As a race of championship stature the Woodward had endured for a decade without any earth-shattering surprises. It is as much of a true test as this country can serve up in a fall classic—a mile and a quarter under weight-for-age conditions. So there is little wonder that such runners as Sword Dancer, Kelso, Gun Bow, Buckpasser and Damascus can list a winning Woodward as an eye-catcher on their records. It may be a young race but it is nonetheless a classic, and for weeks before last Saturday's 15th running at Belmont Park, the 1968 Woodward promised to be the race of the year. That is, if it brought together Damascus (victor a year ago over Buck-passer and Dr. Fager) and Dr. Fager in their fifth meeting.
But Dr. Fager, whose trainer, Johnny Nerud, thinks he is already Horse of the Year, spent Saturday afternoon idly in his Belmont stall a furlong or so away from the crowd of 42,313 in the packed stands. Defending champion Damascus, solid but sleek and accompanied by his nuzzling stable pony Duffy, showed up as scheduled to face three brave but apparently foolish challengers. The fans heckled his jockey, Braulio Baeza, in the walking ring and then sent off Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's 4-year-old as the 1-to-10 choice. A slow two minutes and three seconds after the gate sprung, the 1968 Woodward became the Shocking Surprise of the Year. Damascus, hanging badly for the last 16th of a mile and overconfidently ridden by Baeza, was nosed out in a photo by the 10-to-1 shot, Mr. Right. This might have been understandable in a handicap in which Damascus would have to give away gobs of weight to his rivals. But it was stunning in a race in which all four starters carried 126 pounds. So stunning, indeed, that if horses could laugh the way they do on television, Dr. Fager would have a case of sore sides from giggling his way to a title without even working up a sweat or feeling a saddle on his back. For he, not Damascus, is the new champion of the handicap division.
Some will say that this Woodward was a disappointment because the best horse did not win. Others will say that the best horse would have won had he brought along his stablemate, the "rabbit" Hedevar, to assure a lickety-split early pace and set the scene for a one-run surge by Damascus in the stretch. And still others will claim Dr. Fager picked the wrong day to stay in the barn because he could have cashed in on the slowpoke pace to beat both Damascus and Mr. Right by 10 easy lengths. Well, the truth of the matter is that on this particular day—given a wonderful ride by Heliodoro Gustines—Mr. Right was the best horse and should properly be credited with a fine triumph.
Shortly after lunch on Woodward day Tom Bancroft went to Barn 16 to confer with Damascus' trainer, Frank Whiteley. All was so shipshape there that Whiteley suggested to Bancroft they scratch the pace-making Hedevar. "He's been used pretty good this year," Whiteley said. "I hope we don't need him and that Damascus can win on his own for a change." Bancroft returned to his box and told his friends, "Hedevar is all right. We scratched him because we don't need him—we hope!"
Farther down the aisle, dressed in the sort of dark blue suit that shows up nicely in winner's circles, sat a nervous young trainer, Evan Shipman Jackson. A former jump rider, he was named for his late uncle, the renowned racing writer Evan Shipman, and he trains Mr. Right for his owner, Mrs. Peter Duchin, wife of the orchestra leader. "We'll need all the luck we can get," Evan was saying, "but strange things happen in horse racing. At equal weights Damascus looks like he has a lock on this race, but none of his last few races has been easy for him. When he got beat by that 3-year-old, Nodouble, in Detroit two weeks ago, it proved he wasn't invincible. Whether any of these in here today are good enough to do the job I don't know, but I do know that my horse has never been better than he is right now."
Soon after Gus Ring's Grace Born spurted to an early lead, the Woodward settled into a virtual match race between Mr. Right and Damascus. They ran head on head for more than half a mile—and this is not the way Damascus runs his best races. In fact, every time his riders have chosen to let him settle into a long duel, no matter what the pace, Damascus has come out second best. His game has always been to come from off the pace with one big run, and nobody knows this better than Baeza. "But the trouble was that everybody took back and created a very slow pace," he said later. "We were running close together and Damascus tensed up." One can only assume that had Hedevar—or any other sprinter—been in the race, the field wouldn't have lolled its way through the half mile in :47⅖ the six furlongs in 1:11[3/5] and the mile in 1:37.
