Three months of winter racing in the sunshine of Florida and California have given followers of the 3-year-old division ample opportunity to sort out the best from the not-so-best among those aiming for the Kentucky Derby. Yet, despite the often impressive performances of such runners as Reflected Glory, In Reality, Solo Landing, Ruken and Tumble Wind, to name just five of the top ones, some horsemen have insisted all along that the real best have not come out of their barns and into the headlines yet. Last week one of them, Damascus, stepped from his stall at Laurel, Md., was vanned up to Aqueduct and, before 47,366 fans, raced through the mud for a strong win in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes. With this one performance he propelled himself into the already confusing Kentucky Derby picture.
Before Aqueduct's running of the Gotham (April 15) and the Wood Memorial (April 22) the confusion is sure to increase, for there are others to be heard from. Some, like Successor, last year's 2-year-old champion, have been slightly ailing. Others, like the Johnny Nerud-trained entry of Brunch, Dr. Fager, and Gaylord's Feather, have not been able to get in sufficient training. They are based in New York, where it has been so cold that pneumatic drills were needed to plant the Easter flowers on Park Avenue, and their progress has been seriously delayed.
The place where horses have been able to train is Maryland, and down in the Chesapeake country they have made the most of it. Solo Landing headquartered at Pimlico, and prior to last week's Bay Shore he had managed five straight wins, including the Swift and two other stakes, for Owner-Trainer Guy Burt. He was at the very peak of his form and he went into the Bay Shore as a legitimate 7-to-10 favorite. Damascus, on the other hand, was making only his second start of the year and only the sixth in his short career. The outlook for him last Saturday was not promising, a fact reflected in his 5-to-2 odds.
Early on the morning of the Bay Shore, Damascus stood quietly in stall 6, barn 8 at Aqueduct. His trainer, Frank Whiteley, picked his way from the track through melting snow and thick mud and took a long look at his big horse, a bay son of Sword Dancer out of the My Babu mare, Kerala. "He's about 16 hands and has about as perfect conformation as you can find in a horse," Whiteley said. "He's always been sound, and although he's still pretty green and unseasoned, he has no bad habits."
There are few horsemen endowed with Frank Whiteley's gift of patience and eye for perfection. A few years ago he made a national name for himself with Raymond Guest's Tom Rolfe, who won the Preakness and who probably should have won the Derby and Belmont as well. And now he has Damascus, who could prove to be better than Tom.
Damascus is owned by Mrs. Thomas Bancroft of New York. If her name is not familiar, her racing colors of white with red dots should be. Mrs. Bancroft, the former Edith Woodward, is the daughter of the late chairman of The Jockey Club, William Woodward Sr., and a sister of the late William Woodward Jr. After her brother was killed in a gruesome shooting accident in 1955 there was a dispersal sale of all the Woodward Thoroughbred holdings, but Edith Bancroft retained the Belair Stud silks, which were famous at the time on the frame of Eddie Arcaro as he rode to victory after victory aboard Nashua. (The most notable win of the Nashua-Arcaro team was over Swaps and Bill Shoemaker in the Washington Park match race of 1955, and, ironically, it was Shoemaker who last week brought Belair's white with red dots back to an appreciative New York audience.)
Edith Bancroft has a modest stable of six horses in training with Whiteley and an additional six yearlings at a Middleburg, Va. training center. "'She is a wonderful person to train for," says Frank, who has a few set—and successful—ideas of his own about the way a horse should be prepared for the almost year-round campaign that American Thoroughbreds are subjected to. "In racing you never know if you're right or wrong. It is all very unpredictable. Still, I believe horses cannot run all year. I do not press them too hard at 2, and I give them the winter off. I did this with Tom Rolfe, and I have done it with Damascus. I never like to compare horses, but at this stage of their respective careers Damascus is not as seasoned as Tom was [Tom Rolfe had 10 starts at 2, compared to four for Damascus] but this colt comes up here fresh and ready. If he weren't, we wouldn't be here."
Damascus is fresh because of White-ley's careful planning. Last season the colt did not start until Sept. 28, and he finished second. He won his next two by eight and 12 lengths respectively, and in his first stakes race, the Remsen on Nov. 30, Shoemaker got him home a winner by a length and a half over Native Guile. The third finisher that day was none other than Reflected Glory, hero of the Flamingo and heavy favorite for this week's Florida Derby at Gulf-stream. "After that I gave him five weeks off," says Whiteley. "I took him to Camden, S.C. on Jan. 3, and for two months all he did was nice, long, slow gallops."
In his first race this year, on March 11 at Pimlico, Damascus won by a head despite a lot of trouble. "He tried to prop, and then he jumped three puddles along the way," explains Whiteley. "Forty yards from the wire the second horse, Solar Bomb, knocked him nearly sideways, but he still won." After that it was more training at Laurel while the New York opposition was being frustrated by snow and ice, and then came last week's Bay Shore.
In the mud Disciplinarian, who had beaten Tumble Wind seven lengths in the slop at Santa Anita, figured to go to the front, and he promptly did, followed by Solo Landing and Sun Gala together. Shoemaker quickly got Damascus into fourth place and then began to test him. He took him back, then tried running him a little inside, and then outside. "He was still green," said Shoe later, "and he jumped up and down a few times when all that mud hit him in the face. But along about the three-sixteenths pole I got into him pretty good. I hit him both left-handed and right-handed, and he just took off." So he did, pulling away from a tiring Disciplinarian in the stretch and winning by two and a half lengths without much more strain than he would show in one of those Camden gallops. Solo Landing finished a distant fourth.
Damascus was soon on his way back to Laurel for more Whiteley training, but he is scheduled to return to Aqueduct for both the Gotham and the Wood Memorial before going on to Kentucky. Well, maybe Kentucky. "Who said anything about Kentucky?" says Whiteley. "We have a little more idea about Damascus now, but we wouldn't want to go to Churchill Downs just for the ride or for the sake of running. If Damascus is good enough we'll go."
"I don't know if he's good enough or not," says Shoemaker, "but the way he put it in the last 16th he was running like a champ today. I'm going back to Florida to ride Tumble Wind in that Derby, but I have my doubts that he wants to go any real distance. I've been waiting all winter to get back on Damascus, and now I don't want to get off him. He's the best 3-year-old I've seen this year."
So keen had Shoemaker been to test Damascus in the Bay Shore—worth a paltry $28,600 and only $1,859 to the winning jockey—that he passed up a mount the same day on Tumble Wind's stablemate, Pretense, who won the $137,600 Gulfstream Handicap and earned substitute jockey John Sellers $9,760.
Outside the jocks' room at Aqueduct late Saturday a man was puffing on a large cigar and waiting for a friend. "You know," he said with a smile, "Caliente's opening winter-book Derby odds on Damascus were 12 to 1. They know me out there, and I got down at 15 to 1." The man with the cigar was Harry Silbert. He is jockey agent for William Shoemaker.