Twenty-four miles from Santa Anita racetrack the diminutive master of a luxury apartment on the 31st floor of a Beverly Hills high rise settled down for a most unlikely Saturday afternoon—at least for him. Only two days home from Inglewood's Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, where he had lain restlessly for more than two weeks after a fracture of his right leg, the world's moneywinningest jockey, William Shoemaker, was going to watch the race of the week on television instead of from his accustomed position aboard a favorite. The race was the $100,000-added Charles H. Strub Stakes, the mile-and-a-quarter test in which Shoe's regular mount, Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's Horse of the Year, Damascus, was about to go off as the l-to-5 choice to win his 18th victory in 23 lifetime starts and a pot of $73,700.
Dressed in checkered trousers, a brown turtleneck sweater and slippers, Shoe took his place a dozen feet from his color-television console, propped his healing leg gently on a large red-white-and-blue stuffed pillow and leaned back. Nearby a gin game was going on among Babs Shoemaker and three of the couple's friends, Eddie Goldstone, Eddie Southerland and Joey Forman. Shortly before 4:30 p.m. the pace of the gin game slackened, Shoe polished off a last bottle of pop and suddenly it was time for the first $100,000 horse race of the new year. No expression crossed Shoemaker's face. The television voices and the slap of cards on the gin table provided the only noise 31 floors above Sunset Boulevard.
The 46,653 people at Santa Anita made considerably more noise before, during and after the running of the Strub. Many of them, ever since Shoemaker's fall on January 23, had wondered out loud just how good Damascus was. Most agreed that he was great, following easy victories, guided by Shoemaker, in the Malibu and San Fernando, and some were inclined to go along with Trainer John Longden who said, "He's the greatest horse I've seen since Count Fleet in 1943." Damascus, it appeared, was one horse who could carry his winning form from East to West the way Gun Bow and Buckpasser had before him, instead of duplicating the disappointing invasions of Kelso and Roman Brother. Further, Damascus seemed able to handle any kind of track. But whom would Trainer Frank Whiteley pick to ride Damascus until Shoe returned to action in late summer or fall?
"Well," said Whiteley before announcing a decision, "if I ask for Baeza or one of those boys, you can't be sure of having him steady. They ride for other stables, you know. I rode this boy Ron Turcotte on Damascus once, and he won for me at Delaware Park. I made up my mind then that if anything happened to Shoe I'd use him. The important thing is that he's ridden Damascus before and he is available when I want him. I know that Ron may not be more than average, but he works hard and he wins his share of races. Sure, he rode a bad race on Tom Rolfe in the 1965 Kentucky Derby, but what jock hasn't ridden a bad race in the Derby?"
February 19, 1968
With his mind made up, Whiteley summoned the Canadian-born, 26-year-old Turcotte from Hialeah on the eve of the Strub But the race was postponed a week, because of a dispute between horsemen and management, and Turcotte dropped in to see Shoemaker in the hospital before flying back to Miami. "I just told him," Shoe said later, "to ride Damascus like he would any other horse." Under the circumstances, this may not have been the best advice. However, Shoe did add a word of caution when Ron came back to California last week: "On a muddy or slow track at Santa Anita, a horse takes the worst of it on the inside. Keep off the rail if you can, keep out of trouble and Damascus will do the rest."
Last Saturday it seemed that Damascus was willing to do what he was asked, but Turcotte was not. Rain for the better part of two straight days had made the racing strip slow, and most horses on the inside did indeed get all the worst of it. And that is exactly where Turcotte kept Damascus the whole trip, as he lost a head decision to a 12-to-l shot, Most Host. In 27 starts last season Most Host, a $30,000 purchase by Mrs. Frank C. Bishop, managed to win five races and $44,570, compared to Damascus' 12 victories and $817,941. Then, in exactly two minutes and four seconds, the little gelding bowled over the champion and started an uproar about the reasons for it. Was it Turcotte's ride or was something wrong with Damascus?
First off, it must be said that the week's delay in the running of this important race definitely dulled Damascus' competitiveness. Second, Bill Harmatz on Most Host rode a faultless race over a track he knows perfectly. Third, Turcotte, clearly on the best horse, failed to use good judgment. On the other hand, Damascus carried top weight of 126 pounds, giving away 12 pounds to the winner, and only lost by a head at a mile and a quarter. He was a tired, beaten horse, but his reputation is diminished very little. Still, as people will say at Santa Anita for years to come, it might have been different if Shoe had been there instead of watching television.
As Track Announcer Joe Hernandez croaked into his microphone, "And there they go," at the start of the Strub, the gin game at the Shoemakers stopped momentarily. "He's No. 1, on the rail at the break," said Shoe as he watched Turcotte take Damascus back immediately in the small six-horse field. Card-player Joey Forman said, "Damascus is too far back."
"Don't worry," said Shoe. "I was 18 lengths back in the Travers on an off track and won by 22 lengths. He's all right." The leaders rolled on, setting a pace of :24[2/5] for the first quarter and a slow :48[2/5] for the half mile. As they slogged up the backstretch Shoemaker studied them carefully and said in a low tone, "The pace must be slow." It was. They covered six furlongs in 1:13[1/5] and the mile in only 1:38[2/5]. Ron Turcotte, meanwhile, was not having any picnic. In dropping back after a quick break, he elected to stay inside in the heavier going instead of pulling out around the first turn. That may have been his gravest error. For once his rivals had him inside; they weren't going to let him get out. "Going into the half-mile pole," said Turcotte later, "there were these four horses in front of me, and I knew they weren't going to let me out. My only chance was to stay inside and hope to get through."
Shoemaker was observing all this, and as the field went to the half-mile pole he began to get apprehensive. "Cluck to him, jock," he said. Turcotte did just that and, as the leaders came out ever so slightly rounding the three-eighths pole, Turcotte and Damascus drove through on the rail. Momentarily the move looked positively brilliant. But almost immediately thereafter, everyone knew that the tiring run on the inside had taken its toll of Damascus' stamina. As Ruken gave way gradually, the race through the stretch belonged to Most Host and Damascus.
The assembled gin players shrieked at Shoemaker, "He's going to get beat!" Shoe stared into his color set as the pair of front runners, 10 lengths in front of Ruken, fought it out down the stretch. When he saw Turcotte go to left-handed whipping, he groaned, "Uh, uh, this colt doesn't respond so good to a left-handed whip." Damascus didn't. Shoe leaned back despondently. "Well," he said, "that's what weight will do to you. It could have been the combination of the track and the weight, or the left-handed whipping, or just that the other horse is getting better and Damascus is tailing off." Then he added, pensively, "It's hard to say what I would have done out there today."
Two hours later, winning Jockey Bill Harmatz picked up a phone to hear what Shoe thought of the Strub. "Well, Shoe," he said, "I beat your big horse."
"You lucky bum," said Shoe. "If I'd been there you never would have won. That jock started his move at the three-quarter pole. He moved too quick and went inside in the worst going."
"You're right," said Harmatz, "It's the difference in riders. I never saw you push this horse in your life. When he went driving through at the three-eighths pole I knew he couldn't win. At the eighth pole, when I still had a lot of run in my horse, I knew I couldn't lose. I know you wouldn't have ridden him this way. But, remember, old buddy, even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then. Today was my day."