Dr. Fager 1968 Part 2: Epic Battles With Damascus

It was a time when handicaps were truly handicaps and not the feeble imitation into which they have mutated. A time when trainers accepted weights and weren’t afraid to put their horses in a position to get beat. A time when great horses not only carried heavy burdens, but broke track records in spite of them. A time when trainers were as tough and tenacious as their horses, having come up working at the bush tracks during The Depression. A time when the majority of horses were homebreds owned by classy sportsmen and were born, raised, broken, and trained at home and not subjected to the sales ring.

By June of 1968, Dr. Fager had fully recovered from his severe bout with colic, and although he was forced to miss the Met Mile, a race in which he was born to run, John Nerud regrouped and pointed for the Suburban Handicap on the Fourth of July. Damascus, meanwhile, was given a freshening after his debacle in the Charles Strub Stakes, his third start since plunging right into his 4-year-old campaign at Santa Anita following a grueling 16-race campaign at 3. After four months off, trainer Frank Whiteley found a mile and 70-yard allowance race at Delaware Park on June 17, and the 1-10 Damascus won eased up by 3 3/4 lengths, missing the track record by only two-fifths of a second.

Racing fans had been clamoring for a rematch between racing’s two titans since the previous September when Damascus crushed Dr. Fager, as well as reigning Horse of the Year Buckpasser, in the Woodward Stakes to clinch 3-year-old and Horse of the Year honors.

The two future Hall of Famers had first faced each other in the one-mile Gotham Stakes, with Dr. Fager edging out Damascus after a furious stretch battle and Bill Shoemaker on Damascus getting outridden by Manny Ycaza on the Doctor. They managed to avoid each other until their showdown in the Woodward, as Nerud had decided early on to bypass the Triple Crown and major mile and a quarter races, biding his time and picking his spots until the tempestuous Dr. Fager had a chance to mature and harness some of that blazing speed.

Whiteley, known as The Fox of Laurel, was as shrewd as they came; perhaps one of the few trainers who could rival Nerud in that department. Neither ever left a stone unturned and it was nearly impossible to get an edge on them. Both came up the hard way and had to scrape and claw for everything they got. You might beat them, but you could never out-train them.

Following the Woodward gang-up, a frustrated Nerud approached New York Racing Association chairman James Cox Brady and said, “You tell them I’ll put up $50,000 and the Association will put up $50,000; winner-take-all, Dr. Fager against Damascus. They (Damascus’ connections) put up nothing.” But Brady quickly nixed the idea.

What racing fans would see in 1968 was a new-look Dr. Fager, with his long wild mane and forelock and having grown over the winter into an intimidating powerhouse. Following the Californian Stakes, Nerud decided to equip the Doc with a figure-8 bridle in the hope it would make him easier to control and more responsive.

Although Dr. Fager and Damascus were nearly the same height, Dr. Fager gave the appearance of being much larger, holding his head high, and with that long, loose mane blowing in the breeze. He just seemed to dwarf other horses simply by the way he carried himself.

It was now mid-June and the battle lines were drawn. Damascus and Dr. Fager were on a collision course that would bring them face to face on the Fourth of July, with In Reality thrown into the mix. In Reality, who had futilely chased Dr. Fager and Damascus throughout 1967, had taken advantage of Damascus’ vacation and Dr. Fager’s bout with colic and emerged as the temporary big dog in town, with victories in the John B. Campbell Handicap, Carter Handicap, and Met Mile. With all three heading to the Suburban, there were sure to be fireworks at The Big A.

If In Reality was going to finally have any chance of knocking off the dynamic duo, this would be it, as both Damascus and Dr. Fager had strikes against them going into the race and still would have to give In Reality good chunks of weight. Dr. Fager had to go straight into the Suburban coming off his serious colic attack, which left him gravely ill and forced him to miss the Met Mile. Damascus, the iron horse who thrived on competition and needed a steady diet of racing to get himself fit, had been given four months off after the Strub and had only that one easy allowance victory at Delaware Park 17 days before the Suburban. He was not as finely tuned as Frank Whiteley would have liked, but the Suburban had always been his target and there was no turning back now. This was a horse who had raced 19 times in an 11-month period, 18 of them stakes, and actually kept getting better throughout his 3-year-old campaign. So, of the three big horses, only In Reality was coming into the race dead-fit and in top form.

