11/16/2017 3:36PM

Hovdey: In 1967, it was Damascus by a mile

NYRA Photo
Damascus wins the Travers by a record 22 lengths.

The death this week of Lure, a superb Thoroughbred who meant so much to so many, served to open the floodgates of certain memories. Every fan has a horse like Lure to cling to, as the rock upon which is built a lifelong appreciation of true greatness in the breed, both on and off the track.

My rock was Damascus, and I am not alone. Half a century ago, the son of Sword Dancer took the 1967 season by the throat and would not let go until he had won 12 of 16 starts, racing from March into November, while setting an all-time earnings mark of $817,941 for a season.

During 1967, a time of agonizing social upheaval, Damascus ruled his own world by winning 11 stakes events, including the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

His four losses included a thrilling Gotham Mile, by half a length to arch rival Dr. Fager, and a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby when Damascus lost his normally serene composure. In his 16th start of 1967, Damascus came within a nose of beating grass champion Fort Marcy in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel.

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The 1967 campaign of Damascus had to be spectacular even to be noticed by historians, since it was bracketed by two of the other greatest campaigns ever recorded by American Thoroughbreds.

In 1966, reigning 2-year-old champion Buckpasser, trained by Eddie Neloy, lost his first start, an allowance prep, then won his next 11, including the Brooklyn, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses. He was a unanimous choice as Horse of the Year.

In 1968, Dr. Fager emerged from the shadow of Damascus to win seven of eight starts for trainer John Nerud, each with a dazzling display of speed under serious weight, from seven furlongs to a mile and a quarter, on dirt and turf. At year’s end, Dr. Fager won an unprecedented four titles, including Horse of the Year.

“That was a great rivalry they had, Fager and Damascus,” said Thomas Bancroft Jr., whose mother, Edith W. Bancroft, bred and raced Damascus in the same family colors carried by champions like Gallant Fox, Omaha, and Nashua. Tom Bancroft was born the year Gallant Fox won the 1930 Triple Crown.

“But you know Buckpasser was out there, too,” Bancroft said. “The idea of getting those three horses together was pretty far-fetched. But it happened, and as far as I know it was the only time three Horses of the Year were in the same race.”

Bancroft is correct. The scene was the Woodward at Aqueduct on Sept. 30, 1967. Dr. Fager was fresh from an easy payday in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic at Rockingham Park. Buckpasser, who’d earlier won the Met Mile under 130 pounds and the Suburban under 133, had not raced in nine weeks because of recurring foot trouble.

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As for Damascus, he was coming into the fullness of his ability, displaying what turf historian Charles Hatton described as “a fluent manner of going which made him a great ground gainer … always in cadence, racing in any context.” In his three starts before the Woodward, Damascus had set a track record winning the American Derby at Arlington Park, equaled the Saratoga track record winning the Travers by 22 lengths, and defeated champion mare Straight Deal in the Aqueduct, giving her nine pounds.

Much has been made of Nerud’s complaints that both Whiteley and Neloy started Woodward pacemakers to keep Dr. Fager honest.

“That was part of the game, and perfectly okay,” said Bancroft. “Whether or not it mattered to Damascus, we’ll never know. It was very exciting, though, to see him win that race.”

By 10 lengths, no less. Whitney Tower gave it special historic significance in his Sports Illustrated report:

“If Damascus never wins another race,” Tower wrote, “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.”

Damascus concluded his career with 21 wins from 32 starts, finishing out of the money only once. He died on Aug. 8, 1995, at age 31, having sired more than 70 stakes winners, including Highland Blade, Honorable Miss, and Zen for Thomas Bancroft and his brother William.

I got to see Damascus twice, once when he was upset in the 1968 Charles H. Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, and again a few years later in his stallion paddock at Claiborne Farm. In between I learned that my friend and mentor Dan Smith once carried his infant son to Frank Whiteley’s Santa Anita barn on a quiet December morning in late 1967 with a simple request – to allow his boy an audience with Damascus.

“I wanted the first horse he touched to be a great horse,” Smith said. “Frank led us to the stall, and my son touched the nose of Damascus.”

Bancroft liked the story.

“That was him,” Bancroft said. “He was a very gentle horse. I have a wonderful picture, a photograph here in the house of Frank Whiteley grazing Damascus in a paddock at Belmont.”

Lure’s remains will be buried at Claiborne’s Marchmont Farm cemetery, also the final resting place for, among many others, Easy Goer, Ack Ack, Numbered Account, Tom Rolfe, Unbridled, Pine Island, and Conquistador Cielo, as well as Danzig, Lure’s sire.

And Damascus.