Damascus – Against The Trend

Damascus 2

Damascus was by Sword Dancer – Kerala by My Babu. His direct male line leads to the great sire Teddy, bred in 1913. However, it is not through one of Teddy’s more illustrious sons that the line leads to Damascus but through Sun Teddy, Sun Again, Sunglow, then to Sword Dancer. Sword Dancer was a flashy chestnut and had a great career on the track. He won the 1959 Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes, Metropolitan Handicap, Monmouth Stakes, Woodward Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, displaying tremendous courage and class. He was named the Horse of the Year.

The dam of Damascus, Kerala was unraced. She came from a good family of runners and producers. Kerala was a half sister to Santa Anita Derby winner Bymeabond out of the Sickle mare Blade of Time. Back in her pedigree are names such as Blue Larkspur, Sweep, Phalaris and Blandford. My Babu, the dam sire of Damascus, was also a very good runner himself as he was the winner of the 2000 Guineas in 1947 and comes from the Tourbillon sire line through his son Djebel. My Babu was a success at stud, especially with his broodmare daughters.

Now some may say Damascus was regally bred, given the racing careers of his sire and dam sire. However during the time he was foaled, the Nasrullah/Bold Ruler male line was sweeping all before them. Further top sire lines were coming from other Nearco descendants. Male lines descending from Hyperion, Ribot and Princequillo also held more sway with breeders. Sword Dancer did ok at stud, he sired fourteen stakes winners including champion filly Lady Pitt, but was not in the top ranks other than the years when Damascus and Lady Pitt were racing. My Babu did have a few good ones as well with Crozier being perhaps his best. My Babu did come from an, at that time, strong line however.

Damascus was bred in 1964 by Edith Bancroft, daughter of American turf icon William Woodward Sr. the owner of Belair Stud. Mrs. Bancroft inherited the famous white with cherry red polka dots, red cap colours from her father but chose to race under her own banner. Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley was in charge of the racing career of Damascus. He was a good looking bay with black points, more in colour and appearance to his dam sire. Damascus was strong, sound and very likeable to be around. Whiteley took his time with Damascus, letting him grow into his strong frame, before sending him out to race. He won three of four races as a two year old, late in the season, culminating with his win in the Remsen Stakes.

After wintering in South Carolina, Damascus came out running. He blazed the track leading up to the Kentucky Derby with wins in the Bay Shore and Wood Memorial Stakes. He met his arch rival Dr. Fager for the first time in the Gotham Stakes and was beaten by a half length, one week prior to his Wood Memorial triumph. On Derby day in the Churchill Downs paddock Damascus became very nervous in front of the large gathering of people and the inherent noise associated with the Derby. He was rank and edgy leading up to the race and had sweated excessively. Damascus lost the Derby to 30 to 1 shot Proud Clarion.

In the Preakness Stakes, a calmer Damascus with regular rider Bill Shoemaker came from eleven lengths back to win by two and a half lengths over In Reality, with Proud Clarion four lengths further back in third. Damascus then took the Belmont Stakes by two and a half lengths over a faltering Cool Reception, who had broken his leg in the stretch.

Ron Turcotte substituted for “The Shoe” in the Leonard Richards Handicap. Damascus won handily by three and three quarters of a length. Damascus was upset by a nose in the William du Pont Handicap to Exceedingly, giving that one eight pounds, and then regained his winning ways in the Dwyer. On to Chicago for the American Derby, Damascus set a new track record with his seven length win over In Reality.

The next race for the emerging star was the Travers at Saratoga. In this race Damascus displayed his great speed, and in the process set the entire thoroughbred world talking about him. Damascus and Shoemaker were fifteen lengths in arrears early in the contest, and then came on with a phenomenal turn of foot to win by twenty-two lengths! Just when it looked as if the Saratoga curse had claimed another star, Damascus put in his best performance to date.

For the Aqueduct Handicap, Damascus was giving weight to older horses but it didn’t matter. With his now customary late closing run he won the race defeating Straight Deal and Ring Twice, both top handicappers.

For the next race for Damascus would hook up with Dr. Fager again and the reigning champion Buckpasser in the Woodward Stakes. With these three titans involved, this running of the Woodward, which took place at Aqueduct due to the refurbishing of Belmont Park, was billed as the “Race of the Century” by many American turf journalists. Damascus put in a performance for the ages coming from twelve lengths back to demolish the high class field by ten lengths. He now established himself as the best three year old and possibly the top horse in training for the year.

To stake his claim to the title Damascus added the two mile Jockey Club Gold Cup to his list of victories. A thorough four and a half length victory furthered his Horse of the Year aspirations. Whiteley decided to try Damascus on grass and entered him in the Washington D.C. International. The bay colt ran gamely on a new to him surface but was beaten a nose by grass champion Fort Marcy. The race did little to dissuade the voters, as Damascus was named Horse of the Year at season’s end.

Although he was not as dominant as a four year old he did garner six stakes wins from twelve starts, racing in California and the major tracks in the east. He would end his racing with a bowed tendon in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, finishing out of the money for the only time in his career.  Dr. Fager supplanted Damascus as Horse of the Year with his all conquering season. Damascus was retired from the track and took up stud duty at Claiborne Farm alongside other notables such as Bold Ruler, Round Table, Tom Rolfe and Buckpasser. He became a great success, passing on his speed and soundness to his sons and daughters and in so doing, would revive the once heralded Teddy male line.

