The fourth race in what is turning out to be one of the classic Thoroughbred rivalries was only minutes away, and in the Aqueduct paddock the trainers were talking fast and low, giving their jockeys final instructions. Near the center of the area, Johnny Nerud, trainer of Dr. Fager, looked into the impassive face of Braulio Baeza and said something like, "For Pete's sake, Braulio, don't let the big blockhead blow it all by chasing that rabbit again."
Over at one end of the same plot of land, Frank Y. Whiteley Jr. outlined to Manny Ycaza the strategy that even the peanut vendors knew he would use: hold Damascus off the pace, hope that Dr. Fager would be suckered by the fast pace of Hedevar, the other part of his entry and the most seductive hare in training, then let Damascus sock it to 'em down the stretch.
Because Whiteley's instructions could be followed and Nerud's could not, last Saturday's $109,400 Brooklyn Handicap will be remembered as the race in which Damascus became a millionaire, and Dr. Fager's passion to run once more proved his undoing. When it was over the fires were rekindled in the hottest racing controversy this side of Dancer's Image vs. the Kentucky Derby.
The controversy centers on Hedevar. "I'll tell you this," said Nerud after the race, "no one horse can beat Dr. Fager doing anything—anything."
To which the taciturn Whiteley replied, in what for him was a filibuster: "I don't like to knock anyone's horse."
Nevertheless the record shows that Damascus has beaten Dr. Fager twice with the aid of his Kamikaze stablemate; running without Hedevar, Damascus has twice been defeated by his great rival. With Hedevar doing his thing, Damascus put down Buckpasser by 10 lengths and Dr. Fager by 10� in last year's Woodward Stakes. Minus Hedevar, Damascus had lost three of his last four races. His second loss to Dr. Fager was a third-place finish, five lengths behind the winner in the Suburban Handicap at Aqueduct on July 4.
The Suburban was so sweet a victory for Johnny Nerud that he could not resist the temptation to jibe at the enemy camp in the week before the Brooklyn. "Any horse that can run the fastest Suburban ever with 132 pounds must be a great horse," Nerud reasoned, not unreasonably. "He's the best horse because he doesn't have to have anyone help him run his race."
While Nerud was being vociferous in New York, Whiteley was keeping quiet down at Delaware Park. A plain man who isn't much for cities and crowds, Whiteley draws a curtain around himself and his horses before a race, waiting until the last minute to enter. Impishly, Nerud even had fun with that. Although he was fairly certain as early as Monday that Dr. Fager would run in the Brooklyn, even though his horse was asked to carry 135 pounds to Damascus' 130, Nerud kept saying, "I haven't made up my mind yet." He waited until the day before the race to end the uncertainty.
"Before," Nerud said, "I told 'em three weeks ahead of time when we were going to run. Now I let 'em sweat. I'll pick my ground and let 'em come to me."
Which Damascus and Hedevar eventually did, albeit by Whiteley's clandestine methods. To beat the week's clammy heat, Whiteley did not ship his horses from Delaware until Friday evening, less than 24 hours before post time. Damascus and Hedevar arrived at Aqueduct in the dark of a rainy night.