Horsemen and horseplayers are a tough, stubborn and opinionated breed, and the two major events on last week's racing calendar did little to soften their dispositions. First, at Garden State, the brilliant Dr. Fager, who skipped all three Triple Crown classics, won the Jersey Derby by six and a half lengths, only to be set back to fourth and last on a highly controversial foul claim. Four days later, at Aqueduct, Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's Damascus, third to Proud Clarion in the Kentucky Derby and subsequently the winner of the Preakness, romped to an easy two-and-a-half-length victory in the 99th Belmont Stakes.
Since Damascus went off as the 4-to-5 favorite and his triumph gained him two-thirds of the Triple Crown, one would think he should be acclaimed the clear-cut 3-year-old champion. But horsemen and horseplayers don't settle so easily for such a verdict. On the one hand, they acknowledge that Damascus has whipped his fields twice in two weeks, has twice gained revenge for his Derby beating by Proud Clarion and has established himself as the one 3-year-old unaffected by either track conditions or distance. But they also feel the 3-year-old championship is far from settled, and that it will not be settled until Damascus saddles up for at least one conclusive race—preferably a series of races—against Dr. Fager. In the only meeting between the two, the one-mile Gotham on April 15, Dr. Fager won by half a length. After that race Jockey Bill Shoemaker took full blame for the defeat; his ill-judged ride aboard Damascus cost him his chance for victory. In all likelihood the two colts will meet again, either in Chicago this summer or in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers in Saratoga on August 19. After these contests a legitimate champion can be crowned—which is exactly the way it should be.
None of this controversy should detract from the result of the Belmont Stakes, which was run for the fifth—and, fortunately, last—time on the mile-and-an-eighth Aqueduct strip, where the field must be started from midway around the far turn at the three-eighths pole. Next year's 100th Belmont will be back on the mile-and-a-half track at Belmont Park, now being transformed into the world's most modern racing plant.
Damascus won his Belmont fair and square, and if there was any thing remarkable about the race it was not the ease with which he spread-eagled his field but the great display of courage by the Canadian champion, Cool Reception. This son of Nearctic, given a fine ride by John Sellers, was actually a head in front at the eighth pole when Shoe and Damascus came to him. But in the last sixteenth Sellers noticed that "he was hurting and definitely getting dog-tired." It probably was at that point that Cool Reception suffered a broken right cannon bone. He finished on guts alone, holding a half-length margin over the 29-to-l shot Gentleman James, who had come from last place in the field of nine to cross the wire a length in front of Proud Clarion.
It had been no secret that the pace in this Belmont would be set by another long shot, Prinkipo, who always runs as far as he can on the front end. As Prinkipo quickly took the lead, he was followed by Favorable Turn and Cool Reception. Proud Clarion, closer than usual and ridden by Braulio Baeza instead of Bobby Ussery, was in the fourth slot, with Damascus alternating in fifth and sixth with Reason to Hail.
Accompanied once again by his roan stable pony Duffy, Damascus had been the picture of gentleness in the paddock and walking ring, but when the gate opened it was another story. "For the first quarter of a mile," said Shoe later, "he was pretty rank, and I was trying to ease him back. It wasn't until we went under the wire the first time around that he came back to me and seemed relaxed. After that he was well in hand."
Heading up the backstretch, Cool Reception was in command, and it was apparent that Prinkipo was already finished as a contender. Favorable Turn hung on for a while, and Reason to Hail looked like a reasonable threat. But already the anticipated battle between Proud Clarion and Damascus was taking shape, and from the moment it began Shoemaker had it under control. "On the backstretch Proud Clarion—the only horse I figured I really had to beat—was about a length in front of me," he said. "So I couldn't have had a more perfect position if I'd planned it in advance. Going around the far turn, Proud Clarion went to the inside and I set a course to go around him and Cool Reception."
Actually. Shoemaker made two distinct moves with Damascus. He moved with him at the half-mile pole to prevent Proud Clarion from getting away, and then again after a breather as they came out of the turn into the stretch. There the issue was settled. "I got into him pretty good turning for home," said Shoe, "and when he started to lug in at the eighth pole I switched to my left hand." The fact is that if Proud Clarion had had anything left at this point Shoemaker might have been guilty of bothering him, but the Derby winner was finished. "He had been going so easy at the three-eighths pole," said Baeza, "but when he changed leads at the quarter pole that was the distress sign. By the eighth pole he was absolutely empty."
For a fearful moment during the last 16th, it looked like Shoe was bearing in dangerously on Cool Reception as he swept to the lead. "Not really so," said Sellers. "My horse was hurting and tired, and he may have given that impression because he started to drift out. There was no question of a foul."
