A Look Back At Two of History's Unsung Hereos
Damscus and Dr. Fager Rivalry Made Headlines in 1968
by Steve Haskin
Daily Racing Form
November 30, 1991
In an era when trainers complain about their horses having to carry 124 pounds, it is hard to imagine two horses carrying 130 pounds or more in the same race. But in July 1968, when racing's titans, Dr. Fager and Damascus, ruled the turf, no one gave it a second thought. This was a time when horses earned the right to be called great.
Not only did Dr. Fager and Damascus ccarry 130 pounds or more in both the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps that year, they put on exhibitions so spectacular that those who witnessed them will never forget it.
What made their rivalry so special was that both horses were as different from each other as two horses could be.
Dr. Fager was a tall, wild-eyed colt who ran with reckless abandon. With his nostrils flaring and mane blowing in the breeze, he looked as if he had been taken from a herd of wild mustangs and turned loose on the racetrack. There wasn't a jockey alive who could restrain the Doctor in the heat of battle. He was a free spirit who wanted nothing in front of him but the wind.
John Nerud, trainer of Dr. Fager, said, "When he was ready to run, he psyched himself up. By the time he got to the gate, his eyes were as big as saucers."
Imagine a horse today running a world-record mile in 1:32 1/5 eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds or blazing seven furlongs in 1:20 1/5 (winning by 6) while lugging an incredible 139 pounds.
Damascus, although only two inches shorter than Dr. Fager (who stood 16.2 hands), looked much smaller, due to his low-to-the-ground style of running. He was always on his toes, prancing to the post with his neck arched in regal splendor. Damascus was a dead come-from-behind horse who pounced on his prey with catlike quickness. Anyone who was amazed by Arazi's devastating move in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile should have been around in 1967 and '68 when Damascus patented those kind of moves.
His spectacular dashed in the Preakness, Dwyer, Travers, American Derby and Woodward had to be seen to be believed. In the Travers, he was 16 lengths off the pace on the backstretch and won by 22 eased up, while equalling the track record.
Dr. Fager and Damascus met for the first time in 1968 in the Suburban Handicap. Each had one victory in head-to-head competition, with Dr. Fager getting the better of Damascus in the Gotham, and the latter turning the tables in the Woodward, winning by 10 lengths (also defeating Buckpasser) and clinching Horse of the Year honors.
After winning the Roseben and Californian in 1968, both under 130 pounds, Dr. Fager came down with a severe case of colic, forcing him to miss the Metropolitan Handicap, won by In Reality. Damascus had won the Malibu and San Fernando stakes before being upset in the Strub by Most Host, who was in receipt of 12 pounds. He returned from a four-month layoff with an easy allowance win at Delaware Park two and a half weeks before the Suburban.
The biggest controversy surrounding the rivalry was trainer Frank Whiteley's use of Hedevar as a rabbit. Hedevar, a former world-record holder at a mile, was fast enough to stay with Dr. Fager for six furlongs, and had forced him into a suicidal pace in the previous year's Woodward. Whiteley entered Hedevar in the Suburban, where he would carry a feathery 112 pounds. Damascus was topweight at 133, with Dr. Fager at 132 and In Reality at 125.
The morning of the race, however, Hedevar took a few bad steps and Whitely was forced to scratch him. Charles Hatton wrote in Daily Racing Form: "Then, Hedevar took a couple of bad steps, and trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. took the hassenpfeffer out of Nerud's cabbage."
Nerud recalled, "I was in the racing secretary's office when Whiteley came in and put in his scratch for Hedevar. Someone said Hedevar was scratched, and I said, 'Well, that's good, the race is over!' "
Nerud was right. When In Reality got hurt coming out of the gate, that left the Doctor loose on the lead. After a half in :48 2/5 (a crawl for Dr. Fager), Manny Ycaza was forced to go after him with Damascus. The next half-mile was as good as the sport gets.
The two hooked up in a memorable duel, and every time Ycaza asked Damascus, Braulio Baeza let out another notch on Dr. Fager. Three times Damascus tried to get past his adversary and three times the Doctor turned him away. They went the third quarter in :22 3/5 and the next quarter in :23 3/5. Damascus, with only the one allowance race under him, finally retreated, eventually losing second to Bold Hour. Dr. Fager went on to a two-length win, equaling the track record of 1:59 3/5.
Damascus came back nine days later and finished third to Bold Hour in the Amory Haskell Handicap at Monmouth under 131 pounds, after stumbling badly at the start.
A week later, it was time for the big rematch, this time, however, with a healthy Hedevar in the field. With In Reality retired and Bold Hour an early scratch, it was Dr. Fager, carrying 135 pounds, against Damascus at 130, with the hassenpfeffer back in the cabbage.
Tommy Lee, breaking from the far outside, gunned Hedevar to the front, but as he sprinted to the clubhouse turn, he took a glance over his left shoulder looking for Dr. Fager. Baeza had a stranglehold on the Doctor and was trying desperately to keep him away from Hedevar.
After a half in :45 4/5, with Hedevar two lengths in front, Dr. Fager had enough of Baeza's restraint. Baeza was forced to let him go, and in a flash, he exploded by Hedevar and found himself with a three-length lead in 1:09 2/5.
Damascus, who had been coiled , just waiting for the right moment to strike, was now in full gear. In one of his typical mind-blowing moves, he made up 10 lengths in a quarter of a mile and was on Dr. Fager by the time they reached the quarter pole.
Unlike the Woodward, Dr. Fager despite his 135-pound impost, dug in gamely and put up a tremendous fight. Inside the eighth pole, Damascus, reaching out with those lightneing quick strides, started to pull away. He went on to a two and a half-length victory, and in the process, broke Dr. Fager's short-lived record, covering the distance in 1:59 1/5, a record which still stands after 23 years. Two races, two winners carrying 130 pounds or more and two track records.
"I knew both these horses well," said Ycaza, who beat Damascus with Dr.Fager in the Gotham. "People thought Hedevar would kill Dr. Fager in the Brooklyn, but I had no problem rating him when I rode him. You have to remember, Dr. Fager was almost three lengths off Hedevar for a half-mile. I let Damascus settle, and when I saw Dr. Fager move, I asked him to run and he put in a tremendous burst of speed. These were both great horses."
The rivalry of Dr. Fager and Damascus will go down as one of the greatest in racing history. In 1967 and '68, there were only two kinds of racing fans--Dr. Fager fans and Damascus fans. Afte 23 years, the debate still continues as to who was the better horse. Between them, they equaled or broke eight track-records (five of which still stand) and won carrying 130 pounds or more 10 times. In 54 combined starts, they finished first or second 49 times, with 40 wins.
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