Damascus was assigned highweight of 133 pounds in the Suburban, with Dr. Fager at 132, and In Reality in with 125. NYRA racing secretary Tommy Trotter said he had never weighted two horses that high in a race. It wasn’t every day you saw a horse carrying 125 pounds and getting seven and eight pounds from two other horses.

On the Monday before the race, Trotter received a call from Whiteley, informing him that Damascus definitely would be coming, but he wouldn’t be coming alone. Accompanying him would be Hedevar, Damascus’ stablemate and former world record holder who was the main culprit in killing off Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes. Hedevar was no slouch and was fast enough to push Dr. Fager a long way and force him to run the three-quarters in a brutal 1:09 1/5. To Nerud, it was starting to look as if Dr. Fager would never get a chance to go one-on-one with his arch rival. But Nerud had used the same tactics with Gallant Man in the 1957 Belmont Stakes when he ran Bold Nero as a rabbit against Preakness winner Bold Ruler in the six-horse field and Gallant Man set a new track record.

Whiteley didn’t care about one-on-one showdowns. His objective was winning the Suburban, just as it had been in the Woodward. Everyone knew that Dr. Fager was virtually unbeatable on an uncontested lead, especially trying to beat him with a come-from-behind horse like Damascus. Not only did Dr. Fager possess extraordinary speed, he was impossible to crack if you looked him in the eye. In Reality had attempted a sneak attack down the backstretch of the 1967 New Hampshire Sweepstakes, trying to catch the giant sleeping. But when he came charging up inside Dr. Fager, the Doc attempted to savage him. However, for all those who are under the belief that Dr. Fager was a need-the-lead type he did prove on several occasions he could sit behind horses in one-turn races. And he also took back in the two-turn Californian. But there always came a time during the race when his rider couldn’t hold him any longer and was forced to let him go.

On the morning of the Suburban Handicap, I took the Pioneer bus to Aqueduct and made my way into the grandstand to find my usual seat around the eighth pole. That’s usually where the main action was.

Just about the same time, in the racing secretary’s office, a mini-drama was being played out that would have a major impact on the race. Nerud spotted Whiteley going into Tommy Trotter’s office. As Whiteley was walking out, Nerud overheard a jockey’s agent say that Hedevar had just been scratched. When Whiteley looked over at Nerud and didn’t deny it he knew it was true. Nerud promptly stood up and said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”

As the crowd of more than 54,000 began to settle in, the familiar voice of track announcer Fred Capossela could be heard over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the seventh race, number 1A Hedevar…has…been…scratched.” That sent a buzz rippling through the grandstand.

Hedevar, it was reported, had taken a few bad steps following a six-furlong workout, and Whiteley didn’t want to take any chances running him.

The fans had what they wanted: Damascus vs. Dr. Fager; titan against titan one on one. Charles Hatton wrote in the Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form, “Then, Hedevar took a couple of bad steps, and trainer Frank Whiteley took the hasenpfeffer out of Nerud’s cabbage.” In other words, the rabbit was gone. Damascus was on his own. Whiteley’s only hope was that a sharp In Reality would be able to put enough pressure on the Doc early. The only other two starters, Bold Hour and Amerigo Lady, had no speed.

What made Dr. Fager and Damascus such compelling rivals was that they were nothing alike. Dr. Fager, although a kindly, sensitive gentleman in his stall, was an untamed brute on the racetrack; a wild thing confined in a world of restraint. As mentioned in Part 1, with that long mane blowing in the breeze, he resembled a wild mustang dashing across the plains with reckless abandon, and like the leader of the pack, his place was on the lead, and he dared any other horse to take it away from him. That is why he tried to savage his childhood buddy, In Reality, at Rockingham Park. It is interesting to note that only three horses ever finished in front of Dr. Fager, and two of them are in the Hall of Fame and the other was a champion.

Damascus, on the other hand, liked to come from well off the pace, and needed constant urging to keep his mind on the task at hand. Most of his defeats came when he simply was allowed to get too lazy and would refuse to leave his opponents. He needed constant reminding. But once he did and turned on the afterburners, he would explode, turning in the most devastating move on the far turn I have ever seen, even after 50 years. Unlike Dr. Fager, who ran with his head high, Damascus would get down low and was amazingly quick and agile, pouncing on his foes like a cat its prey. His jockeys just had to keep persevering with him once he caught the leaders. When he was able to keep up his head of steam he would annihilate his opponents, as he did in the Woodward, American Derby, Travers, and other races. You just couldn’t relax on him.

