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The Race of the Century

Damascus 615 X 400
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.

 

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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 itself.”

 

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. Fager?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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 adversity.

 

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.

 

Post Time

 

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 to fade.

 

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 racing world.

 

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 speechless.

 

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" 

 

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Older Comments about The Race of the Century...

Many say that the golden age of racing was the seventies. I say yes, for sure, but there were equally as golden ages in the 40’s (three TC winners); the 50’s led by Native Dancer and that ’57 three year old group that might have been the deepest three year old crop ever; and the 60’s which began with Kelso and Gunbow, continued on with Northern Dancer and a good three year old crop, and culminated with those magnificent three, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager and Damascus, each a HOY winner and each participating in memorable races for the ages.
Wow!
Here is a video, well put together with facts and fractions. I enjoyed every second of it.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyfiPFvLC2w
What a fabulous article. well written and a great look into a great rivalry of 3 legends.
I realize that the article mentions Nerud's use of a rabbit with Gallant Man, but it was when Johnny was reminded of it that the complaints stopped.
I remember this race very well as I saw it in person among many others in the '60's and earlier. I would like to add a couple of points, while Johnny Nerud is a great sportsmen and one of favorite trainers, the main reason he stopped complaining about the two rabbits, Hedevar and Great Power, was when a reporter interviewed Eddie Neloy, Buckpasser's trainer, and asked him to comment about Nerud's criticism, Neloy shot back that Johnny never had a problem with a rabbit to improve Gallant Man's chances against the speedy Bold Ruler. Neloy's comments were then relayed to Johnny Nerud in an interview and it was AFTER this that Nerud stopped complaining. Also I saw Buckpasser's Brooklyn and he was really laboring in the stretch against Handsome Boy. Part of it was the impost, granted, but the other part was the thought of his injuries plaguing him. I remember a picture on the back page of the Daily Newsof Buckpasser being fired between the Brooklyn and the Woodward. So I think he was hurting and of course he was retired immediately after the Woodward as he was lame the next morning. Also Buckpasser's four yr old season was interrupted when he had won two straight out in CA and was pointing towards the Strub and possibly other CA races, but was found to have had his quarter crack again. Regardless of all, Damascus looked superb in the paddock and was clearly not to be denied. My most poignant memory of Damascus was as I wrote once before was his JCGC the following year when he broke down and bowed a tendon. The fans in the stands were quiet as Damascus was taken off.
The Race of the Century had three of the best ever going 1-2-3. I wish I had been there to see Damascus, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in person as you were, Chantal. It doesn’t get any better.
I saw this race (as I did most of the races by all three of these greats) and, being a Damascus fan I was walking on air for months afterwards! That little bay colt to this day I don't think gets the credit for just how GREAT he really was.....
Oh what I wouldn't give to see a race like this!

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