Damascus was a jumpy colt the day he lost the Kentucky Derby, but he was mild as a little lamb before the Preakness. Credit his patient trainer—and a gray lead pony who almost lost his head
May 28, 1967

It was 76° when they dished out the Maryland crab cakes at Pimlico on the 92nd Preakness Day last week. The tension index, however, rose well above that, as the 10 horses were being saddled for the mile-and-three-sixteenths classic worth $194,000—the richest purse ever for any of the Triple Crown races. It was not only because five of the 10 (including one entry) were actually going off at odds of 9 to 2 or less. There was a certain nostalgia connected with the whole show on the dazzlingly clear afternoon, and many of the 38,371 spectators seemed to sense it and to appreciate being part of it.

"I want to see the horse win, of course," said one veteran Maryland observer. "But it's the sight of those wonderful, familiar colors that does something to me." The colors were the white with red dots of Belair Stud, once worn by jockeys astride the horses of the William Woodward family. The magnificent Belair estate with its 2,500 acres and mansion built in 1746—long since sold for development—was the Woodward home, only 20 miles from Pimlico. Belair also had been the home of many great horses. From the mansion had come the orders of William Woodward Sr. to run Gallant Fox and Omaha in the Preakness on the way to their Triple Crown victories. Twelve years ago Belair, then in the hands of handsome and popular Bill Woodward Jr., sent Nashua to the Preakness to make amends for his defeat by Swaps in the Kentucky Derby. Swaps was not in the field for that 1955 Preakness, but Nashua set a track record of 1:54⅗ beating Mrs. Marion duPont Scott's Saratoga by one length. It was a happy day for Belair, and the Woodwards, and few believed that it would be 12 years before the scene would be duplicated. But then came the tragic incident that cost Bill Woodward his life; dispersal of the racing stable and the Belair property quickly followed.

The red-and-white silks reappeared a few years ago, in the name of Bill's sister, Mrs. Thomas Bancroft, and last Saturday they thundered back into prominence in Maryland in such style that even the day's losers had to admire it. With Bill Shoemaker wrapped in the colors made famous by Earl Sande and Eddie Arcaro, Damascus won the Preakness, coming from next-to-last place to win comfortably by two and a quarter lengths over In Reality, who was another four lengths to the good of Kentucky Derby Winner Proud Clarion. Damascus, who had finished third to Proud Clarion and Barbs Delight at Churchill Downs, ticked off the distance in 1:55⅕ making this the second fastest Preakness, only three-fifths of a second off Nashua's 12-year-old record. It was the fourth time the red and white had made it to the Preakness winner's circle, and it was certainly one of the most satisfying classic victories ever.

Long before Damascus and Shoemaker came pounding down Pimlico's hard stretch, however, there was a good deal of speculation about this Preakness—particularly about how its various contestants would elect to run. Much of the guesswork was carried on by newsmen, horsemen and racing officials, not by the Preakness trainers themselves. Winning Derby Trainer Loyd (Boo) Gentry, for example, was sitting in bed in New York's Doctors Hospital, being treated for hepatitis between phone calls to his assistant, Jim Mahoney, at Pimlico. Eddie Neloy decided (wisely, it turned out) that his presence in Baltimore would do little to increase the chances of Wheatley Stable's Great Power.

And then, of course, there was Frank Whiteley, the trainer of Damascus, who seems to treat every racing crowd as if it had the bubonic plague. Whiteley kept Damascus at Laurel, never worked him at Pimlico and did not bring him to the scene of combat until 9 o'clock on race-day morning. But when Damascus and Whiteley did appear—they were, typically, the last of the 10 starters to arrive in the attractive infield saddling ring—something new had been added. "You know how this colt was rank and nervous in Louisville," Whiteley explained. "I don't know what caused it, but today I decided that I'd bring along a lead pony for the first time in Damascus' career. I thought it might help him." Apparently it did, for in the crowded ring Damascus stood quietly, nuzzling a gray pony as though he had found his only friend in the world. He did not break out, he neither flinched nor kicked, and he looked superb. Most important, this striking son of Sword Dancer looked ready to run the race of his life.

In this country trainers customarily send horses to the post with lead ponies. Whiteley had even shattered tradition in Paris two years ago when he requested permission to send Tom Rolfe onto the Longchamp turf with a pony. But he had insisted, up to the Preakness, that Damascus needed no special companion to quiet him. Frank acquired the gray pony two months ago when a Laurel-based horseman was leaving for Kentucky and found he had no room to take along his 8-year-old gray hack, named Duffy. Whiteley bought Duffy and rides him daily with each set of his horses in training. Damascus and Duffy took to each other immediately, and each seems to understand what is expected of him. Last week, however, Duffy was momentarily carried away by it all. On the way to the post of Pimlico it was Duffy who tried to run away. Damascus saved his running for later.

