Visiting Marchmont Cemetery and Damascus

It is difficult to put into words the emotions one feels when visiting a gravestone. From that slab of granite or stone comes a flood of memories, as if the deceased is right there with you, recalling all the special memories that were shared.

I am not equating the gravestone of a horse to that of a human being, but sometimes the memories are just as real and just as special, as they bring you back to another time and place in your life that make you feel warm and comforted inside. To be able to rekindle those memories after 50 years as if they are still fresh in your mind is a rare gift.

I have visited Claiborne Farm on several occasions over the years, but have never visited their cemetery situated back in the Marchmont section of the farm, where few get to visit. Buried there are all their great broodmares, including Personal Ensign, her daughter My Flag, and My Flag’s daughter Storm Flag Flaying – three generations of Breeders’ Cup winners. There is Thong and her daughter Special, the dam of Nureyev and granddam of Sadler’s Wells, as well as Hall of Famers Numbered Account, Inside Information, and Heavenly Prize; and Tuerta, the dam of Swale; Obeah, the dam of Go For Wand; File, the dam of Forty Niner; and Relaxing, the dam of Easy Goer. And so many more.

Among the males are Tom Rolfe, Ack Ack, Danzig, Forli, Devil’s Bag, Hawaii, Drone, and, again, so many more. Along a strip of grass on your left, cradled under a huge maple tree is a row of seven gravestones that include Easy Goer, Sir Ivor, Cox’s Ridge, Majestic Light, and Unbridled. Atop Unbridled’s stone lay a single red rose.

But my focus was on the second gravestone from the left, between Easy Goer and Sir Ivor. That was the gravestone of Damascus. It took no more than a second for all the memories, emotions, and everlasting images to emerge. For it was Damascus who opened the world of Thoroughbred racing to a frustrated and often melancholy 20-year-old trapped in a prison of over-the-counter stocks who was looking to break out from the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street.

Not only did Damascus provide the siren call that lured me into this wondrous new world, he helped pave the path that eventually brought me to my beautiful wife and daughter and grandson and a life that existed only in my dreams. It was a path that somehow led a lost soul with zero skills into the Media Hall of Fame, sharing the same hallowed halls as the horse who guided me there.

Looking at Damascus’ grave, I could once again vividly see those Belair white with red polka dots silks that he carried to so many spectacular victories. Those colors are ingrained in the memory and still evoke images and feelings of a time long gone; of innocence, the unbridled joy of victory, the gut-pounding sadness and shock of defeat, and butterflies in the stomach.. 

Drifting back to 1967 when I became immersed in Thoroughbred racing, gone were thoughts of the war in Vietnam, the Six Day War in Israel, anti-war protests spreading throughout the country, and race riots in Detroit. Well, maybe not gone, but pushed farther back in the recesses of my mind, which was mainly occupied by Damascus, who breathed life into a hollow existence, numbed from years of toiling mindlessly on Wall Street. Suddenly I felt as if I was 20 going on 12.

I rejoiced in his many victories and suffered through his occasional defeats. Damascus inspired me to absorb everything I could about Thoroughbred racing, searching everywhere for old racing magazines, reading the Morning Telegraph every day on the subway, looking for whatever books I could find. Because of Damascus I became fascinated and eventually entranced with his arch rival Dr. Fager, who opened more doors for me years later.

I didn’t know it at the time, but because of the new world that I was led to by Damascus, I was able to escape the clutches of Wall Street late in 1968 and make my way into that world when hired by the Morning Telegraph as a copy boy in October of 1969.

It would take a column by itself to go over Damascus’ career. But there is one series of races that defines him.

Damascus was a horse who needed to be raced into shape. In 1968, 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 and 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 he was a coiled bundle of energy in the paddock, his coat glistening, muscles rippling, and gaskins appearing ready to bulge out of his skin.

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 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, then ran a close third going a mile and a quarter under 131 pounds after an eventful trip, giving the winner 16 pounds, and finally won convincingly going a mile and quarter in track-record time under 130 pounds defeating Dr. Fager. That is three mile and a quarter stakes, carrying 130 pounds or more in each one, and setting a track record in the last one…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 at Delaware Park carrying 134 pounds.

I will never lose that indelible image of Damascus' explosive move and how he pounced on his opponents like a cat its prey. Those white and red polka dot silks were like a blur, passing horses as if moving in a different time frame. How can anyone forget the sight of Damascus coming from 16 lengths back down the backstretch in the Travers Stakes, blowing by the leaders like they were standing still, and going on to win by a staggering 22 lengths, equaling the track record in the slop. 

In 31 races, Damascus never finished out of the money, while defeating future Hall of Famers Buckpasser and Dr. Fager by 10 lengths in the 1967 Woodward Stakes, dubbed the Race of the Century; set a track record winning the American Derby by seven lengths in 1:46 4/5; won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup easily in near-record time; and won two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. After narrowly losing a grueling stretch battle with Dr. Fager in the Gotham stakes, in which Bill Shoemaker took the blame for the defeat, he came back to romp by six lengths in the Wood week later. Today, horses normally run every four to six weeks. In 16 starts as a 3-year-old, Damascus’ average time between races was 16 days. He truly seemed like a horse of steel.

In his final race, the 1968 Jockey Club Gold Cup, one of the soundest, most durable horses in history bowed a tendon and refused to be pulled up until he reached the finish line. One step past the wire, jockey Larry Adams finally was able to pull him up. It was as if Damascus needed to reach the finish line before giving in to his injury. Yes, he lost a couple of races he probably should have won, but one of those, the San Fernando Stakes run in a quagmire, was explained years later by his jockey Ron Turcotte, who said the colt should have worn mud caulks in the race to get better footing, but trainer Frank Whiteley did not want to risk getting him hurt with caulks. The only other horse in the field who did not           wear caulks finished last. Damascus was slipping and sliding the whole way according to Turcotte, who said the colt lost three shoes during the race.

Through the years I visited Damascus at Claiborne Farm, capturing him with my camera romping across his paddock as a young stallion, covered with mud; rolling in the grass and then leaping to his feet; posing in front of his barn, and finally introducing him to my 2-year-old daughter Mandy, who waved to him and blew him kisses.

Although it was not unexpected, it still was an emotional blow when Damascus died on August 8, 1995, at the age of 31.

I had not “seen” him since until this past Saturday when leading the Legacy Tour as part of the annual Secretariat Festival, which was highlighted by a rare visit to the Marchmont cemetery.

Just seeing the gravestone, which is beginning to show its wear after 23 years, and Damascus’ name inscribed on it inspired this column as an outlet to release the emotions felt that day. Needless to say, I was the last to leave the cemetery, as it was difficult to say goodbye to the horse who changed my life.

Damascus and the extraordinary feats he performed sadly have faded in the history books, but not the memories that all came flooding back last weekend. After 50 years in Thoroughbred racing, those memories still remain a beacon that guides my way.

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