Damascus: A Nobly Named Champion Print E-mail

America’s Best Racing
The Jockey Club Website
September 2014

It's been said no horse could finish on the far turn quite the way Damascus did.  With an explosive turn of foot, he pounced on his rivals like a cat on its prey.Damascus 1

Known for his toughness, versatility and durability, Damascus' accomplishments -- especially his three-year-old season in which he scored 12 wins from 16 starts -- were superb in a decade full of remarkable racehorses. He retired with 21 victories in 32 starts, finishing out of the money only once and that was his last race which produced a career ending injury. He would go on to a stellar career at stud.

Damascus came into the world on April 14, 1964 at John Bell III’s Jonabell Farm. His owner and breeder was Edith Woodward Bancroft, the daughter of the late William Woodward Sr., patriarch of one of America’s great racing dynasties, and the breeder (Maryland's Belair Stud) of 96 stakes winners in America and Europe. The famous white silks with the cherry red dots had been carried to victory by Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha, as well as champions Nashua, Granville, Vagrancy, and Happy Gal.

Sired by 1959 Horse of the Year Sword Dancer from Kerala (*My Babu), Damascus was given a name laced with religious symbolism -- a reference to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. A handsome chestnut, Sword Dancer was only 15.3 hands, but had  buckets of heart and toughness. A late-developer as a two year-old, Sword Dancer tore up the track at three when he was crowned Horse of the Year.

Placed in the care of patient horseman Frank Whiteley Jr., as a two-year old colt Damascus was growing into a strong bay with touches of black-- a coat color the Irish have longed prized, a classic horse. When Damascus trained he lowered his head and shoulders which made him appear smaller than his 16-hands. His best performance in 1966 was the Remsen Stakes with Hall of Fame rider Willie Shoemaker aboard.

Damascus 4"He showed me guts in the Remsen," Shoemaker remarked. "We were slammed against the rail -and that would be enough to take the starch out of some horses- but he recovered and came on to win. I made a couple of runs with him, and he didn't fail me. Most horses don't want to make more than one run."

In early April 1967 a crowd of 50,222 turned out at Aqueduct for the Gotham Stakes to see the first confrontation between Damascus and Dr. Fager. Racing together, the pair drew clear of the field down the stretch with Dr. Fager edging away to win by a half-length in 1:35 1/5. Shoemaker took the blame for the defeat, saying he stayed too close to the pace and then gave up position.

A couple of weeks later Damascus stormed down the stretch to win by six easy lengths in the Wood Memorial.  As the 8-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Damascus was a bundle of nerves in paddock, sweating profusely. It played out in the Derby where the colt was rank early, hemmed in along the rail   and faded midway in the stretch, finishing third to 30-1 Clarion.

Whitely shipped Damascus to his home base, Laurel Racetrack, the week before the Preakness. In an effort to calm down his colt Whitely teamed up Damascus with a stable pony named Duffy.  It worked. The star of Belair Stud was all business when the gates opened at the Preakness. He broke like a bullet to grab the lead, maintained a high cruising speed and repelled four challengers in the stretch to come home the winner.  In the Belmont, the 4-5 favorite in a nine horse field scored a 2 1/2 length victory in 2:28 4/5.   It was the seventh win in the historic race for Belair Stud.

It was a magical summer ("Summer of Love") as Damascus captured the Leonard Richards Handicap, the Dwyer Handicap, and the American Derby. Showcasing his trademark explosive move on the far turn he won easily. His time of 1:46 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles was a new track record for the American Derby.Damascus 3

At Saratoga, the Travers Stakes set up perfectly for Damascus. Trailing by 15 lengths at the five-eighths pole, Shoemaker soon found himself six lengths in front by the time he reached the quarter pole. Damascus galloped home a twenty-two length winner, equaling the track record of 2:01 3/5 for a mile and a quarter. It ranks as one of the most dominating performances of all-time.

Next up, the $107,800 mile-and-a-quarter Woodward Stakes, or as racing fans dubbed it, the "Race of the Century." A crowd of 55,259 turned up at Aqueduct to witness three of the sport's all-time greats -- four-year old Buckpasser, along with Dr. Fager and Damascus -- do battle.

However, Whitely drew the ire of the Dr. Fager camp when he ran Hedevar as  a rabbit. The speedball Hedevar did his job battling Dr. Fager down the backstretch as they flew through the opening three quarters in a stunning 1:09 1/5. In the home stretch, Damascus dispatched a tiring Dr. Fager and coasted home to a ten length victory over Buckpasser, with arch rival Dr. Fager third.

Whitely, who trained greats such as Tom Rolfe, Ruffian and Forego, ranked the race as his favorite victory. Shoemaker had his own lofty praise.

"This colt gets better all the time, and I'll say it again -- though some people don't believe it-- Damascus is as good a horse I have ever ridden. That includes the best, such as Swaps, Kelso, Gallant Man and even Buckpasser himself."

Back in the day the Washington D. C. International was roughly the equivalent of Breeders' Cup Turf (Grade-1) in its ability to attract the world's finest turf horses as well as its position on the racing calendar. Although he did not win in 1967, Damascus ran a heroic race, going down by a nose to champion turf horse Fort Marcy as he unleashed a final quarter of the 1 1/2-mile contest in :24 flat.

Damascus 2Damascus earned $817,941 that year, a record for a single season, and he was named 1967 Horse of the Year, as well as Champion Three Year Old Colt and co-Champion Handicap Horse. He was ranked third as a grass horse, despite having raced only once on the surface.

As a four-year old, Damascus scored three more stakes victories in 1968. He bowed a tendon in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, finishing last of six, the only time in his career he was ever out of the money.

From 32 starts, Damascus won 21 times, was second another seven, and third on three occasions. He amassed $1,176,781 in earnings. He was elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1974, just six years after his retirement.


Damascus was retired to Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky. where he stood his entire stud career. His syndication price of $2,560,000 was a far cry from his dam's $9,600 yearling price in 1969. Damascus sired seventy stakes winners. He got champions who went on to produce champions. Of Damascus’ progeny, Bailjumper (1974) became the grandsire of Skip Away (1993) and the damsire of Medaglia d’Oro (1999), sire of the wonderful Rachel Alexandra.

Another son, Private Account (1976) sired the incomparable Personal Ensign (1984). Damascus also sired the champions Honorable Miss (1970), Highland Blade (1978) and Timeless Moment (1970), among others. Pensioned in 1989, Damascus was a gentle soul in retirement and there was the greatest sense of loss at Claiborne when the grand old stallion laid himself to rest in his paddock at age 31, in 1995.  A horse with a noble name, Damascus more than lived up to it.


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