Mr. Right, on the inside, and Damascus by his side traded the lead a couple of times along the way, but in the stretch it was the underdog, with Gustines crouched low and riding his heart out, who turned out to be the more tenacious. Baeza, guilty of one of his few atrocious rides in Damascus' defeat in Detroit, erred through overconfidence, and then failed to produce a driving finish. Damascus had a head lead at the eighth pole but hung from the 16th pole home; the champ lost because he and his rider deserved to lose.
And just who is Mr. Right? Well, he's like the fellow who comes to all the dances but isn't much noticed because the glamour boys wind up with all the beautiful girls. The comparison isn't always apt, however. Last winter, after losing four straight at Santa Anita, he won the Santa Anita Handicap and paid $41.80. Although he has won only 13 races in his 55 lifetime starts over four seasons, he has been in the first three 32 times and has earned $480,671. Only two Woodwards have been won in slower time than Mr. Right's 2:03 last Saturday, but the Peter Duchins and Evan Jackson couldn't care less. Theirs was the distinction of having the first New York-bred ever to win a $100,000 stakes race (the Santa Anita Handicap), and now their 5-year-old, one of only 128 registered New York foals of 1963 (Kentucky had 3,270 foals that year, California 2,241), has made the Woodward his second.
The Duchins do not go to the track to see their horse run these days. "We went a few years ago when Mr. Right was favored to win a stakes race at Aqueduct," says Peter, "and he ran so badly I thought we must have been a jinx, so now we don't go. We send my in-laws." Father-in-law George Zauderer started all this a few years ago when Duchin became engaged to his daughter, Cheray. Owner-breeder Zauderer had some foals at Trainer Tom Waller's farm in Bedford Hills, N.Y., a community that is not about to push Newmarket or Lexington off the horse-breeding map. One day, some months before they were married, Cheray was showing Duchin around the farm and, as she put it the evening after the Woodward victory, "this foal came over to Peter, and it was love at first sight for both of them. He put his head in Peter's lap and went to sleep!" The young colt was by a son of Count Fleet named Auditing (since deceased) and out of the Tehran mare La Grecque. Auditing was a half-brother to Busanda, the dam of Buckpasser, and Tehran, a son of Bois Roussel, was a St. Leger winner. This kind of breeding would look good at Newmarket or Lexington, and it looks absolutely smashing at Bedford Hills, N.Y. It looked even better for Peter and Cheray when Zauderer gave them the colt as a wedding present. After parting with Tom Waller as trainer, the couple took on Evan Jackson last year, and Mr. Right (whose name is taken from the title of a 1963 Esquire article on Duchin) has been just right for all of them ever since.
Only a spectacular collapse by Dr. Fager and an even more spectacular comeback by Damascus can now deprive Dr. Fager of his Horse of the Year title. Trainer Nerud, who has a habit of changing his mind every few days, has not ruled out the possibility of sending Dr. Fager in the Man o' War (a mile-and-a-half on grass on Oct. 19) against Damascus and probably Advocator, Fort Marcy and Tobin Bronze. Or he may elect to go for the Hawthorne Gold Cup in Chicago on the same day. Even the Laurel International on Nov. 11th cannot be ruled out for Dr. Fager. Damascus has already accepted the invitation of Laurel President John Schapiro, and Nerud has declined. "But," says Schapiro, "we'll leave the door open until at least after the Man o' War—if he wants to change his mind."
Damascus would have to whip Dr. Fager at least once to get back in the running for the title. "He is still sound," says Whiteley. "The only thing hurting is his pride. What about next year? I'd like to see the Bancrofts breed him to a few mares and let him come back to the races next fall. There do not seem to be many top 3-year-olds coming up, and if Dr. Fager retires who will there be to beat?"
By then, by golly, if he too has not been retired to stud, it just might be Mr. Right's turn again.
At the end of more than half a mile of head-to-head battle, Damascus fails to pull away from Mr. Right (3) and loses the Woodward by nose.