During Preakness week many other trainers felt their horses were just as ready as Damascus, despite certain questions that bobbed up at press conferences and found their way into print. Sunshine Calvert made no secret of the fact that he was miffed—and rightly so—because Pimlico had canceled a prep race eight days before the Preakness. He felt that it was asking a lot of his Florida Derby winner, In Reality, to take on this field after a seven-week absence from competition. "But racing is just a big guessing game, I suppose," he said 48 hours before the race. "I put a work into my colt, and I hope it will be enough for him. I think my horse is just fine. That is, I thought so until I read in the papers that his ankles were mushy and that he won't be in the money. His ankles look fine to me, and he is going to run a good race. That I know for sure."

Proud Clarion's condition was somewhat questionable. In the days immediately preceding the Preakness he appeared to have lost a little flesh, but, of course, Boo Gentry couldn't see this all the way from Doctors Hospital and his assistant was under orders to do the training as instructed—and no talking. When Owners Mr. and Mrs. John W. Galbreath showed up for the Preakness lunch they were nervous, but still optimistic. Galbreath, as always, was also realistic. "The way I see it," he said, "is that there's a lot of early speed in the race, which is good. If Great Power, Barbs Delight and In Reality go out there and burn themselves out instead of stealing the race, it should mean that the winner will be the come-from-behind horse with the best finishing kick. That should be Proud Clarion or Damascus. Believe me, I'm like a lot of other people. I'm still not entirely convinced that Proud Clarion is the best horse."

This same spirit swept the crowd at Pimlico. Proud Clarion shared third in the betting with In Reality, behind Damascus and Barbs Delight. As the gate flew open, Great Power and Celtic Air (an entry with Damascus) went to the front. Bill Hartack was moving up with Barbs Delight to run right behind them, while In Reality was fifth, Damascus eighth and Proud Clarion last into the clubhouse turn. "That didn't bother me at all," said Shoemaker later. "He came right back to me after the break, and I knew immediately he was more relaxed and not in the least rank."

Bobby Ussery on Proud Clarion was equally undisturbed. "I was only two lengths back of Shoe," he said, "and figured that he had the horse to beat. We may have been farther back than we would have liked, but the chief opposition was right there, too, so I didn't do too much worrying."

On the way up the backstretch Celtic Air opened up two lengths on Great Power, but the horse that looked very good at this point was Barbs Delight, in third place and running easily for Hartack. "He really wanted to run, too," said Hartack later to Trainer Hal Steele, "and he kept wanting to run right up until Damascus got to him at the quarter pole. Then he spit out the bit, and that was the race." This confirmed the experts' belief that Barbs Delight could hardly have run a better race than he did in the Derby and that, Hartack or no Hartack, he wasn't going to improve on that performance two weeks later.

Shoemaker made his move with Damascus at the half-mile pole, and by the time he was at the head of the stretch he had the race won. "At the three-eighths pole I knew I had those in front of me beat," he said, "and all I had to worry about was Proud Clarion, who was still behind me." Shoe took Damascus wide, outside of four horses, turning for home. Ussery followed him, going wider still to the middle of the track. On this day—by contrast with what happened at Churchill Downs—it didn't help him much. Earlie Fires had In Reality on the move, too, and down the stretch it was this team, not Ussery and Proud Clarion, that posed the only possible threat to the winner. But Damascus had smothered his field with one brilliant burst. Shoe got into him with the stick through the stretch, but it would have taken another Belair horse like Nashua to make it any kind of contest. Behind third-place Proud Clarion came ever-in-the-money Reason to Hail and then Misty Cloud, Barbs Delight, Ask The Fare, Celtic Air, Favorable Turn and Great Power.

There could hardly be an excuse for anyone. Even Sunshine Calvert was not really crying. "If we'd been able to run in the race they called off on us we might have been closer," he said. Then he added with characteristic sportsmanship, "But who is to say we would have won this even if we had had three or four races to get ready for Damascus? The winner is a good horse." Jockey Ussery told John Galbreath that he had no alibi, either, but that he had not believed he or Damascus would be as far back as they were for the early running. "When we moved for home I was just plain outrun, that's all," he said.

At the winner's champagne party even Frank Whiteley accepted a glass or two. Mrs. William Woodward Sr., who hadn't seen the Belair red and white win a Preakness since Omaha 32 years ago, politely declined and asked for a Scotch. Her victorious daughter, Edith Bancroft, was confined by illness to her Long Island home, but as Mrs. Woodward sipped her drink with her son-in-law, Tom Bancroft, and another son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. John T. Pratt, and assorted friends, she appropriately toasted the event. "It is a great day for me," she said. "I salute Shoemaker for a fine ride, but I can't tell you how much credit I give to this wonderful trainer, Mr. Whiteley."

Frank Whiteley had loosened his tie, and when the second glass of champagne was poured he gulped it in a hurry, made his apologies and went back to his horse at the barn. He broke out into his first big smile of the day. "Just like it was with Tom Rolfe," he said. "This is what we should have done in the Kentucky Derby." Most of the people who were at Pimlico last Saturday would agree with him.

PHOTOIn the saddling area before the race, a calm Damascus nuzzles his friend Duffy and relaxes. PHOTOBelair's dotted silks (second from left) come charging around horses in the turn for home as Proud Clarion tries to keep up on the far outside. PHOTOMrs. William Woodward and Tom Bancroft (left) accept trophy from Governor Spiro Agnew and congratulations from Pimlico's Herman Cohen.