The famous white silks with the cherry red dots that had been carried to victory by Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha, as well as champions such as Nashua, Granville, Vagrancy, and Happy Gal, were returned to the races by Mrs. Edith W. Bancroft, whose late father and late brother, William Woodward, Sr. and William Woodward, Jr., had owned the Belair Stud.
Mrs. Bancroft bred Damascus, a bay colt by 1959 Horse of the Year Sword Dancer, at John A. Bell III's Jonabell Farm, and named him for a small Maryland town near her home. She sent him to trainer Frank Whiteley, Jr., and he was campaigned lightly as a juvenile in 1966.
He won three of four starts at two, including the Remsen Stakes. Bill Shoemaker, who rode Damascus in his first stakes victory, had nothing but praise for his mount's performance:
"He showed me guts in the Remsen. We were slammed against the rail -and that would be enough to take the starch out of some horses- but he recovered and came on to win. I made a couple of runs with him, and he didn't fail me. Most horses don't want to make more than one run."
Damascus came back from wintering in South Carolina to win the Bay Shore Stakes and the Wood Memorial, earning the role as Kentucky Derby favorite, despite a loss to Dr. Fager in the Gotham Mile.
Shortly after arriving in Louisville with the colt, Frank Whiteley was pressured to grant the hoards of reporters present for the big race a group interview. The first reporter to ask a question was kind enough to demonstrate why so many trainers hate talking to the press, especially at Derby time, when hundreds of writers devoid of equine knowledge of any kind are sent to cover the race.
"Mr. Whiteley," one such journalist asked, "what are Damascus's sleeping habits?"
The only words Whiteley spoke to the press before the 1967 Kentucky Derby were, therefore, "How the hell do I know? I ain't never slept with him."
In the Churchill Downs paddock, Damascus was unaccountably nervous, and trainer Frank Whiteley suspected that something was wrong. Bill Shoemaker found his mount to be unusually rank, and the colt faded midway through his stretch drive, finishing third behind thirty to one longshot Proud Clarion. Ironically, Proud Clarion was Darby Dan Farm's substitute entry, sent to the post after Cup Race, a half brother to Graustark, was injured. Proud Clarion had raced only three times at two, due to sore shins, and the best he had done was a third place finish in a maiden race. One of the biggest obstacles trainer Boo Gentry had to overcome was the colt's nervousness. On two occasions during Derby week, Gentry brought his charge to the paddock and saddled him. The poor colt shook so hard "his teeth rattled," according to the trainer. The third time Proud Clarion was brought to the paddock that week was for the Derby, and the colt had apparently conquered his fears. He was calm in the paddock and won the race, beating Barb's Delight by a length in the impressive time of 2:00 3/5. Only Decidedly and Northern Dancer had gone faster.
Damascus, given a pony named Duffy for company, was shipped to Laurel where he hid from the press prior to the Preakness at Pimlico. He shipped in the day of the race, meeting a field which included Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion, runner-up Barb's Delight, and the fresh horse In Reality, who hadn't run since winning the Florida Derby.
The star of Belair Stud went postward without a trace of nervousness. Celtic Air grabbed a minute's worth of fame by taking the early lead and setting a blistering pace. When he faded, the four closers in the field charged forward as one. It was Damascus who overpowered the rest and came home the winner. The Belair colors were again painted on Pimlico's wooden horse, but this year it wasn't above the famous old cupola, but in the infield instead. The clubhouse had burned to the ground the year before.
Next came the Belmont Stakes, which Damascus won handily. It was the seventh win in the historic race for Belair Stud. The Belmont winner's circle was also no stranger to jockey Bill Shoemaker, who had visited it aboard Sword Dancer in 1959.
After winning the Leonard Richards Handicap, Damascus was second in the William du Pont, Jr. Handicap. He won the Dwyer under the top weight, and then added the American Derby to his list of conquests.
Damascus came from fifteen lengths off the pace to gallop home a twenty-two length winner in the Travers Stakes, equaling the track record of 2:01 3/5 for a mile and a quarter.
Damascus met, and gave weight to, older horses in the Aqueduct Stakes. The field included the champion handicap mare Straight Deal as well as Widener Handicap winner Ring Twice, who was out of Rare Treat, a stakes winning daughter of Stymie and the dam of the champion filly What a Treat. Damascus beat them both.
