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Monday, 19 November, 2018

Fifty years on, Damascus remains a bedrock of toughness for the modern breed

Chris McGrath celebrates the champion who lit up the summer of 1967

Damascus: failed to establish a sire-line but his toughness endures in the bottom half of elite pedigrees
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On the face of it, the road from Damascus has all but faded from the map. In the 50 years since he produced one of the all-time Saratoga knockouts - equalling the track record in the Travers, despite coasting home by 22 lengths - he has virtually disappeared from the top line of pedigrees.

But that does not condemn Damascus to stalk Saratoga, this anniversary summer, only as the flickering ghost who galloped clean out of the television; so far ahead, that the camera had to leave him halfway down the stretch in order to find his nearest pursuer.

For when racing returned to the Spa on Friday, the Canadian filly who headlined the opening card aptly condensed his residual influence. Dream It Is, winner of the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes, is out of a mare by Medaglia d'Oro - whose damsire is Bailjumper, a son of Damascus.


And it is here, in the bottom half of pedigrees, that Damascus retains a comforting foothold in the modern thoroughbred - in whom we so often deplore a deficiency of precisely those assets that cemented his greatness: hardiness, stamina, courage. Here was a champion who raced 16 times at three, and won at distances as varied as six furlongs and two miles.

Damascus winning the 1967 Travers by 22 lengths
The testimony of Frank Whiteley should alone suffice to guarantee his stature: by ranking him the greatest he trained, Whiteley placed him ahead of Ruffian, Tom Rolfe and Forego. And if you sometimes feel as though a "Race of the Century" is billed several times a decade, then the credentials of few have lasted as eligibly as the one in which Damascus - already a Preakness and Belmont winner - sealed his status as 1967 Horse of the Year by beating Buckpasser and Dr Fager, who respectively preceded and followed him on the Eclipse roll of honour. That was in the Woodward Stakes, and Damascus won by ten lengths.

A son of the flashy, plucky Sword Dancer, he sooner resembled the sire of his unraced dam, the 2,000 Guineas winner My Babu. Retired to Claiborne - after a somewhat troubled campaign at four, during which he nonetheless set a track record at Aqueduct that still stands - he became the last great hope of the "Teddy" branch that had broken away from the core Bend Or line through the precarious fertility of Ormonde.

The foundations were certainly in place for Damascus at Claiborne, not least his four separate strains tracing to Canterbury Pilgrim, the foundation mare of the 17th Earl of Derby’s epoch-making stud. But even Triple Crown winners - Citation, and the father-and-son pair Gallant Fox and Omaha - had proved unable to make the Teddy line stick.

Sir Gallahad III, a son of Teddy, sired Gallant Fox from his first crop but his male line would fade by the 1940s and he achieved his most lasting impact as a broodmare sire, at one stage leading the list for an unbroken decade.


Teddy also sired La Troienne, one of the greatest of all American matriarchs; and Case Ace, broodmare sire of Raise A Native. All in all, then, the ultimate legacy of Damascus as a distaff influence - despite 438 winners from 769 named foals over two decades, 72 at stakes level - fits a pattern.

He did produce a number of accomplished sons, who at least earned a chance to prolong the Teddy line. But Private Account, himself from La Troienne's family, was typically notable primarily for female champions such as Personal Ensign, Inside Information, Chimes Of Freedom and East Of The Moon.

Medaglia d'Oro: one of several influential sires out of a dam from the Damascus line
Bailjumper - already noted as damsire of Medaglia d'Oro, himself responsible for some especially outstanding females - did manage to pass the male-line baton to Skip Trial and it is instructive to reprise the tribute of George Isaacs when that perennial leader of Florida sires died five years ago. "He was a throwback to the thoroughbred of yesteryear, with his rugged looks and hickory toughness," said the Bridlewood manager. "He was a proven source of soundness and stamina."

These assets certainly shone through in Skip Trial’s son Skip Away, winner of the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he made only a marginal impact at stud.

Another accomplished son of Damascus, Timeless Moment, produced a champion juvenile in Gilded Time - who made a fine start to his own stud career, but now appears to depend on two or three regional sires to extend the male line. Another grandson of Damascus to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Fly So Free, meanwhile mustered Captain Steve but that Dubai World Cup winner proved a failure at stud.


Nonetheless the presence of Damascus on the page still holds a family together as a legitimate centre of gravity. Just think: in the Gotham, he went down by half a length in a bare-knuckle brawl with Dr Fager. Just a week later, he turned round to win the Wood Memorial by six lengths.

This kind of grit is today at a greater premium than ever, and surely needs due weighting when trying to balance sires - their assets often flimsily manipulated from sheer numbers - with the right families.

Johannesburg is another out of a grand-daughter of Damascus
Desert Wine, for instance, was perhaps the best runner sired by Damascus: a multiple Grade 1 winner, placed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But his chief contribution at stud proved to be through a female: Flamenco Wave, a Group 1 winner herself and dam of three others, also grand-dam of St Nicholas Abbey and great-grand-dam of Charming Thought.

Or consider the case of Ogygian, a very fast son of Damascus who won a Grade 1 at two by nine lengths. Just what the commercial doctor ordered, you might think. But he appeared to be only a modest success at stud, and was eventually exported from Claiborne to Japan. Belatedly, however, he has made his name as the damsire of Johannesburg and Street Boss among others.


And so it goes on. Damascus is himself damsire of Red Ransom, Boundary and Coronado's Quest. Red Ransom has in turn proved an accomplished broodmare sire (as, for instance, with War Command) while Boundary's best son Big Brown is actually inbred 3x4 to Damascus, who weighs in with his customary dose of Classic quality as sire of the third dam.

Damascus supports exactly the same branch both in the family tree of another recent Kentucky Derby winner, in Orb; and in that of Maclean's Music, the freshman sire who has just pulled Cloud Computing out of his hat.

In recently examining the pedigree of the exciting young sire Cairo Prince, moreover, it was edifying to discover that his dam is out of a daughter of Accipiter, a son of Damascus. So while he has not managed to stem the exponential tide of rival sire-lines, in this "pile-'em-high" era, the Damascus anniversary should not be toasted by nostalgics alone.


Here was a champion who raced 16 times at three, and won at distances as varied as six furlongs and two miles

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