"The indecision over whether Dr. Fager or Damascus is the 3-year-old champion has finally ended. Ever since Dr. Fager defeated Damascus in the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct—the only meeting between the two—a rematch has been eagerly awaited, for every horseman knows that a mile in April is hardly conclusive in the classic division. The big face-off was to have taken place in the Travers at Saratoga last Saturday. But when the four-horse field took to the sloppy track in front of the second-largest crowd in Saratoga's history (28,576), Dr. Fager was half a mile away, resting peacefully in barn 83. He was recovering from a minor virus infection and still undergoing treatment on a tricky right knee.
It is unfortunate that the Doc was not up to filling his Travers appointment. Nonetheless, championships are won by horses who manage to get themselves in the best company at the right time—and keep winning.
Damascus was not only at the Travers, he was in superb form there. Bill Shoemaker made a remarkable move with him as they approached the three-eighths pole, and then eased him up in the last sixteenth while still tying the stakes record of 2:01 3/5 for the mile and a quarter and beating Reason to Hail by a stunning 22 lengths. Tumiga and Gala Performance, who collaborated to set up the race perfectly for Damascus when they rocketed away at a blistering pace, staggered home later.
"There wasn't really much to it," said Shoemaker later, as he celebrated his 36th birthday by flying back to Chicago with earnings of $5,206. "This little colt is probably as good and game as any horse I've ever ridden, and I've been on some good ones in my day. As for Dr. Fager, all I know is that when he beat us I lost the race with careless tactics."
Nobody really knows what might happen if and when these two meet again, but the important thing at the moment is that Damascus has earned his title through merit and not by default. There has been some argument that an effort has been made to avoid a meeting between Damascus and Dr. Fager, but the point is hardly worth pursuing. Why, for example, would Trainer Frank Whiteley have even considered skipping the Travers—which had been in Damascus' original schedule all year long—in order to run in the Sept. 2 New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham Park against Dr. Fager?
"He beat us in the Gotham," says Whiteley, "and we stayed right on to run in the Wood Memorial. Then we made all the Triple Crown races. We came back to New York to run in the Dwyer, and he went to Rockingham. In the Travers we would have met at equal weights, but he didn't make the race. We don't have to go anywhere looking for him. Damascus is the champ now, as far as I'm concerned."
Naturally, one of the people not convinced by all this logic is Dr. Fager's trainer, Johnny Nerud, who still believes that a man has the prerogative to run his horse when and where he wants to and without any unsolicited advice.
"I'm not ducking anybody," says Nerud. "I simply want to have this horse around awhile and not rush him for anybody's sake. He missed five days with a low-grade blood infection. It took another five days to get him back, so that's 10 days. Before a race like the Travers you just can't afford that. After the Sweeps at Rockingham he'll go back to New York and may or may not go in the Woodward against Damascus—and Buckpasser. One thing against it is that if he goes in the Woodward I lose my jock, because Braulio Baeza is committed to ride Buckpasser. I'm convinced of one thing, however. Buckpasser might beat Dr. Fager, but no one else could beat him."
And so the great debate goes on. But in the meantime Damascus is tops, and rightfully so.
It must now be noted, however, that last week Damascus received only the second-largest round of applause at Saratoga. The day before the Travers the crowd rose to salute a rare performance by a 7-year-old gelding named Quick Pitch. Owned by Fortune Peter Ryan and trained by his brother, E. Barry Ryan, Quick Pitch carried more weight (170 pounds) than any other winning hurdler in the American history of the sport to an 18-length victory in track record time at two and a sixteenth miles. He was conceding up to 40 pounds to his opponents, who spread out behind him for 86 lengths. When Jockey Jimmy Mahoney dismounted, he turned to the Ryan brothers, broke into a broad smile and in his lovely County Cork brogue exclaimed, "I was just motorin', I was."
And 24 hours later, on his birthday, Bill Shoemaker was also just motorin', he was.