Jim Nichols, on Gentleman James, had high praise for his long shot, who is owned by Mike Phipps. But he complained that, "despite his good kick from the eighth pole home and the way he rated kindly for the whole trip, Gentleman James doesn't seem to put out his best effort early enough in most of his races." Damascus" winning mile-and-a-half time was a respectable 2:28 4/5 on his way to a purse of $104,950. It was, of course, immensely gratifying to Frank Whiteley and Tom Bancroft. Whiteley had offered Shoemaker no specific instructions before the race. "All he told me," said Shoe, "was to go a mile and a half. And we did, didn't we? He must be the best around, and the proof of the pudding is that we've now beaten these other horses for the second time. Isn't that proof?"
It may have been proof for many of the 52,120 who turned up on Belmont Day, but there is still the question about Dr. Fager, who is extremely popular with New York fans and is trained by the talkative and equally popular Johnny Nerud. Comparing Nerud to Frank Whiteley is like comparing outspoken Harry Truman to closemouthed Calvin Coolidge. When things go wrong for Whiteley, as they did at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby, he can overcome his distress and anxiety with a simple, "I hope it will be different next time." Nerud, who was bitterly disappointed at the turn of events in the Jersey Derby, is ready for an argument at all times, and often enough his points make pretty good sense.
The facts in the Jersey Derby dispute are straightforward. It was a four-horse race at a mile and an eighth, and Dr. Fager, with Manuel Ycaza up-, drew the outside post, with second-choice In Reality (who was second to Damascus in the Preakness) coming out of the third stall. Long shot Gallant Moment, with Ray Broussard aboard, was on the inside, and Air Rights was next to him. Going by the stands the first time and into the clubhouse turn, Ycaza—who never has tried to tailor his style to the good-hands hack class at the Devon Horse Show—was clearly and needlessly guilty of herding the field too close to the rail. Broussard actually brushed the rail, and it cost his mount all chance of running his race. Since Dr. Fager was by far the best horse, Broussard and Gallant Moment would probably not have won in any case. And, as New Jersey State Steward Keene Daingerfield pointed out, if the incident had occurred in a large field, the winner's number might not have come down. But, since it was a four-horse field, the stewards felt they could not deprive the fourth-place horse of the third-place money. That meant taking $77,480 from Dr. Fager and giving it to second- place In Reality, giving second place and $23,840 to Air Rights and $11,920 to Gallant Moment, who was beaten by 26½ lengths. Dr. Fager had to settle for $5,960.
"It's a bad break for us," said Trainer Nerud. "They took the horse down, but you are not going to alter the outcome if you run the race over three times. The film patrol clearly shows that Dr. Fager did not touch one horse, regardless of the accusations of herding in the turn. Despite what I've seen in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, I still think Dr. Fager is the best 3-year-old in the country. I've been quoted as saying that Dr. Fager could have won all three of those races. I didn't say that. I said Dr. Fager could have won any one of them that he started in. That's different."
Looking over the Belmont field last Saturday, Nerud added, "Believe me, no one would rather win the Kentucky Derby than I would, but we simply didn't have any 'bottom' on Dr. Fager before the race. He hadn't had enough training. There was nothing I could do about it. First he had the blood infection, then the knee trouble and finally we had a bad break in New York trying to train on snow and ice. I simply couldn't meet a Triple Crown schedule. If I'd been able to get him to the Wood Memorial we'd have gone to the Derby. But I can't control scheduling.
"Nobody knows if any horse can stand the rigors of our modern Triple Crown schedule anymore. I know it's probably just idle talk, but I'd like to see the Triple Crown races started a month later. Run the Derby in June and then have a minimum of three weeks between the other two. All contenders would be ready to run a mile and a quarter in June, and my system would allow horses more time to get ready and to collect themselves between races. I'd also change the weight from 126 to 122 pounds. The reason we haven't had a Triple Crown horse since 1948 is that we're wearing our horses out in four crucial weeks. They can say what they want about Dr. Fager and his not making these three races, but I'm thinking about only one thing: what's best for the horse. Dr. Fager is brilliant and popular. I'm taking nothing away from Damascus, because I think he's a terrific horse, too. But Dr. Fager is big and strong and has tremendous speed. If he doesn't make a great sire they better tear the book up."
When the 99th Belmont was over, there were two salient conclusions. If Frank Whiteley's stable pony Duffy had accompanied Damascus to Churchill Downs on May 6, we might now have our first Triple Crown winner since Citation. And if Damascus and Dr. Fager do not meet this summer, the voting for a 3-year-old champion in the fall will lack a certain authority. Johnny Nerud says, "I'd like to get together with everyone." If Damascus and Dr. Fager do get together, it will be a horse race.