Try to Imagine

On Sunday, March 17, I will hop in my car and head to the Big A to cover the Gotham Stakes. Although the one-mile race no longer has the impact on the Kentucky Derby it once did, the name Gotham Stakes still unleashes a flood of memories.

Thirty-five years ago, on April 15, 1967, I was 11 days past my 20th birthday. The world of Thoroughbred racing was a wondrous new realm that I had just discovered by pure chance, or fate as one would call it. Like a blast of cool, invigorating, fresh air, it would eventually lift me out of the deep, ugly trenches of Wall Street and hurl me into a magical, Oz-like world of color and beauty I never knew existed.

Even after three decades, I can still vividly recall the color and beauty of that April afternoon--the bright red silks worn by Manny Ycaza, with the Tartan sash running diagonally across it; the red polka-dotted silks and red cap donned by Bill Shoemaker; two magnificent steeds named Dr. Fager and Damascus, one a stately copper-coated bay with the look of a wild mustang, the other a burnished brown bundle of coiled energy.

These are the images that would dominate Thoroughbred racing for the next 19 months. And for anyone fortunate enough to be around to witness this unforgettable chapter in racing history, those images still remain. Each year, when the Gotham comes along, or the Woodward, or the Suburban, or the Brooklyn, they quietly slip back into my consciousness to stir up memories of heroic deeds that have not been duplicated since.

I could analyze and strategize the '67 Gotham, and mention the self-admitted riding blunder by Shoemaker on Damascus. But the bottom line is that Dr. Fager defeated his soon-to-be arch rival by a half-length in 1:35 1/5. In a more profound sense, the Gotham marked the beginning of a state of mind. Here were two combatants who faced each other in battle on only four occasions, yet created a vast chasm between racing fans who vehemently defended one or the other with a fervor never before seen in racing over such a long period of time.

This was a time of race riots and protests in America and war in the Middle East between Israel and Egypt. Just down the road were names like Kent State, the Manson family, and Sirhan Sirhan. How wonderful to become so passionate over the merits of two Thoroughbreds. A cartoon in the Morning Telegraph by Peb said it all. It showed two survivors of a shipwreck floating on debris as their ship sank into the ocean. One man, oblivious to their catastrophic predicament, says to the other, "I don't care what you say, I still say Damascus was better than Dr. Fager!"

Here I was in my life, trapped in a dog-eat-dog world inhabited by white-
collared cannibals. To me, Dr. Fager and Damascus were bona fide, larger-than-life heroes. And they still are today.

Just try to imagine nowadays a horse who ran with the reckless abandon of Dr. Fager, breaking track and world records under staggering weights of 134 to 139 pounds, and doing it under restraint. Try to imagine an iron horse like Damascus winning 12 of 16 starts at three by pouncing on his opponents with a move so devastating we've yet to see anything rival it. Try to imagine Dr. Fager beating Damascus in track-record-equaling time of 1:59 3/5, then having Damascus come back 16 days later, with a race in between no less, and turn the tables, while breaking Dr. Fager's record by two-fifths of a second. And try to imagine each horse carrying 130 pounds or more in both races.

Try to imagine Damascus coming from 16 lengths back in the Travers to win by 22 lengths, eased up in track-record-equaling time. Try to imagine Dr. Fager winning four championships in a single year. Try to imagine Damascus winning two legs of the Triple Crown, then winning seven more stakes and getting beat a nose in two others over the next five months.

I don't have to imagine it. I was there when it all began on a damp, foggy afternoon 35 years ago. b

STEVE HASKIN is the national correspondent for The Blood-Horse.