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Damascus against the world

America's Horse of the Year has done everything but mow the lawn. He may do exactly that in next week's International on the grass at Laurel

All doubts about Damascus' ability to go a real distance of ground, not just the mile and a quarter of the Woodward or even the mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes, were conclusively dispelled at Aqueduct last week. Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's champion son of former champion Sword Dancer coasted home nearly five lengths in front of Handsome Boy in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Way behind them, as Bill Shoemaker brought the winner home in a near-record 3:20⅕ were Successor and Gentleman James. It is almost impossible to overpraise Trainer Frank Whiteley for his management of this colt who now has 12 victories in 15 starts this year and a world record for earnings ($792,941) in one year.

You might suppose that Damascus had earned his retirement papers for the season following the Gold Cup last week, but the Bancrofts, the Woodwards, Trainer Whiteley and Jockey Shoemaker, believing they have on their hands an animal who is honed to perfection at the moment, have charted one more 1967 test for him. And it just might be a beauty. Next week, at Laurel, Md., Damascus (along with Paul Mellon's Fort Marcy) will carry the banner for the U.S. in the 16th running of the mile-and-a-half Washington D.C. International. The opposition in this comparatively new classic, which actually has been won only seven times by a runner representing this country, will include horses from England, France, Canada, Japan and possibly some from Australia, Venezuela, Chile and Russia.

The conditions of the International should not cause any great concern to Damascus. As a 3-year-old he will have to carry only 120 pounds, which means he will be getting seven pounds from older horses, and at the moment is there anyone in the house who can name a horse capable of giving Damascus seven pounds—and a beating—at a mile and a half? Answer: not in my house. The International, to be sure, is on grass, but it is unlikely that running over turf would bother an agile colt who already has been able to handle mud, slop and fast surfaces of any consistency. "This colt is always on his feet," says Shoemaker. "He's handled everything before, and with his quick, shifty action and perfect balance, he should be a natural on grass." Frank Whiteley agrees.

If the grass, the weight or the distance do not pose any problems for Damascus in the November 11th International, it seems almost equally probable that the opposition will not, either. Fort Marcy, an honest, hard-hitting gelding (by Amerigo out of the Princequillo mare Key Bridge), is a genuine grass runner. He has won six of 17 races this year and was only beaten a head by the longshot Ruffled Feathers in the mile-and-five-eighths Man o' War on October 21. Trainer Elliott Burch knows what he is about, and the U.S. team, on paper anyway, appears to be as strong as 1964's, when Kelso and Gun Bow ran one, two.

The outstanding foreign horse at Laurel next week will be Charles Engelhard's Ribocco who—although Kentucky-bred—has done his racing abroad and done it well. Already this year he has won the mile-and-three-quarter St. Leger and the mile-and-a-half Irish Derby. In last month's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, also at a mile and a half, Britain's champion jockey, Lester Piggott, brought him skillfully through a crowded 30-horse field at Longchamp to a near miss. Beaten only a neck and a short head, he was third behind the 82-to-1 shot Topyo and another longshot named Salvo, both of whose owners declined invitations to run in the International from Laurel President John Schapiro. Ribocco will represent England at Laurel, and his teammate will be another 3-year-old named In Command. The latter recently won the mile-and-three-eighths Prix Henry Delamarre in Paris on the disqualification of Queen Elizabeth's Hopeful Venture, after being beaten less than a length. In Command did not compete in the Arc and would appear to be somewhat outclassed in the company she will face over here.

It is a shame that France will not be sending over her Arc winner or even the fourth-place finisher, Roi Dagobert, for since Kelso's victory three years ago the French have won two straight Internationals with Diatome (Carvin II finished only a nose behind) and Behistoun—both ridden by Jean Deforge. The French, however, are bringing a sleeper in the 3-year-old filly Casaque Grise. A daughter of Arc Winner Saint Crespin, Casaque Grise won the mile-and-a-half Prix Vermeille (beating the Arc's fifth-place finisher, Heath Rose) and has been first or second in all six of her races this year. She is owned by Mme. Fran√ßois Dupré, which means that she is in the hands of France's alltime leading trainer, Fran√ßois Mathet, and will be ridden by Yves Saint-Martin.

Bill Beasley's 4-year-old Round Table colt, He's A Smoothie, winner of the recent Canadian Championship, a mile and five-eighths at Woodbine, will represent Canada while another definite starter is Japan's Speed Symboli, also a 4-year-old. Both will be outsiders in this select field, and the same would go for anything invited out of this week's sectional classics in Venezuela and Chile. Australian-bred Tobin Bronze, a 5-year-old winner of 23 of his 43 lifetime starts who was bought two weeks ago for about $450,000 by Americans William Breliant and Irving Litz from Los Angeles, may make it to Laurel if proper air transportation can be arranged in time. The Russian champion, Anilin, now a 6-year-old veteran of two trips to Laurel (third in 1964 and second last year) has been invited back, but, following his third straight victory in the Preis Von Europa in Cologne, West Germany two weeks ago, he has returned to Moscow.

It will be a championship race, of sorts, at Laurel. At least, with Shoemaker, Saint-Martin and Piggott it will be a confrontation of champion jockeys. And my guess is that the red-and-white Belair Stud and Bancroft silks will be in the winner's circle.