Frank Whiteley, Jr. had been at Charles Town. Been there long before slots, and simulcasting, and Grade I races. Frank Whiteley, Jr. left the Jack’s Little Green Cards of Charles Town and trained thoroughbreds so well at the sport’s high-end tracks that he was eventually voted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame in sumptuous Saratoga, New York.
One of the thoroughbreds Frank Whiteley, Jr. trained after matriculating from Charles Town was the bay son of Sword Dancer named Damascus.
Damascus as fate would have it was the last great champion owned by a descendant of William Woodward, Sr., the same William Woodward, Sr. who owned Belair Stud and owned five horses that won the Belmont Stakes.
Edith Bancroft was the owner of Damascus. She used the easy-to-remember white silks with the same red polka dots that her father had presented. The bright red cap worn by the jockeys she employed was also a sure sign that a thoroughbred was owned by Mrs. Bancroft or Belair Stud.
Damascus was given his name because of his willing attitude and flexibility that were recognized at an early age. Damascus is a type of steel known for its resiliency and strength. The name seemed to fit the medium-sized brown colt.
There were no distinguishing characterics attached to Damascus and his appearance. He was a rich chocolate color. But there was no wide or angular white blaze on his head. Even his legs were uncovered by white socks or marks of any kind.
Frank Whiteley, Jr. took Damascus to the races four times when he was but a two-year-old. He won three of those attempts. The famous Willie (Bill) Shoemaker was Damascus’ jockey.
But even with a 75% winning percentage, there was no New Year’s Day celebrating when the first day of 1967 came around. Damascus had only toted off a little more $25,000 during all of his two-year-old season.
But 1967 might be a little more earth-shaking for the Whiteley trainee.
“A little more” turned out to be 12 wins in 16 races. Some of those 12 wins included the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes for the stretch-running engine of long strides. Just preceding his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby was a win in the Wood Memorial.
After the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes had been secured, Damascus further refined his name as a distance-getter by winning the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Later along in the summer he had successes in the American Derby, the Aqueduct Handicap, the Woodward Stakes, Dwyer Stakes, and Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Added to all those vindications of his toughness, durability, and stretch-running ability were firsts in both the Leonard Richards Stakes and the Bay Shore Stakes.
Once he trumped the fields in the Preakness and Belmont his summer was ratcheted up by more than few notches.
In the Dwyer, Damascus was about a dozen lengths in behind the pace setters. He was giving away 16 pounds to every other thoroughbred in the field. And he won with a flair.
When it came time for the 1967 Woodward Stakes, the country held its breath hoping that Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser would all be healthy enough on race day to have at one another. All three joined the field.
After a blistering pace where a “rabbit” stablemate of Damascus ran Dr. Fager into submission after six furlongs, Damascus circled the fading “Doctor” and drew off to win by 10 lengths. Because of the inclusion of those three future Hall of Famers, the Woodward was called “The Race of the Century”.
Damascus the 1967 Horse of the Year, Champion Three-year-Old Colt of the Year, and actually shared the Champion Handicap Male Award with Buckpasser.
As a four-year-old in 1968, Damascus was at the races some 12 times (winning six of them) before bowing a tendon and being retired to stud at Arthur B. Hancock’s Claiborne Farm near Lexington in bluegrass Kentucky.
As a three-year-old, he had set an earnings record for a one year ($817,941) that was not surpassed until Secretariat slid past that winnings mark in 1973.
Before being “pensioned” in 1989, Damascus had sired 71 stakes winners. He lived for a seldom-seen 31 years, actually being on earth for 21 years after being selected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
He had been durable, not missing races or training sessions because of injury. He had been able to spot rivals many pounds and still win his handicap races at age four. He had been a marvelous last-champion for Mrs. Bancroft to go out with when he was injured at four.
Damascus came powering through the stretch to win most of his races. He split four races with the indefatigable Dr. Fager. He got the best of Buckpasser.
There had been no controversy in the three years Damascus. raced. His record showed him vying for championships and awards with Dr. Fager and Buckpasser. He toted the weight when asked. And in his final 11 races, he was asked!
Repeatedly, Damascus fled from behind to win as Shoemaker used his strong but quiet hands to reach the finish line.