09/04/2001 12:00AM

Woodward has legacy of kingmaking


LAS VEGAS - Before the advent of the Breeders' Cup, the Woodward Stakes was a race that often crowned the Horse of the Year. Although it is now one of many Grade 1 preps for the Breeders' Cup Classic, it is still a prestigious race, and its storied history has produced many electrifying moments of the sport, especially during the decade of the 1960's.

Kelso, the legendary gelding who was Horse of the Year for an unprecedented five years (1960-1964), won the Woodward three consecutive years (1961-1963), and his most memorable loss came in the 1964 Woodward.

In a remarkable year for racing, which included champions Northern Dancer, Tosmah, and Bold Lad, the 1964 Woodward was the most anticipated race of the year. At the time, the Aqueduct Stakes, run on Labor Day at 1 1/8 miles, was a prep for the Woodward, then run at 1 1/4 miles. Kelso came into the Aqueduct Stakes a shell of his former self, considered weary and washed up at age 7, and having a very disappointing year. For the first time in years, Kelso was not favored in a race. That honor went to the 4-year-old Gun Bow, who had won seven stakes in 1964 going into the Aqueduct: the Brooklyn Handicap, Charles H. Strub Stakes, Gulfstream Park Handicap, San Antonio Handicap, San Fernando Stakes, Washington Handicap, and Whitney Stakes.

Kelso defeated Gun Bow by three-quarters of a length in the Aqueduct Stakes, and veteran columnists Charles Hatton and William Rudy wrote that they had never witnessed a more sentimental and memorable performance. People holding win tickets on Gun Bow were cheering loudly for Kelso.

The rematch was on for the Woodward. In addition to Kelso and Gun Bow, the Woodward attracted only three other starters, Guadalcanal, Colorado King, and the Belmont Stakes winner, Quadrangle.

Kelso, closer than usual to Gun Bow's pace, drew even with Gun Bow in the stretch, and the two giants battled nose to nose to the wire. Although he lugged in in the stretch, Kelso just missed in a photo that took what seemed an eternity to post. Kelso went on to Horse of the Year honors when he defeated Gun Bow by 4 1/2 lengths in the Washington D.C. International. As for Gun Bow, no horse had ever done so much in one year without earning an award.

Three of the greats in epic 1967 running

The racing world was given a treat when it was learned that 3-year-old Dr. Fager, who was carefully managed by trainer John Nerud throughout his career, would lock horns with 3-year-old Damascus in the 1967 Woodward. Dr. Fager defeated Damascus in the Gotham Stakes but did not compete in the Triple Crown races. Going into the Woodward, Dr. Fager had finished first all six of his starts at 3, although he was disqualified from victory in the Jersey Derby when he sawed off the field on the first turn. After finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, Damascus captured the Preakness, Belmont, and Leonard Richards Stakes, Dwyer Handicap, American Derby, and the Travers and Aqueduct Stakes. But then it got even more interesting, when it was announced that 4-year-old Buckpasser, who had not raced since the Brooklyn Handicap in July, would also start.

Buckpasser, a champion at 2 and champion and Horse of the Year at 3, won the Metropolitan Handicap under 130 pounds in 1967 and followed that with a victory in the Suburban Handicap under 133 pounds. The goal for Buckpasser was to emulate his sire, Tom Fool, and become only the fourth horse in history to win the Handicap Triple Crown, which comprised the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn handicaps. Under 136 pounds, Buckpasser succumbed to front-runner Handsome Boy in the Brooklyn, trained by the giant-killer, Allen Jerkens.

With the exception of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, there has never been a race more highly anticipated than the 1967 Woodward. The prospect of these three giants of the turf facing each other held a nearly palpable excitement. Although Damascus was clearly the best animal that day, winning by 10 lengths, the margin doesn't reflect the quality of his opponents. Not in the best physical shape, Buckpasser finished second by a half-length over Dr. Fager and never raced again. Dr. Fager, prompted by rabbits Hedevar and Great Power, had little left after scorching the first six furlongs in 1:09.20.

Among the contestants for this year's Woodward, Tiznow, Red Bullet, and Albert the Great ensure a memorable renewal.

All year, the talk has been how special this group of 3-year-olds is. But they will be hard-pressed to duplicate the feat by last year's 3-year-olds, who swept the first four places in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Albert the Great (by Go for Gin), who has matured into a better animal at 4, loves Belmont. Tiznow (Cee's Tizzy) has been plagued by physical problems this year, but enters the Woodward off a long series of scintillating works and appears ready to defend his Horse of the Year title. Red Bullet (Unbridled), winner of last year's Preakness, adds more glamour to this race. A good showing in the Woodward would send him to the Breeders' Cup Classic along with stablemate Macho Uno (Holy Bull).