October 26, 2020

Historical Cameo – Damascus

Originally appeared Jan. 10, 2006

Damascus — 1967 Horse of the Year

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.