Once in a long, long while, in every sport, a championship is earned under ideal conditions. That is, when all of the leading contenders show up for the competition, with no excuse among them. In horse racing that occurs all too infrequently, with the result that horsemen and fans spend much of their time every season in frustrating debate over who would have beaten whom if only the owners and trainers could have been persuaded to run against each other.
Last Saturday at Aqueduct, before 55,259 spectators—all with positive and vociferous opinions—racing had its first dream attraction in nearly a decade as Mrs. Edith Bancroft's Damascus, already the 3-year-old champion following his triumphs in the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and the Travers, nailed down the Horse of the Year title as well. In soundly trouncing Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the $107,800 mile-and-a-quarter Woodward Stakes, his winning margin was a devastating 10 lengths.
Usually the Woodward is just another fall weight-for-age race to find out whether the season's maturing 3-year-olds, carrying 120 pounds, can beat their elders, who must carry 126. But starting in last week's Woodward were the three best horses of the 33,264 foaled in 1963 and 1964: Buckpasser, finest of 1963's crop, and Damascus and Dr. Fager from 1964. Last spring the odds were 100 to 1 against the possibility that these three colts would line up in the same starting gate. As this summer wore on and they went their separate ways, those odds went even higher. But then the pressure of public interest as well as the clear logic behind such a happening brought them together, and it was a happening that invested the race and its setting with the drama and tension of a Derby or Belmont.
Before the race, in the jammed paddock, the principals appeared under more of a strain than their horses. The attitude of most horseplayers was reflected by Mrs. William Woodward, for whose late husband the race was named, and whose daughter owns Damascus. As favored Buckpasser paraded, Mrs. Woodward said, "I don't think we can beat this great horse, but we might as well try." Johnny Nerud, trainer of Dr. Fager for William L. McKnight's Tartan Stable, looked at his beautiful bay colt and murmured, "He's a picture horse. I hope he runs good, and I think he will." The record of the Buckpasser camp—Owner Ogden Phipps, Trainer Eddie Neloy and Jockey Braulio Baeza—spoke for itself. The 4-year-old son of Tom Fool, a millionaire at 3 and now the winner of 25 starts in 31 races and $1,462,014, is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant racehorses ever bred in this country. A year ago he won the Woodward and with it his Horse of the Year title. Normally he would have been expected to defend it handily; an old racing axiom has it that a top 4-year-old, despite the weight concession, should be able to beat a top 3-year-old. But Buckpasser's challengers were hardly "normal," and there were horsemen who wondered whether the colt was at his sharpest competitively after more than two months away from the races because of a slight infection in one foot. If some now argue that Buckpasser's performance in the Woodward proves he was not at his best, it also is true that Eddie Neloy has never sent a Phipps horse to the post unless he was ready for his top effort.
Earlier in the week Johnny Nerud was critical of the strategy expected from the enemy camps. "This won't be a championship race or any kind of a summit meeting," he said, "if they are going to toss in a lot of trash just to run me into the ground." The reference was to Damascus' stablemate, Hedevar, who for a week last year shared the world record of 1.33[1/5] for a mile and would see to it that front-running Dr. Fager got nothing resembling a breather, and also to Buckpasser's stablemate, Great Power, a speedy enough sprinter but surely no classic contender. Nerud was reminded that when he won the 1957 Belmont with Gallant Man he used a sprinter to soften up Bold Ruler. He laughed and said, "But that was no championship race. I was just after the money that day."
There is nothing unsporting, of course, about using entries in racing. If he has a sprinter in his barn to supplement a stretch runner, every trainer will use him to the best advantage. If everyone in a race takes back and permits a speed horse—like Dr. Fager or Handsome Boy—to breeze on the lead, the speed horse will win every time. The mighty Kelso found this out three times against Beau Purple. Buckpasser, in his last start before the Woodward, learned the same lesson in July's Brooklyn Handicap. Handsome Boy took the lead at the break, held it all the way and won easily by eight lengths. Frank Whiteley, Damascus' trainer, understands this as well as any man in the profession. "Sure, Hedevar is in there to insure a fast pace," he said early one morning as he watched Damascus nibbling at the dandelions outside his barn. "But, to tell you the truth, there won't be any need for pacesetters if Damascus runs the way I think he can—and think he will."
How perfectly right Frank Whiteley was. Damascus seems to improve each time out despite a long campaign that now includes 14 races going back to March 11th at Pimlico. From the start of the Woodward, in front of the stands, the roars of the crowd drowned out the jet noises from neighboring Kennedy International Airport. Jockey Bill Boland, aboard Dr. Fager, came out of the second stall, sandwiched between Hedevar and Great Power. The Doc went, as Boland put it, "a hell of a three-quarters, in 1:09[1/5], and I knew we were really running. But Hedevar was right with me, and he was making my horse rank. Great Power wasn't all that far behind, putting the pressure on me too. Both those jocks [ Ron Turcotte and Bobby Ussery] were hustling and making a lot of noise, whooping and hollering, and it didn't help me at all. But, what the hell, that's part of this game. We all do it, so I can't complain."
While Dr. Fager was cutting out fractions of :22[2/5] for the first quarter, :45[1/5] for the half and the 1:09[1/5] for six furlongs over a track rated as fast but hardly dried out after two days of rain, Handsome Boy was plodding along in fourth place, leaving Damascus and Buckpasser to bring up the rear. "I wanted to be ahead of Buckpasser at all times," said Bill Shoemaker, who rides Damascus. "I saw Dr. Fager way up ahead of both of us, but it didn't look to me like he was running so well. I had about a length on Buckpasser at the half-mile pole and started my move then. By the time we hit the quarter pole I had three or four lengths on Buckpasser, and we sailed right by Dr. Fager. Damascus is quick on his feet, almost like a cat, but I hit him pretty good through the stretch because I didn't want Buckpasser sneaking up on us. I knew I didn't have to worry about the rest of them."
Damascus, indeed, had little to worry about from anyone once he unleashed his brilliant move around the far turn. Baeza and Buckpasser tried to roll with him, but the old punch just wasn't there, and the excuse certainly could not have been the six-pound difference in weight. Shoe increased his lead of half a length at the quarter pole to five lengths at the eighth pole and coasted home 10 in front in the stakes-record time of 2:00[3/5]—just one second off Gun Bow's track record. Buckpasser gradually wore down Dr. Fager to take second by half a length, and strung out behind them over a total of 39 lengths were, in order, Handsome Boy, Hedevar and Great Power.
And so racing has a new Horse of the Year, and a genuinely worthy one. Said Shoemaker, "This colt gets better all the time, and I'll say it again, though some people don't believe it—Damascus is as good a horse as I have ever ridden. That includes the best, such as Swaps, Kelso, Gallant Man and even Buckpasser himself." (Buckpasser was retired the Monday after the Woodward.) Damascus, scheduled to represent the U.S. in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel on November 11, is a son of Sword Dancer, himself a two-time winner of the Woodward. If Damascus never wins another race, the sight of this beautiful bay colt slamming down to the finish line of the 1967 Woodward, with Bill Shoemaker in the red-and-white Belair silks, is enough to mark last Saturday as one of the sport's great days.