Triple Crown Near-Misses: Damascus Turns Rank
Trainer Frank Whiteley knew he had a special colt in Damascus, and he knew that he might be one that one saw every generation or so. The son of Sword Dancer had won 6 of 8 races heading into the 1967 Kentucky Derby, and swept the Wood Memorial by 6 lengths. With John Nerud’s decision to drop the great Dr. Fager from contention, horse racing analysts were handing the Derby to Damascus.
Damascus Breaks a Sweat
Bettors made him the 2-1 favorite as well. But when Derby Day came, Whiteley noticed a change come over his colt. Damascus. Before the race, the usually calm horse pinned his ears back, began sweating and kicking and looked nervous as he was being saddled. As the horses paraded around the track, it got worse. Damascus fought his jockey, Bill Shoemaker, so hard that an outrider had to take control of the horse.
It continued throughout the race. When the gates opened, Damascus fought Shoemaker the whole way, and Whiteley knew his Derby chances were gone. Instead, 10-1 shot Barbs Delight took a one-length lead, running the fastest opening quarter-mile in Derby history. He lengthened his lead to two lengths until 30-1 longshot Proud Clarion moved within a head with an eighth of a mile to go. Damascus made a late charge, but had nothing left after all the agitation before the race. Proud Clarion eased past Barbs Delight to take the Derby in 2:00 3/5. Damascus managed a weak third.
Damascus exacted revenge in the Preakness. His stablemate, Celtic Air, took the early lead while Damascus trailed the leader by 13 lengths early on. Barbs Delight, running second, briefly led but was overtaken at the quarter pole by Damascus, who, according to the Associated Press, “stormed through the stretch like a wild horse” and cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory over newcomer In Reality. Proud Clarion finished third.
The horses went on to Aqueduct, where the Belmont Stakes was temporarily being held, and Damascus was tagged as the 4-5 favorite. When the race began, Prinkipo set an early pace as Damascus lay back in fifth place. The leader soon tired, and Canadian entry Cool Reception took a two-length lead with a half-mile to go. Shoemaker urged Damascus on, and the colt responded, finally catching a stubborn Cool Reception at the eighth pole.
Then the race was his. Cool Reception broke a cannon bone in the stretch, yet still managed to finish 2 1/2 lengths behind Damascus. He had to be euthanized after the race. Gentleman James, who had been almost 17 lengths behind earlier, took third place, a half-length behind Cool Reception. Proud Clarion completed an admirable Triple Crown campaign by finishing fourth.
Damascus was only just beginning to shine. He captured 11 stakes victories that year, including a 10-length dismantling of 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes. He captured Horse of the Year in 1967 and finished his career in 1968 with 21 victories in 32 starts.
Ranked #16 in The Blood-Horse‘s Top Thoroughbreds of the Twentieth Century, he finished out of the money only once and was elected into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974. Next to Native Dancer, Nashua and Spectacular Bid, he is one of the greatest horses to have missed the Triple Crown by one race.