Damascus sired seventy-one stakes winners including Belted Earl, a champion older horse in Ireland. Lord Durham, a champion two year old in Canada. Highland Blade, winner of the Marlboro Cup and the Brooklyn Handicap. Desert Wine took the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Charles H. Strub Handicap. Ogygian won the Futurity Stakes at two and then the Jerome Handicap and the Dwyer Stakes the following year. Eastern Echo also won the Futurity Stakes. Private Account won the Widener and Gulfstream Handicaps. Time For A Change was the winner of the Flamingo Stakes. Bailjumper won the Dwyer. Timeless Moment scored in the Princeton Stakes and the Nassau County Handicap.

The latter four sired significant stakes winners themselves as Private Account would get the great undefeated mare Personal Ensign (Breeder’s Cup Distaff etc), who in turn would produce champion My Flag (Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies, etc) and Miners Mark (Jockey Club Gold Cup) and is the second dam of Storm Flag Flying. Private Account also sired Inside Information (Breeder’s Cup Distaff etc), Chimes Of Freedom (Coronation Stakes and is the dam of Aldebaran). A couple other notables by Private Account are Personal Flag, a full brother to Personal Ensign, won the Suburban and Widener Handicaps, and the consistent stakes winner Private Terms.

Time For A Change sired Fly So Free (Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, Florida Derby etc) while Timeless Moment sired Gilded Time (Breeder’s Cup Juvenile). Bailjumper sired Skip Trial (Gulfstream Handicap twice etc) who would in turn sire the great multi champion Skip Away (Breeder’s Cup Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, Woodbine Million, Hollywood Gold Cup etc). Bailjumper is also the dam sire of current world ranked sire Medaglia d’Oro.

Damascus as a broodmare sire became just as important of an influence in the pedigrees of today’s top horses. His daughters produced one hundred and fifty stakes winners including Boundary, sire of champion Big Brown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes etc); Shadeed (2000 Guineas) sire of Alydeed (Queen’s Plate); Coronado’s Quest (Travers Stakes); Hero’s Tribute (Gulfsteam Handicap); Sultry Song (Whitney Handicap, Woodward Stakes etc); Ferrule (Hong Kong Cup), Proskona (Champion three year old filly in Italy); Ghazi (Secretariat Stakes) ); and Red Ransom, although not a stakes winner, became a successful top sire of stakes winners.

Unfortunately, the Damascus sire line seems to be waning these days. His grandsons are not continuing the success that became of their ancestors. One reason could be that with the advent of enormous yearly books to the more in fashion sires, and the propensity of commercial breeders to breed to the big names, this line is being overlooked.

Many of the Damascus line horses tend to take a little bit longer to come to hand as racing athletes, so the commercial breeding market are somewhat reluctant to breed such animals. This is a pity as the Damascus line sends good sound horses that can with stand longer productive careers as race horses. Many buyers of sales yearlings are looking for colts and fillies to race as quickly as possible. The commercial breeders breed to known breeding stock that have these traits in their pedigrees and accommodate the market.

Damascus was pensioned from stud duty in 1989 and then lived out his life at Claiborne until he passed away on August 8, 1995, age thirty-one. His was a legendary Hall of Fame racing career remembered fondly by those who saw him run. Damascus also revitalised a waning but historically potent sire line.

Damascus was a remarkable horse, a true legend of the American turf.

(Photo courtesy of Claiborne Farm)


  • I loved Damascus & his offspring. I watched “Time for a Change” win the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah in 1984 & I followed “Fly So Free” in his racing career. I had high hopes for “Fly Down” to continue the Damascus line, through his dam, “Queen Randi” but unfortunately he passed away last year of colic before he had the chance to sire any offspring. Thank you for the interesting story of Damascus and his trainer, Frank Whitely.

  • Thank you for your kind comment Pattie. Damascus was a big favourite of mine as well. I wish breeders would find more of his blood into some of the horses they breed today.

  • i was fortunate to see Damascus win the American Derby at Arlington Park with my Dad. What a great childhood memory.

  • Donna Wakefield

    Damascus is still my hero after all these years… He exemplifies what a Racehorse really should be… Strong, courageous, fast, intelligent and kind. I fell in love with him when I was all of 9 years old. I never missed one of his races. I fulfilled my lifelong dream of meeting him in person in 1984 and 1985 at Claiborne farm…and of course I was his sons’ biggest fans, following Ogygian, Fly So Free and Crusader Sword, just to name a few. Damascus was a true Champion.

  • Lonny Ellingworth

    Well everybody is in for a great surprise next racing season: 2017 . My boy: Charlie con will be three and running. Damascus on top with In Reality on the bottom pedigree. He is also a intelligent kind colt like his great grandpa.
    What a blessing.

  • I’ve a 2014 colt with Damascus in the 4th generation both top & bottom.. (Sex balanced) Definitely won’t run until his 3rd year.. Very sensible young man..

  • I ran against Damascus at Arlington with Gentleman James,was not fun getting beat!

  • – Magnifique, ces traits d’essence hippique, on en redemande bien sûr !
    – Thanks Colin NOTE !
    Tahiti Polynesia

  • I have an Aussie 2yo (October 24, 2018 foal) by Turffontein x Good Decision.
    He has 3 lines of Damascus, which was one of the reasons I bought him.
    He also has some further line breeding to Mr P etc., and a line back to Fara, F/S to Pharos and Fairway (via Transworld)
    He probably won’t run until our Autumn (Fall) , April/May in 2021.
    If he turns out to be a handy race horse I’m sure Damascus will have been an important part of his success

  • I’ve entered the Turffontein x Good Decision foal mentioned above into pedigree query as Turf Decision, a name not yet taken in Oz.

  • Actually, Fara come in via the sire of Queen of Diamonds, Alcibiades (by Alycidon, G.B.)

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