He met the previous year's Horse of the Year, Buckpasser, as well as Dr. Fager, who had beaten him once before, in the Woodward Stakes, and launched himself into the ranks of the all-time greats by dominating the meeting of the "Big Three" with a ten length victory.
It was later called the Race of the Century, despite the fact that many complained that trainer Whiteley's decision to run Hedevar as a rabbit was unfair to the brilliant front runner Dr. Fager. Yet Buckpasser, who should have benefitted from the tactic as well, had also been beaten ten lengths. None could deny that the performance was exceptional. Years later, Whiteley ranked the race as his favorite victory.
After winning the two mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Damascus ran in his first turf race, the Washington, D.C., International Laurel. His effort was extraordinary, and the champion grass horse Fort Marcy was hard pressed to beat him by a head.
Damascus had earned $817,941 that year, a record for a single season, and he was named 1967 Horse of the Year, as well as Champion Three Year Old Colt and co-Champion Handicap Horse. He was ranked third as a grass horse, despite having raced but once on the surface. On The Blood-Horse Free Handicap, he topped the charts with a weight of 133 pounds, four above Dr. Fager.
Perhaps more impressive than any of the titles was the glowing praise Damascus received from the great turf writer Charles Hatton in that year's American Racing Manuel:
"He danced all the dances and ran all the distances from a mile to two miles. Never did we see him spit out the bit...and he was confronted with such defiant tasks as carrying topweight of 128 pounds in the Dwyer, giving Ring Twice and Straight Deal actual weight in the Aqueduct, and running smooth-shod in unaccustomed going in the grassy Laurel International. Fort Marcy won the money that day, but Damascus won the crowd's heart."
In 1968 Damascus won the Malibu Stakes and the San Fernando Stakes, and also finished second in the Charles H. Strub Stakes, before returning east to meet Dr. Fager in the Suburban Handicap.
Carrying 133 pounds, Damascus ran third behind the other champion, who equaled the track record of 1:59 3/5, but sought revenge in the Brooklyn Handicap, passing Dr. Fager with a late charge and setting a new track record of 1:59 1/5 for a mile and a quarter. Damascus successfully carried 134 pounds in both the William duPont, Jr. Handicap and the Aqueduct Stakes that fall, and also ran second in the Michigan Mile and One Eighth as well as the Woodward Stakes.
Damascus was retired to stud after bowing a tendon to finish behind Quicken Tree in the 1968 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Off the board only in his last start, Damascus was the winner of twenty one races and $1,176,781. His syndication price totaled $2,560,000, a far cry above his dam's $9,600 yearling price in 1959.
The seventy stakes winners sired by Damascus include Belted Earl, a colt out of the champion mare Moccasin who in 1982 was named Champion Older Male and Champion Sprinter in Ireland; Private Account, winner of the Widener Handicap and the Gulfstream Park Handicap, as well as the sire of the unbeaten mare Personal Ensign; Lord Durham, who earned honors as the Champion Two Year Old Colt in Canada; classic placed millionaire Desert Wine, winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Charles H. Strub Stakes, and the Californian Stakes; Highland Blade, who won the Marlboro Cup and Brooklyn Handicap; Eastern Echo, the 1990 Futurity Stakes winner; and Ogygian, winner of the Futurity Stakes in 1985 and the Dwyer Stakes and Jerome Handicap the following year.
Sons Time for a Change and Timeless Moment sired the champions Fly So Free and Gilded Time, respectively, and Private Account sired not only Personal Ensign, but the millionaires Private Terms, Personal Flag, Valley Crossing, and Corporate Report.
Damascus' daughters have produced over one hundred stakes winners, including the English champion Shadeed and the millionaire Capades.
Pensioned at Claiborne Farm in 1989, Damascus lived to the age of thirty one. He passed away on August 8, 1995, and was buried at the farm. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Interestingly, despite his 1967 Woodward Stakes win and it's "Race of the Century" status, Damascus found himself ranked below both runner-up Buckpasser and third place Dr. Fager when The Blood-Horse rated the top one hundred horses of the century. He was sixteenth, with Buckpasser fourteenth and Dr. Fager fifth. Perhaps Mark Twain summed it up best many decades earlier, saying "It's a difference of opinion that makes a horse race."
|Sword Dancer||Sunglow||Sun Again||Sun Teddy|
|Highland Fling||By Jimminy||Pharamond II|
|Swing Time||Royal Minstrel|
|Blade of Time||Sickle||Phalaris|
|Bar Nothing||Blue Larkspur|
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