Damascus, 1967

Charles Hatton on 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus from the 1968 American Racing Manual.

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Horse of the Year honors are the ultimate order of merit in American racing. The voters hailed Mrs. Edith Bancroft’s Damascus the 1967 champion of champions, rather more than electing him to that position. He had already proclaimed himself incontestably the “most” horse in actual competition, leaving nothing to conjecture nor to be desired. Those experting the season’s from were unanimous in their acclaim.

Campaigned solicitously at two, when he won three of four races, including the Remsen, Damascus reappeared last season to sweep the boards of 12 of 16 starts, finishing three times second, one third and earning a season’s record $817,941.

The coveted Bay Shore, Wood Memorial, Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, Leonard Richards, American Derby, Travers, Aqueduct, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup all fell before his pendulistic stride. In the process of distinguishing himself in these old fixtures, he defeated every challenger for top honors in the aristocratic set in which he moved, among them Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, In Reality, Handsome Boy and Ring Twice.

Accomplished All Tasks Well

He danced all the dances and ran all the distances from a mile to two miles. Never did we see him spit out the bit, as the homely expression goes, and he was confronted with such defiant tasks as carrying topweight of 128 pounds in the Dwyer, giving Ring Twice and Straight Deal actual weight in the Aqueduct, and running smooth-shod in unaccustomed going in the grassy Laurel International. Fort Marcy won the money that day, but Damascus won the crowd’s heart.

It is not every three-year-old leader that ventures to oppose the old pros, and fewer still who compare themselves favorably with them. Damascus is not a strapping figure of a horse for all his swashbuckling but he is “all heart and no peel.” It was thrilling to see him fighting back, eyes blazing, lengthening his stride so that his neck and tail were on a straight line, in a heated debate the last frenetic yards.

He was the antitype of the throatlatcher who is reluctant to leave his opposition. 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.

He thrived astonishingly in the course of his severe campaign, stripping for the weight-for-age Woodward on September 30 in better flesh than he had for the Dwyer on July 15. Remarking on the rigors to which he was being subjected, horsemen wondered when he would fall apart. He never did. On the contrary, he went from strength to strength. It goes without saying he is a good doer and is intuitively a racehorse, gifted with the wearing quality Hard Boots call bottom and reasonably sound.

Possesses Compelling Urge to Win

Damascus can run on his heart, as he has a compelling urge to win. This and his action go farther toward explaining than does his physique, which is nothing to terrorize rival horsemen. It was his pluck in overcoming some offside byplay and making repeated runs in the course of the same race, that suggested to jockey Willie Shoemaker he might be a runner above the ordinary.

At a glance, Damascus is a demure little horse who goes quietly on parade and handles himself with decorum at the gate. But in the heat of conflict, when his blood is up, he has iron resolution. His character is such he won on first acquaintance with competition in the mud, though fielding the unfamiliar shower of wet loam had him ducking about like a dog at a county fair.

His imagination is such that he missed his lead pony saddling up for the Kentucky Derby. The throngs, flags and bands unnerved him in the paddock. A horse is confronted with this teeming milieu once only in his career.

Damascus was green at the outset of his three-year-old campaign but gained confidence as it progressed. In the end, his psyche was all that could be desired and he was quite the horseman’s horse, with all the self assurance and resourcefulness this implies.

Mrs. Bancroft’s colt is dashing enough out of the gate to place himself in the first flight in any race, except that usually he has been taken in hand once they broke and got running on his mind.

“Action makes the racehorse” and Damascus was very strident so to speak, with a fluent manner of going which made him a great ground gainer. In another age, veteran horsemen had a little conceit they could tell a Matchem just from the way he laid his legs to the ground. Damascus’ action was all that distinctive. He was always in cadence, racing in any context.

The Belair colt recalled Northern Dancer in that he was at once clever as a polo pony, but when fully extended went long and low as a southern hound. Another of the same synchronized sort was Old Rosebud. Perhaps it is a matter of balanced physical organization, achieving grace and the kinetic pleasure one experiences in observing an exceptional ballet dancer. Something of this is suggested even in Damascus’ four-square, swinging walk. A bad walker is rarely a good runner, though there are some notable exceptions, reflecting that Ben Jones thought Citation walked like Charlie Chaplin, while War Admiral and Top Flight were indifferent at the slow paces and Tom Fool toed out.

Damascus is a hard bay with black points and appears a bit on the small side, as his sire Sword Dancer was in training. He looked a compact 15.3 hands, but is reputed to be 16, measured as an early four-year-old at Santa Anita.

He is plain about the head and neck and his back has a bit of a dip. This last is accentuated by his height and breadth across the hips and loin, which are exceptionally well muscled. The stifle is strong and conjoins with gaskin to match. He is a terrible horse behind, as Bill Brennen once said of the mighty Equipoise’s gluteal muscles. This is just as well, for Damascus’ hocks are behind him and want compensatory articulation.

Damascus is not at all on the leg, girths a moderate 73 inches and has eight dense inches of bone below the knee. One could wish his ankles were smoother.

There is nothing mutton-shouldered about him before the saddle. He appeared to be a bit tucked and light of flank in midseason but filled out as the leaves began to turn.

The pasterns are of the correct length, strength and angulation and the hoofs have firm definition and are round. Though he vets fairly well, as the saying goes, Damascus at three was a lot more horse than he looked, until one saw him in action.

“Simple, Honest Folk” in Pedigree

Damascus’ pedigree is unrestrictive and unobjectionable though it is not the most aspiring any breeder ever fantasized. He comes of “simple, honest folk.” Sword Dancer got a champion three-year-old filly in Lady Pitt, who also stays well, with only moderate opportunities at stud.

It is doubtful if anybody will care to deny Damascus represents an improvement over his sire, just as the latter marked an improvement over Sunglow. This is a male line which is in the ascendancy, rather than deteriorating, a happy result of intelligent breeding.

Sun Again, who sired Sunglow, was cursed with large, mushy knees that popped when he was two. This, combined with his gross middle, compromised his racing success but he was not far behind Shut Out and Alsab on their classic form.

Kerala is a mare the Bancrofts secured in a package deal. A young mare, foaled in ’58, she is by the Guineas winner My Babu out of Blade of Time, a daughter of Sickle and Bar Nothing. She was bred by Greentree and never ran. Bar Nothing was out of Beaming Beauty, dam of Bubbling Over, one of the most brilliant and underrated of all the Kentucky Derby winners. He would make three of Damascus physically, but had the same marvelous way of going. Atavism works in strange ways.

Some of the Sickles were hot under the collar, as Andrew Jackson Joyner used to say, declaring, “I wouldn’t ride one of them as a gift.” Joseph E. Widener had numerous Sickle fillies who were so obstreperous at the gate they never raced. But of course Sickle was a broodmare sire of the first class, and Damascus has inherited none of the knavish sulkiness of the tribe.

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