Two hours before last week's International, Jockey Manuel Ycaza was sitting with his wife Linda in Laurel's Directors' Room. Linda, a dark beauty who had struggled to the Maryland track with a frightful cold and a temperature of 101°, drank a glass of tomato juice while Manuel studied his program. "This may sound silly," said Ycaza, who looks interviewers as well as opponents squarely in the eye when he turns serious, "but the horse I'm riding today, Fort Marcy, is positively going to win this race. Mind you, I think Damascus is a great horse, maybe one of the greatest ever seen in America. But today I am going to beat him. Fort Marcy is at his best on turf; despite everything that Damascus has done before today, he has never raced on grass, and I just feel he is going to find it different. I know he is the best horse in the race, but I am going to beat him. I just know it." Manuel rose from the table to go get dressed. Linda looked up and said through her sniffles, "Just come back safe. That's all I ask."
"I shall come back safe and victorious," Ycaza replied grandiloquently, and he bent down and kissed her gently twice upon the lips. Lacking only a cape and sword to complete the scene, Ycaza swept from the milieu of merriment and laughter on his way to the work at hand.
That work, requiring the artistry of a gifted athlete attuned to the ability of a bay 3-year-old gelding, was over shortly before 4 o'clock last Saturday. In front of 33,000 fans jammed into the Laurel stands, Ycaza drove Fort Marcy down to the wire of the mile-and-a-half International a bobbing nose in front of Damascus, in the most thrilling of all these races and one of the best of the year in this country or in any other where the game is played. Back in the Directors' Room, this time for champagne, Manuel kissed Linda again, broke into a wide grin and exclaimed, "Well, I told you what I was going to do, didn't I?"
The 16th International was expected to lie among Damascus, Fort Marcy and a leading English contender, Ribocco. Instead it turned out to be a duel, but with some early excitement as well as some rough stuff along the way. Bill Shoemaker can do just about anything he wants with Damascus and was even prepared to go to the front if the pace was too slow. Everyone believed—correctly, as it turned out—that the pace would probably be provided by the entries from Canada and Japan, He's A Smoothie and Speed Symboli. Ycaza's orders were to stay close to the pace. "But, for God's sakes, don't choke him," said Trainer Elliott Burch, who handles Fort Marcy for Owner Paul Mellon. "Let him run when he wants to—and he'll want to."
Almost immediately after the start, which was a good one for all but the English filly In Command, who broke slowly, He's A Smoothie shot to the lead. Before the nine-horse field was halfway around the first turn the Canadian champion had a four-length lead over Japan's Speed Symboli. Ycaza had Fort Marcy perfectly placed in the third spot, with Damascus and Australia's Tobin Bronze next. Trouble of sorts came in the clubhouse turn, after the field had passed the stands the first time. Shoe and Damascus, still fourth and hugging the rail, bumped with Tobin Bronze, just to the outside. Each rider, Shoemaker and Aussie Jim Johnson, thought the other was to blame; actually, both probably were guilty. Up the backstretch Shoe again found himself in trouble. The Japanese colt had been doing a good job of tracking the Canadian, but he was getting weary. Suddenly, as Shoe was to note, "The Jap dropped over in front of me and I had to check. It cost me a length, no more, but still, a length is a length. When I checked I had to stand straight up to keep from running up on Speed Symbolic heels."
While all this was going on and while the rest of the field was well out of contention, He's A Smoothie still held the lead. But now it was Fort Marcy's turn. He went to the front after leaving the half-mile pole on the way into the far turn. "I was forced to take the lead a little sooner than I wanted to," said Ycaza later, "to avoid getting into any trap. I found myself outside the Canadian and I knew Damascus was free from the rail by then and was coming up on the outside of me. I didn't want to choke my horse, so the only thing to do was to go on with him."
By now Shoemaker had worked Damascus out of his difficulties and was racing up to make his challenge. It was apparent, as he rolled around to the quarter pole, that from here on the race would be decided between him and Fort Marcy. And what a stretch battle it turned out to be! At the 8th pole they were still head and head, and they were that way to the wire. The difference was that Shoe had used Damascus to get out of trouble and to overtake Ycaza, while Manny, after taking the lead easily, still had some horse left for the final yards that count most. "I had a halfway fresh horse even at the 16th pole," said Manuel.
"I'll say he did," Shoemaker agreed. "Usually when I get Damascus head and head with any horse at the 8th pole it's all over for the other guy. This time we ran up against a horse with some reserve." The reserve was just enough for Fort Marcy to get the job done.
A big surprise was Australia's Tobin Bronze, who finished only 2½ lengths behind Damascus after having just completed a 10,000-mile trip, spending nearly 70 hours on his feet in transit. The speedsters, He's A Smoothie and Speed Symboli, hung on to be fourth and fifth, while behind them came the French filly Casque Grise, then England's disappointing Ribocco, Chateaubriand from Venezuela and the only other filly in the race, Mrs. Ogden Hammond's In Command.
Fort Marcy's winning time of 2:27 was not remarkable (way off Kelso's track record of 2:23 4/5), but nothing should be taken away from his victory. In turn, Damascus' defeat cannot be blamed on his unfamiliarity with grass or on Shoemaker's judgment during the early running. The film, in fact, indicates that when he did check to avoid possible trouble with the Japanese horse, he probably did so more in anticipation of the foreigner stopping directly in front of him than to avoid any immediate danger. "I certainly can't blame the grass for his loss," said Shoemaker. "But it was his first time out on turf and he was running against a horse who was good on grass to begin with. Fort Marcy had won four stakes on grass this year and was unlucky not to have won both the United Nations and the Man o' War besides."
"He was unlucky in both those races," agreed Elliott Burch. "But I knew this time that if anything happened to Damascus we had a hell of a shot. This gelding—he's by Amerigo out of a Princequillo mare—is tops on grass, and Ycaza gave him an ideal ride. I don't like to see great horses beaten any more than the next man, but if Damascus had to be beaten I'm glad we're the ones who did it."
Ycaza seconded this. "I feel badly for the public," he said, "and for the people who own him when a horse like Damascus is beaten. But when it's time to ride against big horses, I am not really thinking about the opposition. When Damascus came up head and head to me in the stretch, I am not thinking about how great he is. I am thinking of nothing but riding my own horse."
The Damascus people that Manuel Ycaza was talking about, an assorted group of Bancrofts and Woodwards who have spent much of the year watching their champion run up record earnings of $817,941, understand these sentiments. So, fortunately, do the hundreds of owners, trainers and jockeys who in less than two decades have helped Laurel's John Schapiro build a successful International race.
The Fort Marcy people have one more item to add to those that made Saturday memorable for them. Their horse was third on the list from which one was to be chosen to join Damascus as the U.S. entry. And he was held so lightly that he went off in the race at better than 8 to 1, while Damascus was bet down to 3 to 5.
In the view of most gamblers, Fort Marcy was the "wrong" American horse. In every other respect, though, he was just right.