Because of the immense amount of publicity surrounding the Triple Crown events, it has become the custom to consider the spring of the year as the climax of the Thoroughbred season. And occasionally these heralded 3-year-old classics do turn up definitive results, settling the divisional championship and sometimes even the matter of which runner will wind up as Horse of the Year. But 1967 is not an ordinary racing year. There is every reason to believe that starting next week, and continuing until the snow settles over Aqueduct's frozen December crowds, much of the season's best racing will take place.
First off, there is still no Horse of the Year. Second, the new crop of 2-year-olds is just falling into some sort of perspective. And the competition ahead in almost every division should make the next two months in New York, New Jersey and Maryland exciting indeed. The shape of things to come became evident during the last two weeks, which if not racing's major fortnight of 1967, certainly was its richest. On Sept. 2, Dr. Fager, the colt many believe is the best 3-year-old in America, won the $265,900 New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham Park. Forty-eight hours later Damascus, the colt even more people rate the best, won the $106,800 Aqueduct. And five days later in Chicago the $371,750 Arlington-Washington Futurity attracted so many entries—18 in all—that the event was run in two divisions. Each winner, Millard Waldheim's T.V. Commercial and Ogden Phipps's Vitriolic, took home $105,875. (Out beyond the Thoroughbred range, they ran off a little number at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, on Labor Day called the All American Quarter Horse Futurity. The world's richest race for anything that moves, it had a gross value of $486,600, and FloydJones's Laico Bird romped off with first money of $228,300 for having covered all of 400 yards in 20.11 seconds).
Discounting the money involved, the racing was first class and indicated that some of it will be superlative in another few weeks. At last it seems that the 3-year-old championship, as well as the Horse of the Year title, will be settled on the track instead of in the polls. All three leading candidates—defending champion Buckpasser, now a 4-year-old millionaire, and Damascus and Dr. Fager—are expected to start in the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward at Aqueduct on Sept. 30. All are in top form and are training well. The Woodward might be not only the race of the year but the race of the decade as well. There has been nothing like it since Bold Ruler won his title in 1957 in a showdown with Gallant Man and Round Table.
There is no question that either Damascus or Dr. Fager is the best 3-year-old. Since their one meeting at a mile in April, which Dr. Fager won, the colts have gone their separate ways and have won repeatedly at all sorts of distances. Matching them in the Woodward at a mile and a quarter—and tossing in Buckpasser—could have spectacular results. Says Tom Bancroft, whose wife owns Damascus, "We'll be in the Wood-ward. My wife is a Woodward; the race is named for her father. This is obviously a race we'd like to win. Dr. Fager may be great, but the time has come for a showdown." Trainer Frank Whiteley says simply, "I'd like Horse of the Year for Damascus, and I guess this time we finally have a shot at it."
Dr. Fager's trainer, Johnny Nerud, was pleased with his colt's race in New Hampshire, in which he lost the lead to In Reality and then came on again to win by a length and a quarter. But Nerud would not say anything definite about the Woodward until two days later. "With this colt's tricky right knee and one thing or another," said Nerud, "how could I decide to run or not run in the Woodward until I knew if I had a sound horse? Now he seems ready, and we'll run. I respect Damascus, and his trainer is one whale of a horseman in my book. I don't know who else will be in that race, but I do know that if Damascus is to beat Dr. Fager he's going to have to run faster than he's ever run in his life."
Both Nerud and Whiteley know full well that in order to win they also have to beat Buckpasser. The champion was slated to face Damascus in the Aqueduct, but two days before the race he was temporarily sidelined. "He had never trained as well in his life as he had for the Aqueduct," said Trainer Eddie Neloy, "but we discovered some heat on the front of his right front coronary band. It lasted just long enough to keep him out of that race, but he hasn't missed any training. If nothing goes wrong with him now, he is a definite starter in the Woodward."
Without Buckpasser to worry about, Damascus had a relatively easy time of it in the Aqueduct, winning by two lengths from Ring Twice. On that day, at least, Damascus would have had two advantages over the champion. He would have received nine pounds (three more than he will get in the Woodward), and he probably would have had an edge in condition. Following his 22-length triumph in the Travers, Damascus was never better, while Buckpasser had not raced since July 22. If Buckpasser does not train up to the Woodward to suit Eddie Neloy, it would surprise nobody if he were retired. Says Owner Ogden Phipps, "We're just trying to get him back for the Woodward. The matter of retirement would have to come up in its own time." And what does Phipps think of the opposition? "Taking a line on both Damascus and Dr. Fager by what they have done against In Reality, it would seem that Damascus was the better of the two. But somehow I still prefer Dr. Fager."
This opinion is shared by Trainer John Jacobs, who went to Rockingham to saddle his sister Patrice's Reason to Hail against Dr. Fager. "Dr. Fager," says John, "is extraordinary because he makes it all look so easy. I'd have to pick him against Damascus, and, believe me, we've tracked them both all year. I just hope they meet. And when they do, I want to be there to see it."
Meanwhile Chicago fans had a look at some of the 2-year-olds who will be making Triple Crown history of their own next spring. The finishes of both halves of the sixth running of the Arlington-Washington Futurity were remarkably similar. In the opener, T.V. Commercial, who had won four of his previous seven starts and was impressive in the spring at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, circled the field turning for home and won easily by nearly four lengths over the favorite, Gin-Rob. A half hour later Ogden Phipps's Vitriolic came from next to last place in his nine-horse field and did exactly the same thing to defeat Exclusive Native by 3½ lengths. Running against a strong head wind on the back-stretch, T.V. Commercial covered his seven furlongs in 1:23⅘ while Vitriolic was timed in 1:24 flat. Both colts may be pretty good runners. The former is by T.V. Lark, who won the Washington D.C. International at Laurel at a mile and a half, while Vitriolic is by Bold Ruler out of the Ambiorix mare Sarcastic. Of the two performances, despite the slower time, Vitriolic's was the more impressive. The way he finished, after coming through with one powerful run from the three-eighths pole to the quarter pole and then virtually coasting home against a colt as good as Exclusive Native, gave every indication that longer distances should not bother him in the least.
So Vitriolic becomes another 2-year-old whiz kid in the stables of the House of Phipps and Trainer Neloy. On the same day their unbeaten filly, Queen of the Stage, ran to an easy victory at Aqueduct. Next week, if they feel like it, they could run the pair of them, together with the Hopeful winner, What a Pleasure, as an almost unbeatable entry in the Futurity at Aqueduct.