The rivalry grew so intense that if social media had existed back then, there would have been an all-out, no holes barred war of words between the two factions. The great cartoonist for the Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form, Pierre Bellocq, known as Peb, drew a sketch for the paper showing a shipwreck, with the only two survivors in the ocean clinging onto debri, and one says to the other, “You’re crazy, I still say Damascus was better than Dr. Fager.”

With In Reality in the best form of his career, the improving George Widener-owned colt Bold Hour also in peak form, having won the Grey Lag Handicap, and the hard-knocking Rokeby Stable mare Amerigo Lady, the Suburban looked to be a race for the ages.

Dr. Fager was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Damascus 7-5. Damascus was always quick out of the gate, and, as usual, he broke on top from the rail before being taken back by jockey Manny Ycaza. Dr. Fager, under Braulio Baeza, shot to the lead as expected. Baeza gave a peek over his left shoulder to make sure he was clear of Damascus before easing over to the rail.

With no one like a Hedevar or Great Power to get his blood boiling, Dr. Fager rated kindly and cruised to a clear lead going into the clubhouse turn. He quickly opened up by two lengths and took complete control of the race. In Reality, who was supposed to put pressure on The Doc, had broken on his wrong lead and apparently took a bad step, causing an injury that would lead to his retirement. He raced in fourth during the early going, about four lengths back, before retreating to finish last.

With Dr. Fager loose on a slow, uncontested lead, Damascus was now on a solo mission, and Ycaza had no choice but to put the colt into the fray early and test Dr. Fager, who had managed to get away with an opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5, which was trotting horse time for the Doc. Most people had to believe the race was over at that point.

Ycaza took Damascus off the rail and started pushing hard to get him to close the gap on Dr. Fager. Although taken completely out of his game plan, Damascus was able to use his quickness and rapid-fire acceleration to collar Dr. Fager as they headed down the backstretch. The battle everyone had wanted to see for so long was on. Damascus pulled to within a neck of Dr. Fager, but that was as close as the Doc would let him get. He loved a challenge; that’s when those nostrils would flare and the daggers would shoot from his eyes.

The pair battled through the third quarter in a spectacular :22 3/5, and that’s with over 130 pounds on their back. With his initial attack thwarted, Ycaza backed off slightly and let Damascus regroup. This was not his game, and Ycaza had to make sure he saved something for the end, especially with Damascus not being fully cranked up, coming off one easy allowance score in five months. Once he and Damascus were able to catch their breath, Ycaza began pushing hard once again, trying to crack Dr. Fager, which, without Hedevar, was a study in futility. No horse had ever been capable of accomplishing that alone.

Dr. Fager, with his head held high, seemed to dwarf Damascus, even though the two were about the same height. Damascus was now straight as a string as he mounted his second attack. The Doc knew he was in for a fight, and dug in once again. As hard as Ycaza pushed he couldn’t get by the tenacious Dr. Fager.

Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began inching away, putting a good half-length between him and Damascus. But, amazingly, Damascus wasn’t through. He gave it one final desperate try, pulling back alongside Dr. Fager for the third time, and actually might have gotten his nose in front nearing the quarter pole after a testing quarter in :23 3/5.

As they came out of the turn locked together, the crowd let out a deafening roar. Dr. Fager refused to yield. If you were trying to capture this moment on canvas you’d surely have smoke blowing out of Dr. Fager’s nostrils. Turning for home, a weary Damascus had no more to give. As fresh as he was and having to play Dr. Fager’s game, he began to retreat under the impost following a brutal mile in 1:34 3/5. Dr. Fager, who was built to carry weight, bounded clear, opening up by two lengths at the eighth pole.

The improving Bold Hour, carrying only 116 pounds, had been eyeing the battle several lengths back and moved in for the kill, hoping to pick up the pieces. He collared Damascus, from whom he was getting 17 pounds, and set his sights on Dr. Fager. But Baeza was sitting chilly on the Doc, whose long mane was still blowing wildly in the breeze. Baeza seemed unfazed by Bold Hour’s feeble attempt to close the gap. He merely hand rode Dr. Fager to the wire, maintaining his two-length advantage. Even with the sluggish opening half and carrying 132 pounds, Dr. Fager still was able to equal Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5.

