250,000 in legal fees. There has been a great deal written about this unsolved mystery, a good deal of it suggesting nefarious goings on prior to the Derby.

It is interesting to note that Fuller, a month following Martin Luther King’s assassination, donated Dancer’s Image’s earnings to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. This was never made public until it was mentioned on the telecast of the Wood Memorial, which Dancer’s Image won. Fuller’s gesture was not popular in Kentucky and he received a great deal of hate mail and threats. Fuller, anticipating possible foul play, attempted to get extra security for Dancer’s Image but reportedly his request was denied.

Dancer’s Image was administered Butazolidan by noted Kentucky veterinarian Alex Harthill well in advance of the Derby and it should have been gone from his system by race day. No one knows for sure how the horse came up positive for the drug, but there has been a lot of speculation. Ironically, a year after this case finally was closed, Butazolidan was made legal in Kentucky.

Also ironic was that the horse who finished second in the Derby and was made the winner, Forward Pass, was owned by one of the most legendary Kentucky farms, Calumet Farm, and there were rumors of pressure being put on the Kentucky Racing Commission to uphold the disqualification.

When Forward Pass romped in the Preakness, suddenly there was a Triple Crown on the line, but with a big fat asterisk waiting to be put on it in the event Forward Pass won the Belmont Stakes.

But to the rescue came a gorgeous golden chestnut with a white blaze and white feet named Stage Door Johnny, who had never won a stakes before. Coming off a victory in the Peter Pan Purse, the Greentree Farm colt ran down Forward Pass in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths, with a gap of 12 lengths to the third horse. So, if it wasn’t for Stage Door Johnny, Forward Pass would have romped in the Belmont and become the most controversial Triple Crown winner in history.

That victory proved to be no fluke, as Stage Door Johnny captured the Saranac Handicap and Dwyer Handicap under 129 pounds before suffering a career-ending injury just when everyone was looking forward to this bright new star facing Damascus and Dr. Fager.

The year 1968 also marked my first visit to Saratoga and my first Travers, won by C.V. Whitney’s Chompion over none other than Forward Pass. And there was the gut-wrenching finish in the Beldame Stakes when the great Gamely battled back to nose out the classy, hard-hitting Politely, with the always tough Amerigo Lady a neck back in third.

On the 2-year-old front, you had the gifted Top Knight, who was so impressive winning the Hopeful Stakes (over Reviewer), Belmont Futurity, and Champagne Stakes in a near record 1:35 1/5.

But it was the 2-year-old filly division that saw the birth of the great rivalry between Gallant Bloom and Shuvee, which carried over to 1969 and was dominated by Gallant Bloom, my favorite filly of all time. Also emerging from that crop was the great sprinter Ta Wee, a half-sister to Dr. Fager. I will never forget the remarkable training job by Max Hirsch, who converted the speed-crazy Gallant Bloom into a classy, ratable professional who was able to outrun the powerful closing Shuvee to the wire in the Gardenia Stakes at Garden State Park to nail down the 2-year-old championship. She would go on to win 12 consecutive races.

Finally, 1968 will be remembered for having the first European classic winner to capture the Washington D.C. International when 2,000 Guineas and English Derby winner Sir Ivor showed off that brilliant European turn of foot by blowing by his opponents at Laurel with a burst of speed Americans were not used to seeing.

To demonstrate just what an amazing year 1968 was, that year alone we saw 10 future Hall of Famers compete – Dr. Fager, Damascus, Dark Mirage, Gallant Bloom, Shuvee, Ta Wee, Fort Marcy, Gamely, Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince.

So, welcome 2018 and the 50th anniversary of a special year, not only for a novice racing fan escaping the clutches of Wall Street, but for the sport itself, as well as the country. That year, racing truly was the Sport of Kings and Queens and provided a much-needed escape from the turbulent times.

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