Damascus -- 1967 Horse of the Year
by Kellie Reilly
As we approach Saturday's San Fernando Breeders' Cup S. (G2), the middle leg of Santa Anita's historic Strub series for four-year-olds, our thoughts turn to one of the most illustrious horses to wear the San Fernando crown, Damascus. Although an East Coast-based performer, he spent the winter of 1967-68 in California as the reigning Horse of the Year. His accomplishments -- especially his amazing three-year-old season in which he scored 12 wins from 16 starts -- were remarkable in his own day, but in our time of fragile champions with abbreviated careers, Damascus is awe-inspiring for his toughness and versatility as much as for his explosive closing kick.
Bred and campaigned by Mrs. Edith Bancroft (daughter of William Woodward Sr.), Damascus was sired by 1959 Horse of the Year Sword Dancer from Kerala (*My Babu). He was entrusted with a name laced with symbolism -- religious, in the sense of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus; historical, evocative of the flowering of Islamic culture when the Caliphate was there; and ancestral, in light of the fact that the Darley Arabian, one of the three principal foundation sires of the Thoroughbred and Damascus' tail-male patriarch, was from the Syrian desert. It was a noble name, and Damascus more than lived up to it.
In the care of patient horseman Frank Whiteley Jr., Damascus did not race until late September of his two-year-old year but quickly climbed the class ladder from maiden to allowance to stakes success in the Remsen S. Hall of Fame rider Willie Shoemaker was not only aboard for those races, but he also rode him in his morning works at that time, and he sensed that the colt was special because he could make multiple moves in a race.
Shoemaker would partner Damascus for all of his major engagements at three. In the spring, he took the New York route to the Kentucky Derby, capturing the Bay Shore S., placing an honorable second to Dr. Fager in the Gotham S. and running away with the Wood Memorial by six easy lengths.
As the 8-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Damascus reportedly suffered a meltdown in the paddock, sweating noticeably, before turning in a subpar effort. After being rank and expending too much energy early, he could manage no better than third, beaten four lengths by upsetter Proud Clarion. Whiteley took corrective measures in the form of a stable pony to accompany Damascus, and his charge responded with comprehensive victories in the Preakness S. and Belmont S., leaving Proud Clarion in his wake. Like Afleet Alex and Point Given in our recent experience, Damascus was one of those superior athletes whose famous failure in the Derby deprived him of the Triple Crown.
For the rest of that magical summer and fall, through a demanding nine-race schedule that would be impossibly taxing today, Damascus was in the form of his life. Just to hit the high points, he closed from 12 lengths back toting 128 pounds in the slop to score in the Dwyer H., then run at 1 1/4 miles, spotting the runner-up 16 pounds. He set a track record of 1:46 4/5 when trotting up by seven lengths in the 1 1/8-mile American Derby at Arlington Park. In the Travers S., one of his most visually impressive efforts, he came from 16 lengths behind to streak away by an unheard of 22 lengths, matching the track record time of 2:01 3/5.
His most famous triumph came in the Woodward S., often called the "Race of the Century" because three all-time greats -- Buckpasser, Dr. Fager and Damascus -- were pitted against each other. Granted that Damascus benefited from the presence of his rabbit, the speedball Hedevar who did his job to make life difficult for the free-running Dr. Fager, and granted that Buckpasser was physically not at his best, but those admissions should not detract from his breathtaking victory. From 12 lengths adrift, Damascus delivered his whirlwind charge to win by 10 lengths, gearing down toward the end.
Still, Damascus was not finished. He added the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup S. by 4 1/2 lengths. Next, in an ambitious turf debut, he took on the best horses in the Washington, D.C., International S., which was roughly the equivalent of our Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) in its global reach as well as its position on the racing calendar. Although he did not win, Damascus ran a heroic race, going down by a nose to champion turf horse Fort Marcy as they flew the final quarter of the 1 1/2-mile contest in :24 flat. He had done more than enough to earn the title of Horse of the Year.
The Bancroft star then set up winter quarters in California for the Strub series. In the first leg, the seven-furlong Malibu S., Damascus had no difficulty in cutting back severely in distance from his marathons, hacking up in 1:21 1/5, just three ticks off the track record. In the San Fernando, he tracked a slow pace before revving up his considerable engine and dusting his overmatched opponents, getting his last furlong in :11 3/5. He failed to run the table in the series, succumbing by a head to Most Host in the Strub S., giving his rival 12 pounds as well as the firmer part of the slow track.
Damascus did not reappear until June. He scored three more stakes victories, most notably the Brooklyn H. (then at Aqueduct) over old rival Dr. Fager in a track record time of 1:59 1/5, as well as the William du Pont Jr. H. and Aqueduct H., both while lugging 134 pounds, but he did not go out in the blaze of glory that he deserved. He bowed a tendon in the vicinity of the half-mile pole in the Jockey Club Gold Cup S. and wound up last of six, the only time in his career he was ever out of the top three.
From 32 starts, Damascus won 21 times, was second another seven, and third on three occasions. He amassed $1,176,781 in earnings, much of that the $817,941 he earned at three, a single-season record at that time. He was elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1974, just six years after his retirement.
Damascus stood throughout his successful stud career at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Kentucky, where he died in 1995. Among the top performers descending from his direct male line are 1998 Horse of the Year Skip Away, 1992 champion juvenile colt Gilded Time and 1990 champion juvenile colt Fly So Free, who himself sired 2001 Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) hero Captain Steve.
Damascus' daughters have produced such notable stallions as Red Ransom, Boundary, Out of Place, Sultry Song, Shadeed and Coronado's Quest. His sons have also had an impact as broodmare sires, with Ogygian being the damsire of 2001 world champion juvenile Johannesburg and Bailjumper being the damsire of multiple Grade 1 winner Medaglia d'Oro.
Finally, Damascus' classy son Private Account is destined to preserve the flame, especially through his daughters -- 1995 champion older mare Inside Information, the dam of 2005 Eclipse Award finalist Smuggler (Unbridled); Coronation S. (Eng-G1) queen Chimes of Freedom, the dam of 2003 champion sprinter Aldebaran; and 1988 champion older mare, the unbeaten Personal Ensign, the dam of multiple Grade 1 heroine My Flag (Easy Goer) and granddam of 2002 champion juvenile filly Storm Flag Flying (Storm Cat).
With descendants like these, Damascus has assured his presence in pedigrees for generations to come. The horse with the world-historical name has indelibly etched that name into the annals of racing history.
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