The fourth race in what is turning out to be one of the classic Thoroughbred rivalries was only minutes away, and in the Aqueduct paddock the trainers were talking fast and low, giving their jockeys final instructions. Near the center of the area, Johnny Nerud, trainer of Dr. Fager, looked into the impassive face of Braulio Baeza and said something like, "For Pete's sake, Braulio, don't let the big blockhead blow it all by chasing that rabbit again."
Over at one end of the same plot of land, Frank Y. Whiteley Jr. outlined to Manny Ycaza the strategy that even the peanut vendors knew he would use: hold Damascus off the pace, hope that Dr. Fager would be suckered by the fast pace of Hedevar, the other part of his entry and the most seductive hare in training, then let Damascus sock it to 'em down the stretch.
Because Whiteley's instructions could be followed and Nerud's could not, last Saturday's $109,400 Brooklyn Handicap will be remembered as the race in which Damascus became a millionaire, and Dr. Fager's passion to run once more proved his undoing. When it was over the fires were rekindled in the hottest racing controversy this side of Dancer's Image vs. the Kentucky Derby.
The controversy centers on Hedevar. "I'll tell you this," said Nerud after the race, "no one horse can beat Dr. Fager doing anything—anything."
To which the taciturn Whiteley replied, in what for him was a filibuster: "I don't like to knock anyone's horse."
Nevertheless the record shows that Damascus has beaten Dr. Fager twice with the aid of his Kamikaze stablemate; running without Hedevar, Damascus has twice been defeated by his great rival. With Hedevar doing his thing, Damascus put down Buckpasser by 10 lengths and Dr. Fager by 10½ in last year's Woodward Stakes. Minus Hedevar, Damascus had lost three of his last four races. His second loss to Dr. Fager was a third-place finish, five lengths behind the winner in the Suburban Handicap at Aqueduct on July 4.
The Suburban was so sweet a victory for Johnny Nerud that he could not resist the temptation to jibe at the enemy camp in the week before the Brooklyn. "Any horse that can run the fastest Suburban ever with 132 pounds must be a great horse," Nerud reasoned, not unreasonably. "He's the best horse because he doesn't have to have anyone help him run his race."
While Nerud was being vociferous in New York, Whiteley was keeping quiet down at Delaware Park. A plain man who isn't much for cities and crowds, Whiteley draws a curtain around himself and his horses before a race, waiting until the last minute to enter. Impishly, Nerud even had fun with that. Although he was fairly certain as early as Monday that Dr. Fager would run in the Brooklyn, even though his horse was asked to carry 135 pounds to Damascus' 130, Nerud kept saying, "I haven't made up my mind yet." He waited until the day before the race to end the uncertainty.
"Before," Nerud said, "I told 'em three weeks ahead of time when we were going to run. Now I let 'em sweat. I'll pick my ground and let 'em come to me."
Which Damascus and Hedevar eventually did, albeit by Whiteley's clandestine methods. To beat the week's clammy heat, Whiteley did not ship his horses from Delaware until Friday evening, less than 24 hours before post time. Damascus and Hedevar arrived at Aqueduct in the dark of a rainy night.
Saturday dawned clear and turned hot, and the drying Aqueduct track was rated good. When George D. Widener's Bold Hour, who had beaten Damascus two races in a row, was scratched because of a bad fore ankle, it was clear that the Brooklyn would be a case of Dr. Fager, Damascus and rabbit, run.
Bringing Dr. Fager up to the race, Nerud could not keep back his confidence. "This is the greatest horse running in the world today," he said. In his career of almost 40 years, Nerud has become known for a startling candor and a habit of listening to his own drummer. "I've got my opinions, that's the truth," says Nerud. "Sometimes I'd be better off if I kept my mouth shut."
In his opinion of Dr. Fager, however, he was part of a majority that also included Racing Secretary Tommy Trotter, who assigned weights for the Brooklyn and now probably wishes he had kept his mouth shut. "I think Dr. Fager's an entirely different horse this year," Trotter said. "He can be rated and save something for the end, even if speed goes with him. I don't think the rabbit can bother him now."
But before the Brooklyn was even a quarter mile old, it was apparent just how capricious horses—even great ones—can be. For as soon as Hedevar bolted from his No. 7 post position on the outside to take the lead, there was Dr. Fager foolishly giving chase.
Pursuing his death wish, to the dismay of his backers in the crowd of 45,493 (who had made him the 3 to 5 favorite), Dr. Fager plunged on and on. He was still second at the half-mile pole, but then he swept past Hedevar and a quarter later was first by three lengths. "When I was out there winging," said Hedevar's jockey, Tommy Lee, "I kept looking for Dr. Fager and slowed down the pace a little so he'd come on and run past me. Maybe it was a little earlier than Baeza would have liked, with all that weight."
Baeza seemed to be doing little more than hanging on. Flying past the mile pole in the killing time of 1:34[3/5] ("You can't go that fast and expect to last a mile and a quarter," Nerud said later. "Everybody knows that. The jock knows that, but I don't know what he could have done about it"), Dr. Fager led by a length and a half. But now, as Hedevar quickly dropped back to last, his mission accomplished, Damascus closed in on the tiring leader.
Turning down the stretch, Dr. Fager still led, but in a moment Damascus was matching him stride for stride. That lasted only a few yards. Then, with Ycaza applying a few left-handed raps with his whip to keep Damascus from lugging in on Dr. Fager on the rail, it was Damascus by a nose, a head and, finally, 2½ lengths at the finish in track-record time of 1:59[1/5] for the 1¼ miles.
In his rueful postmortem, Baeza said of Dr. Fager, "He wanted to run with the leader. He ran well into the stretch, but he just couldn't hold off Damascus."
"If he [Hedevar] was a horse in there trying to win the race," growled Nerud, "he couldn't run a pace like that because he would die out. But he's not there to win. The only thing he's in there to do is harass Dr. Fager and let the other horse get him. You can't beat a setup like that."
Back at his barn, Whiteley was getting his horses bedded down, halfway listening to a radio sportscaster describe the day's event as "one of the truly great horse races, in this announcer's opinion." For Whiteley it was an artistic and strategic success, one of the triumphs of his career, but already the man had cooled out his emotions. In his tight-lipped way, Whiteley said yes, he was pleased with Damascus and, "Hedevar did a helluva job, as far as he went." Whiteley was asked if he planned to celebrate. With the winner's purse of $71,110, Damascus had become the eighth Thoroughbred in history to earn more than $1,000,000, joining the immortals Kelso, Round Table, Buckpasser, Nashua, Carry Back, Citation and Native Diver.
"You know, I had forgotten all about that," Whiteley said. "No, the way I'm going to celebrate is with more work."
Did that mean that he would immediately begin pointing Damascus—and Hedevar—for another battle with Dr. Fager, a new rubber match in the series, possibly in the Whitney at Saratoga on August 3?
"That's another good question," Whiteley said. "He's had three tough races now in what—17 days? I've been under a lot of pressure, too. I think he and I both deserve a good rest."