Photo: NYRA / Bob Coglianese
As we approach this year’s highly anticipated Woodward Stakes, I wanted to reflect on my favorite edition of the historic event.
June 25th, 1966. Although only one would be
recognized, three world records would be broken this day in a single race. When
the clock stopped in the Arlington Classic, the teletimer would be the only
thing that would be permanently etched into the minds of fans and horsemen. The
race was defined by the fleet-footed speedball appropriately named Impressive
whom set fractions of :43 3/5 for a half mile (the world record was :45 flat)
and 1:06 4/5 for six furlongs (the world record was 1:07 4/5). Passing the
quarter pole it was the 3-year old Buckpasser who bore down on the pacesetter
and drew clear to cross the wire in 1:32 3/5 to become the new world record
holder for a flat dirt mile. With this victory, Buckpasser had set the tone for
what could be called the greatest three years the sport has ever seen.
Charles Hatton on
Damascus: “Usually he had put all rivals on a treadmill in the early stretch,
but when circumstances conspired to place him on his mettle he was courage
April 15th, 1967. At one mile, the Gotham Stakes
proved to be one of the premier prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Lining up to
face each other for the first time was the highly regarded Damascus and the
lanky speedster Dr. Fager. From the moment the gates opened, the Good Doctor
would make his mark on eternity with his fearless running style. But unlike
many speed horses that would tire in the stretch, Dr. Fager was different. His
tenacity, speed, and determination formulated a racehorse that was unlike
anything that had come before him. Entering the stretch of the Gotham, Damascus
and Dr. Fager were neck and neck. Despite heavy urging and as resolute as
Damascus was, he could not hold off the persistence of Dr. Fager. Stopping the
clock in 1:35 1/5, the ½ length win by Dr. Fager started one of the fiercest
rivalries racing has ever seen. If Damascus was courage, what did that make Dr.
August 19th, 1967. Drawing a short field of four,
the Travers Stakes looked as if no one in the country was willing to take on
the 1-10 favored Damascus. Breaking in third, Bill Shoemaker kept a tight hold
on the favorite as Timinga and Gala Performance took off in what looked like a
match race. Setting early fractions of 22 3/5 and 45 4/5, the two front runners
opened up 15 lengths on Damascus and Reason to Hail. At the ½ mile pole, Shoemaker
did not seem concerned. The next 40 seconds of racing were simply jaw dropping.
With every stride the juggernaut that was Damascus closed the gap on the
exhausted leading pair. By mid turn, Damascus unleashed one of the most
demoralizing accelerations ever to be seen as he engulfed the pace setters. Without
showing any signs of fatigue, he sprinted to the finish in hand, ears pricked,
to a whopping 22 length victory that equaled the track record. It was the
purest demonstration of 3 year old dominance since Count Fleet’s 25 length
Belmont Stakes triumph.
September 2nd 1967. Only 2 weeks after Damascus’
romp in the Travers, race fans across the country were salivating at the
thought of another meeting with Dr. Fager. Yet to be tested at the classic
distance of 1 ¼ miles, Dr. Fager still had something to prove if he was to be
in consideration for Horse of the Year. Despite the question in distance, only
4 rivals were willing to enter the starting gate against the Good Doctor in the
$250,000 New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic. One such opponent was the gallant
In Reality. Cast in the shadow of Dr. Fager and Damascus, In Reality was having
a quietly good sophomore campaign, accruing 5 stakes wins and 4 stakes places
entering the fall racing season. As the gates opened Dr. Fager jetted straight
to a two-length lead. Trying to catch Dr. Fager off guard In Reality’s jockey,
Earlie Fires, sent him right after the leader. Head to head with the Doc, In
Reality pressed the pace for nearly a mile and even had a taste for the lead at
times. However, Dr. Fager was just too good and finished 1 ¼ lengths clear of his
rival at the wire. But it was not until everyone looked at the teletimer that
they understood what had just unfolded. Stopping the clock in 1:59 4/5, Dr.
Fager shattered the track record by 3 seconds. The question of the classic
distance had been answered, and now trainer John Nerud had his sights on
Aqueduct, Damascus, and the Horse of the Year title.
September 30th, 1967. The “Race of the Century” would
be a clash of three superpowers, where victory would not be measured by prize
money nor bragging rights, but rather the Horse of the Year honors. The
Woodward stakes would be the second matchup between Dr. Fager and Damascus, and
also include the reigning Horse of the Year Buckpasser.
As any good tactician will tell you, it is not wise to go
into battle without fully understanding your enemy. For the case of Damascus,
the enemy of this day would be his rival Dr. Fager and his unparalleled ability
to carry near quarter horse speed over a route of ground. Trainer Frank Whiteley
recalled the fate of Damascus on April 15th and knew an unpressured
Dr. Fager was near unbeatable, so he entered Hedevar who was considered by many
to be a “rabbit” (a front runner to ensure a fast pace). A previous co-world
record holder at a mile, Hedevar was a classy horse that knew the sweet taste
of top-level victory. At this junction, fact will never overshadow opinion. Was
it an intentional, strategic move to improve Damascus’ chances or a true
unbiased opportunity to give Hedevar a devious chance to win? Whiteley would
never admit to entering a rabbit to aid Damascus in the Woodward.