Despite his gut-wrenching attempts to crack Dr. Fager, Damascus, who wound up third in the Suburban, came back only nine days later in the 1 1/4-mile Amory Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and finished third again behind Bold Hour under 131 pounds after stumbling badly at the start. As difficult as it might seem to believe, these two races actually were just what Damascus needed to get him tight and razor-sharp. He returned only a week later in the Brooklyn Handicap for his rematch with Dr. Fager. When I went to the paddock to look at Damascus, I knew this would be a different story. Not only did he have Hedevar back, he bounced around the paddock on his toes with his neck arched and muscles bulging from his shoulders and hindquarters. He was ready to tackle Dr. Fager, who was carrying a staggering 135 pounds to 130 for Damascus.

Hedevar was now healthy again and this time he showed up for his search and destroy mission. The hassenpfeffer was back on the menu.

Nerud didn’t bat an eye over Dr. Fager picking up three pounds. He understood the concept of handicap racing. He was more concerned about Hedevar than the weight. Nerud had toyed with idea of just having Dr. Fager try to outrun Hedevar from the start. The colt had shown the ability to rate kinder as 4-year-old, but that was when he was running freely by himself. What would happen with Hedevar blasting out of there? A rank Dr. Fager lugging 135 pounds was the last thing Nerud wanted.

Hedevar, as expected shot to a clear lead, as Baeza took a stranglehold on Dr. Fager. Tommy Lee, aboard Hedevar, broke from the outside, and when he looked over to his left to eye his target, much to his surprise, Dr. Fager was nowhere to be seen, as Baeza kept pulling back on the throttle. Before Lee knew what was happening, he had opened a three-length lead. But Dr. Fager was not a happy camper. His head was up and he was fighting Baeza, and when Dr. Fager fought you it was only a matter of time before you caved.

Ycaza, meanwhile, had Damascus well back in the pack where he liked to be. Hedevar was on a kamikaze mission, with or without Dr. Fager, and he still blazed the opening half in :45 4/5, with Dr. Fager a length and a half back. That’s 2 3/5 seconds, or 13 lengths, faster than Dr Fager had run in the Suburban. And this time he was carrying 135 pounds.

By the time they passed the five-eighths pole, Baeza no longer had any say in the matter and he was forced to let Dr. Fager go. He blew right on by Hedevar and quickly opened a four-length lead. But the Doc was out of control, his three-quarters in a blistering 1:09 2/5, while Damascus, as he was in the Woodward, was in full gear and cutting into Dr. Fager’s lead with every stride. The cat was back in his comfort zone and ready to strike, as he did in the Woodward and so many other races.

It was obvious this time it was Damascus who had the advantage. With one of his typical explosive moves, he collared Dr. Fager at the quarter pole and began to draw clear, but the Doc wouldn’t give up, despite the pace and staggering weight. Baeza even resorted to the whip, something Dr. Fager detested, and he threw his tail up in defiance. He fought hard through the stretch, but Damascus was always in control, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record, and, amazingly, still stands a half century later. All Dr. Fager had done was run back-to-back mile and a quarters in 1:59 3/5 carrying 132 and 135 pounds in a span of 16 days.

And for Damascus, who seemed to be held together with fibers of steel, this was his third major stakes at 1 1/4 miles in 16 days, carrying 130 pounds or more in all of them, culminating with a track record.

Sadly, this would be the final time Dr. Fager and Damascus would face each other. Nerud had other worlds to conquer for Dr. Fager, and the paths he and Damascus took never would cross again.

Although Damascus and Dr. Fager provided so many thrills in their career, both being elected to the Hall of Fame, it was that summer of 1968 in the Suburban and Brooklyn that they tested each other’s greatness. They showed in the Suburban that historic battles need not be limited to stretch runs. When two courageous heavyweight fighters pummel each other for 10 rounds, with neither backing down, it doesn’t detract from the epic nature of the event if one knocks out the other in the last round.

Yes, both colts set track records in those two races, while carrying staggering weights, but it was their gut-wrenching confrontation down the backstretch and around the far turn in the Suburban that still brings chills to all those who were privileged to witness it.

Although the outspoken Nerud and the reserved Whiteley were opposite in personality and training methods, and rarely competed against each other, they will be forever linked by the intense and often controversial rivalry between Dr. Fager and Damascus. Both trainers were perceived to be bitter antagonists, due in part to Whiteley’s use of a rabbit against Dr. Fager. But both later admitted they had tremendous respect for each other.

Both horses would go on to further glory in 1968, but for Dr. Fager, the “freak” show was only beginning. Damascus was gone from his life and he was now about to take on a new foe – the record books. They woudn't stand a chance.

Dr. Fager and the Greatest Year Ever Part 1

Dr. Fager 1968 Part 3: The Unbreakable Record

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