THE CHOICE TO REPEL THE INVADER: DAMASCUS
With nearly all prerace returns in, the 93rd Kentucky Derby picture hardly represented an artist's dream of perfect unity and order. In fact, except for a stunning victory by Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's Damascus in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct last week, the weird goings-on among the 3-year-olds constituted a handicapper's nightmare. What little semblance of order existed was this: Damascus will go to the post at Churchill Downs next week as the favorite to beat a dozen or more colts in the first attempt by any of them to negotiate the classic Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.
Lack of consistent form among the majority of the others has created some bizarre situations, to say the least. For example, last year's 2-year-old champion, Successor, who may wind up the second choice in the Derby, went into this week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland winless in two starts this season.
Lou Rowan's Santa Anita Derby winner, Ruken, the probable third choice and the better of the two colts carrying the hopes of California in the Derby, has been training at Churchill Downs longer than any other horse. Well, trying to train may be a better way of putting it. Last week, for example, on a sloppy Downs strip, Ruken "worked" a mile in the very poor time of 1:49—which was exactly the same time Patrice Jacobs' Reason to Hail took to win the mile-and-an-eighth California Derby at Golden Gate Fields a few days later.
Reflected Glory and Dr. Fager, given excellent Derby chances only a few weeks ago, will not get to Louisville after all. Neither will Brunch, Dr. Fager's stablemate, who ran last in the nine-horse Wood Memorial field. Winning or finishing second in Derby preps were such Derby noneligibles as Racing Room, Gala Performance and Kahl Kabee. Some who will not start in the Derby, like Yorkville, Great Power and In Reality—not to mention Reflected Glory and Dr. Fager—threaten to make the May 20 Preakness at Pimlico more of a definitive test than the Derby itself.
But for now it is only the Derby that counts, and no matter what develops in this week's Blue Grass, in the Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs or even in next week's one-mile Derby Trial, the big horse has to be Damascus. His triumph in the Wood was a spectacular sight for the 50,521 at Aqueduct, and a perfect exercise in frustration for the millions of TV viewers who were able to watch the race only long enough to see Damascus striding along in fourth place on the backstretch. Then both video and audio went on the blink and blotted out his brilliant winning move. Although it can be said that Damascus may not have beaten very much in the Wood, his way of doing it was first class.
Aside from Trainer Frank Whiteley, who obviously understands him best and who has had much faith in him from the beginning, nobody knows Damascus as well as his regular jockey, Willie Shoemaker. Shoe, for example, was the first to admit that he himself was most responsible when Damascus was defeated in the one-mile Gotham, which preceded the Wood by a week. "He was fresh, and when I got to running with him he was rank," Shoe added then. "But he'll improve off this race." How right Shoemaker was.
After the Wood he said, "For the first 16th he wanted to run, but I took him back off the leaders and he was completely relaxed. I didn't have to move as fast, and, to be perfectly frank, I rode him better than I did in the Gotham."
The unbeaten and untested Brunch took an immediate lead in the Wood. He and Alfred Vanderbilt's Gala Performance ran together all the way up the backstretch with Dawn Glory, the glory of Puerto Rico, just behind them and Damascus, running freely, just he-hind him. Going into the far turn, as the television went off, Shoe moved with Damascus and so did Laffit Pincay Jr., who had been nursing Proviso along in fifth place. For a moment it looked as if Proviso, and not Damascus, would make the better move, but, although Proviso got to fourth place in the stretch, he quickly faded to finish sixth.
Not so with Damascus. In one long, powerful and beautiful sweep he rolled by Brunch, Gala Performance and Dawn Glory on the turn. Straightening for home, Shoemaker hit him four or five times, and at the eighth pole he was a length in front. With no further urging from Shoe, he increased his margin all the way to the wire and coasted under it six lengths ahead of Gala Performance, who was another three in front of Dawn Glory. Considering that he was not pushed, his time of 1:49 3/5 was excellent. So are his chances to become the first Wood Memorial winner to win the Derby since Assault.
Successor and Ruken get their last pre-Derby tests this week, although not against each other. On Thursday, Successor takes on Tumble Wind and Ask The Fare in the Blue Grass; on Saturday, Ruken goes in the seven-furlong Stepping Stone, in which he will face Grand Premiere and Cool Reception. Ruken's approach to a mile-and-a-quarter race—via two sprint preps—is not the most orthodox method of training, but then, Trainer Clyde Turk knows his horse and what is best for him. Two things in Ruken's favor are the advantage of training under various conditions on the unpredictable strip at Churchill Downs and the fact that he will have had a race over the track. Even so, it will be recalled that the last Derby winner to have prep-raced at Louisville was Venetian Way seven years ago.
Beaten only a nose by Ruken in the Spendthrift on April 15, lightly raced Successor should improve. Says Ogden Phipps: "Being driven out of New York to Kentucky may have been a blessing in disguise. If we had had to run a tough mile in the Gotham and then run back exactly a week later in the Wood, it might have been a little hard on him." Jockey Braulio Baeza had his own opinion after Successor was so narrowly beaten in the Spendthrift. Explaining it to his agent, Lenny Goodman, Baeza said, "Ruken will never beat us again, at any distance."
To compensate for losing Reflected Glory, who will miss the Derby because of a sore left shin, Trainer Hirsch Jacobs will go to Louisville with his second-stringer, Reason to Hail, who had finished third behind Dr. Fager and Damascus in the Gotham. After a quick trip from New York to San Francisco, the Hail to Reason gelding got into the $93,750 California Derby with 114 pounds (12 less than he would have had to carry against Damascus in the Wood and 12 less than he will carry in the Kentucky Derby) and won, with Wally Blum up, by nearly two lengths over long shot Kahl Kabee. The only filly in the race, Deauville, was third, just ahead of Dr. Isby, who is a pretty gutsy chestnut colt by Clem and is owned by Perne L. Grissom. Dr. Isby probably will come on to the Derby, and if he does he rates as a qualified dark horse. His trainer, Frank Childs, came to Kentucky in 1959 and won with Tomy Lee, by a nose over Sword Dancer, who happens to be the sire of Damascus. Aboard Dr. Isby last week was Jockey Bill Hartack who, after declining to comment to the press, confided to another jock, "I feel this horse deserves a shot at the Derby. I think if I had ridden him once before I could have done better today. I had him in contention, and then he made a quick left turn on me. I had trouble bringing him back. He's a lot of horse."
The question of which "lot of horse" is the most will be answered in Louisville next week.