Also planning to benefit from a speed duel up front was the
seasoned veteran Buckpasser. The champion was approaching the end of his third
season, and after suffering from several quarter cracks throughout his career,
a win in the Woodward would be one of the high points in an otherwise magnificent
career. From the barn of Eddie Neloy, the training partner and pacesetter for Buckpasser,
Great Power was also entered.
The use of rabbits was not exactly a secret or sparsely used
tactic in racing. Ten years prior, John Nerud had used a pacesetter to help
Gallant Man defeat Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes. Regardless, Nerud was
quite vocal about his disapproval of rabbits being entered to aid Buckpasser
and Damascus. Yet as much as Nerud criticized Whiteley and Neloy, he was a true
sportsman and believed he had the type of horse to overcome any type of
The last in the field of six was Handsome Boy who had recently
shown Buckpasser the largest defeat of his career with an 8-length romp in the
Brooklyn Handicap, thwarting the champion’s hope of becoming the 4th
Handicap Triple Crown winner. Granted, this was with a 20lb weight break, and
at the Woodward, a weight-for-age race, no such advantage would exist.
As luck would have it, Dr. Fager drew the #2 post with Great
Power on his inside and Hedevar directly on his outside. When the gates opened
at 4:50pm, a stampede ensued with both Bobby Ussery on Great Power and Ron
Turcotte on Hedevar whipping and screaming at their mounts from their first
strides. It was very clear what was happening. They succeeded in infuriating
the Good Doctor, and the race was on. Settling about a half dozen lengths
behind the leaders was Handsome Boy with Damascus and Buckpasser relaxed just
off his flank.
¼ mile: 22 2/5
The first to fold was Great Power, who was clearly
outclassed by Dr. Fager and Hedevar. Those two continued to slug it out on the
front end as they approached ¾ mile left to race. Hedevar may have even gotten
a head in front as they entered the backstretch. I have often read that few
horses showed expression through their eyes like Dr. Fager. Through every
stride, I can only imagine what Hedevar and Ron Turcotte thought as they looked
into the fiery soul of their opponent.
½ mile: 45 1/5
Down the Aqueduct backstretch Hedevar did all he could to
stay with Dr. Fager, but it was a suicide mission from the start. He too began
¾ mile: 1:09 1/5
Hedevar was clearly weakening. Damascus and Buckpasser began
to move in unison and slowly started to close the gap. In the words of William
Rudy, “that was the way they were positioned when Damascus moved with
exceptional agility and grace.”
As Damascus went by Hedevar and approached the laboring Dr.
Fager he showed the 55,259 fans why he would eventually be named Horse of the
Year. He surged passed Dr. Fager with Buckpasser frantically and unsuccessfully
trying to keep pace with his younger foe.
After the race, Bill Shoemaker, the rider of Damascus was quoted on his perspective of the event, "I wanted to be ahead of Buckpasser at all times. I saw Dr. Fager way up ahead of both of us, but he 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."
1 mile: 1:35 3/5
Again from Shoemaker, "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."
Despite running his 4th quarter in :26 2/5, Dr.
Fager refused to spit the bit and gamely fought Buckpasser all the way to the
wire (Dr. Fager’s final quarter was run in :25). But it was not the battle for
second that everyone was watching. Damascus had again shocked and awed the
Finish 2:00 3/5
The final margin of Damascus’ victory was 10 lengths with Buckpasser
holding a half-length margin over the tough-as-nails Dr. Fager for the place.
Five months of emotional build up was now over. The stretch run may have not
been the three horse war of attrition that many where hoping for, but Damascus’
devastating turn of foot, Buckpasser’s never ending class, and Dr. Fager’s
demonic fortitude had branded the “Race of the Century” into the history books.
Dr. Fager would come back three weeks after the Woodward to win
the 10 furlong Hawthorne Gold Cup before rounding out the year with a win in
the 7 furlong Vosburgh Stakes. He earned the title of Champion Sprinter in his
sophomore campaign, but his true colors would not shine until 1968 when he
would display herculean feats on the racetrack that would leave mere mortals
Damascus’ next start came a month later when he won the two
mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, and he concluded his season with a 2nd
place effort in his only start on turf in the Washington DC International. Having
won 13 of 16 races in his 3-year old season including the Wood Memorial,
Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Travers, Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup,
Horse of the Year and Champion 3-year old could only begin to describe the
greatness that was Damascus in 1967.
His second place finish in the 1967 Woodward would be the
last time that Buckpasser would compete in racing. He finished his illustrious career
with a record of 25 wins, 4 places, 1 show in 31 starts, giving the Phipps
family all they could ask for in a horse. It was now on to stud at Claiborne Farm
where his talents on the racetrack would live on through his sons and even more
so through his daughters.
Between 1965 and 1968, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and Damascus would
collectively earn or share 12 championships, and finish first in 64 out of 85
races. I truly believe I will never be able to decide on a favorite of the
three and always admire that among their many individual achievements, the most
noble was to never let their legacies be defined by one single race.
References for Quotations
Charles Hatton: The American Racing Manual 1967 Edition
Bill Shoemaker: Sports Illustrated October 9, 1967 "Damascus by a Mile"
William Rudy: The Blood Horse October 7, 1967 "A Champion Wins a Championship"