In 2000, I wrote a book on Dr. Fager for the Thoroughbred Legends series. My admiration for the good doctor knows no boundaries, as he is the swiftest, most dominating, and in general, most unique Thoroughbred I have ever laid eyes on. But not one second went by while writing the book that I didn't feel like a traitor.
It was his arch rival Damascus, you see, who got me interested in Thoroughbred racing. Here was the ultimate athlete, whose heroics thrust me into a sport that would soon encompass my entire being. A 20-year-old stock trader on Wall Street at the time, I suddenly was 20 going on 12. Aspiring stock brokers are not supposed to be in love with a horse. So, the next year I left Wall Street for good and followed Damascus into his world.
Now, almost four decades later, a new Legends book has been released on Damascus. Once again, I feel like a traitor for not writing it myself, but it was not to be. The purpose of this copy, however, is not to rehash old memories, but to bring to light the true greatness of Damascus, who in my mind is the most underrated horse of all time.
Damascus' career record speaks for itself. He won at distances of six furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, a mile and 70 yards, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 1 1/2 miles, and two miles. He ran seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5 (Malibu Stakes), 1 1/8 miles in a track-record 1:46 4/5 (American Derby), and 1 1/4 miles in a track-record 1:59 1/5 under 130 pounds (Brooklyn Handicap). He also equaled the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga in the Travers, coming from 16 lengths back in the slop to win eased up by 22 lengths. Only two horses – Kelso and Prove Out – have won the 2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in faster time.
In the Woodward, billed as the Race of the Century, he demolished Horses of the Year and Hall of Famers Buckpasser and Dr. Fager by 10 lengths. Twice at 4 he carried 134 pounds to victory.
But here is why Damascus ranks among the greatest horses in racing history. After winning his 3-year-old debut, an allowance race at Pimlico, in which he was slammed into so hard in the stretch it turned him sideways, he raced in 15 consecutive stakes that year, winning 11 (including the Preakness and Belmont Stakes) and finishing second twice by a nose and once by a half-length to Dr. Fager, in which Bill Shoemaker blamed himself for the defeat. And here is the truly remarkable part. The intervals between his races were 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 1 week, 2 weeks, 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 10 days, 3 weeks, 1 week, 3 weeks, 2 weeks, 16 days, 26 days, 28 days, and 2 weeks. And he actually got stronger as the year went on.
The following year, when he won the Brooklyn in track-record time, he was making his third start in 16 days, all at 1 1/4 miles and all carrying 130 pounds or more.
Not only was Damascus durable, brilliant, classy, and one of the soundest, healthiest horses ever, he possessed the most devastating turn of foot I have ever witnessed. He ran low to the ground, and when he took off around the half-mile pole, he made up ground so quickly it was if as if he were moving in a different time frame than his opponents. He didn't catch them, he pounced on them like a cat its prey, and in many cases left them floundering far up the track.
I never could have imagined that a racehorse would pave the road I would take in life. But here I am after 37 years, and the road Damascus paved for me still is as magical as the day I first set foot on it. And I still get that same special warm feeling inside whenever I see films or photos of him decked out in his familiar Belair silks. I guess you could say that 20-year-old going on 12 is now 56 going on 12. And for that, I will be eternally grateful that Damascus came into my life.
For many, the spectacular images of Damascus and the herculean feats he performed sadly have faded with the years. But for one person, they remain a beacon that still guides his way.Steve Haskin is senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse