Suburban, Brooklyn, Spa Evoke Special Memories

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” For me it was the summer of 1968 when life began over again. Racing had become an obsession and my world was now encompassed by names like Damascus and Dr. Fager. In Upstate New York, the siren calls emanating from the small town of Saratoga were luring me to a place that existed only in my dreams. This is the story of that magical summer, which proved to be the foundation for the rest of my life. ~ Steve Haskin

Suburban, Brooklyn, Spa Evoke Special Memories

By Steve Haskin


The Suburban Handicap, to be run on July 3, is not the race it used to be, but to me the name will always bring back memories of summers past, with the Brooklyn Handicap to follow and the grand finale of the summer, Saratoga. This column is about my earliest memories of all three, so let’s go back to where it all began.

It is late June, 1968 and as exciting a time in racing as I have ever experienced. Racing’s two titans and bitter rivals Damascus and Dr. Fager are finally set to meet in the Suburban Handicap, their first showdown since the previous year’s Woodward Stakes. The Doc’s trainer John Nerud has been waiting some nine months to get his revenge on Damascus after his 10-length demolition of Dr. Fager and Buckpasser.

I had recently finalized my plans for my first trip to Saratoga. I would take the Adirondack Trailways bus to the Spa and stay at Grossman’s Victoria Hotel on South Broadway, within walking distance to the track.

First, though, I would have to get through July. But that should be easy with the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps the likely battlegrounds for Damascus and Dr. Fager, who had been on a collision course for the past two months.

Another top-class colt, In Reality, who had futilely chased Dr. Fager and Damascus throughout 1967, had taken advantage of Damascus’ first ever vacation and Dr. Fager’s serious bout with colic and emerged as the temporary big dog in town, with victories in the John B. Campbell Handicap, Carter Handicap, and Met Mile. With all three heading to the Suburban there were sure to be fireworks at The Big A on the fourth of July.

Dr. Fager’s legion of fans wanted desperately to see their hero take on Damascus without the aid of Hedevar, who had cooked Dr. Fager in the Woodward, forcing him into a suicidal pace. But the word from the Damascus camp was that trainer Frank Whiteley had every intention of again using Hedevar, a former world-record holder for the mile, again to soften up Dr. Fager, who had proven to be unbeatable when left alone on the lead. And Damascus was a confirmed closer, so he would be at a huge disadvantage if The Doc were allowed to set an easy pace. No horse had ever looked him in the eye and been able to pass him.

What made Dr. Fager and Damascus such compelling rivals was that they were nothing alike. Dr. Fager, although a kindly, sensitive horse in his stall who hated being yelled at, was a brute on the racetrack; a wild thing confined in a world of restraint who ran with reckless abandon. With his long mane blowing in the breeze, he was more like an untamed mustang dashing across the plains. And like the leader of the pack, his place was in front and he dared any horse to take the lead away from him. And that even went for In Reality, his childhood buddy at Tartan Farm, who tried to sneak up inside him on the backstretch in the rich New Hampshire Sweepstakes only to have Dr. Fager attempt to savage him.

Damascus, on the other hand, liked to come from well off the pace and needed constant urging to keep his mind on the task at hand. Most of his defeats came when he would refuse to leave his opponents. But when persevered with he would turn on the afterburners and explode, turning in the most devastating move on the far turn I have ever seen, even after 50 years. Unlike Dr. Fager, who ran with his head high, Damascus would get down low and was amazingly quick and agile, pouncing on his foes like a cat its prey. His jockeys just had to keep after him. To give you an idea how explosive his turn of foot was, in the Travers Stakes he was 16 lengths off the lead on the backstretch and won by 22 lengths, equaling the track record.

If In Reality was going to finally have any chance of knocking off the dynamic duo, this would be it, as both Damascus and Dr. Fager had strikes against them going into the race and still would have to give In Reality good chunks of weight. Dr. Fager had to go straight into the Suburban coming off his colic attack, which left him gravely ill and forced him to miss the Met Mile. In Reality took advantage of the situation by winnung the Met in impesssive fashion.

Damascus, the iron horse who thrived on competition and needed a steady diet of racing to get himself fit, had been given four months off after a debacle in the Strub Stakes run in a quagmire. Ron Turcotte, subbing for the injured Bill Shoemaker, said he begged Whiteley to put mud caulks on Damascus, but he didn’t want to risk hurting the horse. The only other horse who didn’t wear caulks finished last and Damascus wound up losing three shoes in the race and came back with his legs all cut up and bloodied. Yet he still finished second, beaten a head by a horse he had just handled eeasily in the San Feernando Stakes. Turcotte said Damascus was the second best horse he ever rode behind Secretariat, having won the Leonard Richards Stakes on him the previous year.

Damascus had only one easy allowance victory at Delaware Park 17 days before the Suburban and was not as finely tuned as Frank Whiteley would have liked. But the Suburban had always been his target and there was no turning back now. This was a horse who had raced 19 times in an 11-month period, 18 of them stakes, and actually kept getting better throughout his 3-year-old campaign. So, of the three big horses, only In Reality was coming into the race dead-fit and in top form.

To demonstrate how much racing has changed, Damascus was assigned highweight of 133 pounds, with Dr. Fager at 132, and In Reality in with 125. NYRA racing secretary Tommy Trotter said he had never weighted two horses that high in a race.

On the morning of the Suburban I took the Pioneer bus to Aqueduct and made my way into the grandstand to find my usual seat around the eighth pole. That’s usually where the main action was.

Just about the same time, in the racing secretary’s office, a mini-drama was being played out that would have a major impact on the race. Nerud spotted Whiteley going into Tommy Trotter’s office. As Whiteley was walking out, Nerud overheard a jockey’s agent say that Hedevar had just been scratched. When Whiteley looked over at Nerud and didn’t deny it he knew it was true. Nerud promptly stood up and said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”

As the crowd of more than 54,000 began to settle in, the familiar voice of track announcer Fred Capossela could be heard over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the seventh race, number 1A Hedevar has…been…scratched.” That sent a buzz rippling through the grandstand.

Hedevar, it was reported, had taken a few bad steps following a six-furlong workout, and Whiteley didn’t want to take any chances running him.

Dr. Fager was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Damascus 7-5. Damascus was always quick out of the gate, and, as usual, he broke on top from the rail before being taken back by jockey Manny Ycaza. Dr. Fager, under Braulio Baeza, shot to the lead as expected. Baeza gave a peek over his left shoulder to make sure he was clear of Damascus before easing over to the rail.

With no one to get his blood boiling, Dr. Fager rated kindly and cruised to a clear lead going into the clubhouse turn. He quickly opened up by two lengths and was in complete control of the race. In Reality, who was supposed to put pressure on The Doc, had broken on his wrong lead and apparently took a bad step, causing an injury that would lead to his retirement. He raced in fourth during the early going, about four lengths back, before retreating to finish last.

With Dr. Fager loose on a slow, uncontested lead, Damascus was now on a solo mission, and Ycaza had no choice but to put the colt into the fray early and test Dr. Fager, who had managed to get away with an opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5, which was trotting horse time for the Doc. Most people had to believe the race was over at that point.

Ycaza took Damascus off the rail and started pushing hard to get him to close the gap on Dr. Fager. Although taken completely out of his game plan, Damascus was able to use his quickness and rapid-fire acceleration to collar Dr. Fager as they headed down the backstretch. The battle everyone had wanted to see for so long was on. Damascus pulled to within a neck of Dr. Fager, but that was as close as the Doc would let him get.

The pair battled through the third quarter in a torrid :22 3/5, and that’s with over 130 pounds on their back. With his initial attack thwarted, Ycaza backed off slightly and let Damascus regroup. This was not his game, and Ycaza had to make sure he saved something for the end, especially with Damascus not being fully cranked up. Once he and Damascus were able to catch their breath, Ycaza began pushing hard once again, trying to crack Dr. Fager, which, without Hedevar, was a study in futility.

Dr. Fager, with his head held high, seemed to dwarf Damascus, even though the two were about the same height. Damascus was now straight as a string as he mounted his second attack. The Doc knew he was in for a fight, and dug in once again. As hard as Ycaza pushed he couldn’t get by the tenacious Dr. Fager.

Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began inching away, putting a good half-length between him and Damascus. But, amazingly, Damascus wasn’t through. He gave it one final desperate try, pulling back alongside Dr. Fager for the third time, and actually might have gotten his nose in front nearing the quarter pole after a testing quarter in :23 3/5.

Turning for home, a weary Damascus had no more to give. As fresh as he was and having to play Dr. Fager’s game, he began to retreat under the impost following a brutal mile in 1:34 3/5. Dr. Fager, who was built to carry weight, bounded clear, opening up by two lengths at the eighth pole.

The improving Bold Hour, carrying only 116 pounds, had been eyeing the battle several lengths back and moved in for the kill, hoping to pick up the pieces. He collared Damascus, from whom he was getting 17 pounds, and set his sights on Dr. Fager. But Baeza was sitting chilly on the Doc, whose long mane was still blowing wildly in the breeze. Baeza seemed unfazed by Bold Hour’s feeble attempt to close the gap. He merely hand rode Dr. Fager to the wire, maintaining his two-length advantage. Even with the sluggish opening half and carrying 132 pounds, Dr. Fager still was able to equal Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5.

Despite his gut-wrenching attempts to crack Dr. Fager, Damascus, who wound up third in the Suburban, came back only nine days later in the 1 1/4-mile Amory Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and finished third again behind Bold Hour under 131 pounds after stumbling badly at the start. As difficult as it might seem to believe, these two races actually were just what Damascus needed to get him tight and razor-sharp. He returned only a week later in the Brooklyn Handicap for his rematch with Dr. Fager. When I went to the paddock to look at Damascus, I knew this would be a different story. Not only did he have Hedevar back he bounced around the paddock on his toes with his neck arched and muscles bulging from his shoulders and hindquarters. He was ready to tackle Dr. Fager, who was carrying a staggering 135 pounds to 130 for Damascus.

Hedevar was now healthy again and this time he showed up for his search and destroy mission. Nerud didn’t bat an eye over Dr. Fager picking up three pounds. He understood the concept of handicap racing. He was more concerned about Hedevar than the weight.

Hedevar, as expected, shot to a clear lead, as Baeza took a stranglehold on Dr. Fager. Tommy Lee, aboard Hedevar, broke from the outside, and when he looked over to his left to eye his target, much to his surprise, Dr. Fager was nowhere to be seen, as Baeza kept pulling back on the throttle. Before Lee knew what was happening, he had opened a three-length lead. But Dr. Fager was not a happy camper. His head was up and he was fighting Baeza, and when Dr. Fager fought you it was only a matter of time before you caved.

Ycaza, meanwhile, had Damascus well back in the pack where he liked to be. Hedevar was on a kamikaze mission, with or without Dr. Fager, and he still blazed the opening half in :45 4/5, with Dr. Fager a length and a half back. That’s 2 3/5 seconds, or 13 lengths, faster than Dr Fager had run in the Suburban. And this time he was carrying 135 pounds.

By the time they passed the five-eighths pole, Baeza no longer had any say in the matter and he was forced to let Dr. Fager go. He blew right on by Hedevar and quickly opened a four-length lead. But the Doc was out of control, his three-quarters in a blistering 1:09 2/5, while Damascus was in high gear and cutting into Dr. Fager’s lead with every stride. The cat was back in his comfort zone and ready to strike, as he did in the Woodward and so many other races.

It was obvious this time it was Damascus who had the advantage. With one of his typical explosive moves, he collared Dr. Fager at the quarter pole and began to draw clear, but the Doc wouldn’t give up, despite the pace and staggering weight. Baeza even resorted to the whip, something Dr. Fager detested, and he threw his tail up in defiance. He fought hard through the stretch, but Damascus was always in control, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record, and, amazingly, still stands more than a half century later. All Dr. Fager had done was run back-to-back mile and a quarter races in 1:59 3/5 carrying 132 and 135 pounds in a span of 16 days.

And for Damascus, who seemed to be held together with fibers of steel, this was his third major stakes at 1 1/4 miles in 16 days, carrying 130 pounds or more in all of them, culminating with a track record.

Sadly, this would be the final time Dr. Fager and Damascus would face each other. Nerud had other worlds to conquer for Dr. Fager, and the paths he and Damascus took never would cross again.

Before I knew it, July was over and it was now time to get ready for my long-awaited trip to Saratoga. The Victoria Hotel was not quite what I expected. It was an old hotel with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s. It was pretty modest and in no way even remotely resembled the Adelphi, the last of the great old hotels, which in turn bore no resemblance to the massive, ostentatious Grand Union and United States Hotels that catered to the opulent and often decadent tastes of America’s tycoons, high rollers, and silver spoon-fed upper crust.

Walking to the track each morning up Lincoln Ave was like driving down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn with my father as a kid and then seeing the light stanchions of Ebbetts Field in the distance. You felt as if you were approaching hallowed ground. The track had recently begun serving breakfast on the apron porch, where you were greeted by a tuxedo-clad maitre d’. If you didn’t mind that the price of breakfast was outrageous and tips on the races normally were hotter than the food, it was a great experience, with the smell of bacon wafting through the crisp mountain air, the clanging of dishes and silverware, and some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country galloping and working in front of you. Once in a while you’d see a top trainer having breakfast, and you could listen in on Bill Johnson’s Saturday morning radio show at one of the tables. The atmosphere was intoxicating.

After training I would go across the street to the National Museum of Racing, looking at the same things each day. But I didn’t care, I just loved being there immersed in history. It was like a sanctuary where you could escape to another time. And before leaving I would take the free color postcards at the admission desk of Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser.

A few days after arriving in Saratoga, I managed to find a shopping center that had a camera store, and bought myself one of those little Kodak Brownie Instamatic cameras. I had to capture all these indelible images and the beauty of Saratoga.

My first morning at the track with my new camera I shot just about everything I saw — the grandstand, adorned with flowers, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his sons, my hotel, and even the McDonalds across the street from the Victoria.

Travers morning, a blanket of humidity hung over Saratoga and a thunderstorm was imminent. On the track, horses were winding down their morning’s activities, while the patrons in the clubhouse apron dining area were finishing breakfast.

As training hours drew to a close, the skies, which had been clear all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those wild Saratoga thunderstorms was moments away. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, I could hear a faint voice over the public address system announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.” It was not the custom to make announcements, but this was the exception.

I could see The Doc emerge from the end of the grandstand. Two weeks earlier I had watched on TV as he romped by eight lengths in the Whitney under 132 pounds. Now here he was right in front of me, like a heavyweight prizefighter stepping into the ring. I had never been this close to him. He looked like no other horse, seemingly taller than his 16.1-hands frame who had a powerful presence about him.

It was the Saturday before the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, in which the Doc would be gunning for the one-mile world record, and on this morning he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.

Just as he made his way on to the track the rain started and the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. I, however, was not going to blow an opportunity to take a picture of the mighty Dr. Fager, especially with my brand new Brownie Instamatic. So I remained at the rail.

Dr. Fager walked right past me accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. The exercise rider, Jose Marrero, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me, as if wondering what kind of idiot would be standing in the rain to take a picture of a horse. But this was no ordinary horse.

Like some majestic shrouded figure, Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wide-eyed 21-year-old who was floundering about trading over-the-counter stocks on Wall Street and hating it. As the Doc, sporting his figure-8 bridle, walked past me oblivious to the elements, he had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red. Even through the murk and rain his burnished blood-bay coat had a radiant glow to it. There was no doubt The Doc was in a zone and I managed to take one shot of him before high-tailing it back under cover.

I stood under the grandstand and watched Dr. Fager breeze five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from Marrero, who had to weigh close to 160 pounds. A week later The Doc broke the world record for the mile, winning eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds in one of the most awe-inspiring performances of all time. It would become the most sought after record in racing, and still has not been broken in over half a century.

For years I carried that photo of Dr. Fager in my wallet. Although taken in haste under adverse conditions with a little Instamatic, it remains to this day my favorite photo. I still look at it and think back to when everything was new – my camera, my first trip to Saratoga, and my newly found obsession with horse racing.

This was the first of many memorable trips to Saratoga, where 11 years later I would propose to my beautiful wife and where our daughter would celebrate her first birthday and where my one-year-old grandson, like his mom at the same age, would sit on his first horse . And, amazingly, where my name would one day be inscribed on the walls of the museum.

Saratoga was also where I got my first look at an up-and-coming 2-year-old named Secretariat, who came roaring by me as I was having breakfast on the apron with a friend. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to him if I hadn’t heard him first. He sounded like a locomotive coming down the stretch and I only surmised it was him from his blue and white checkered blinkers and his massive stride.

And so it is time once again for my two harbingers of summer – the Suburban Handicap and Saratoga. The Suburban, although relegated to Grade 2 status, still evokes images of those memorable Handicap Triple Crown days. And as for Saratoga, well, it is still Saratoga where time stands still. The Victoria Hotel is long gone and the museum has expanded to three times its original size, but those same paintings and trophies and other artifacts still serve as a portal to racing’s past.

Saratoga has seen substantial growth over the years, but I know once I arrive there next month I will once again become that 21-year-old, walking down Lincoln Avenue and into the wondrous new world I had recently discovered. And if after 53 years I ever take Saratoga for granted and those early days begin to fade from my mind I always have a photograph of Dr. Fager to jog my memory.


Photography courtesy of New York Racing Association, Braulio Baeza, and Steve Haskin


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