Late last September, a two-year-old colt named Damascus stepped onto the track at Aqueduct for his first race. He lost.
Two months and three relatively minor wins later, Damascus ended his first season of racing with a bankroll of $25,000. Meanwhile, 16 of his fellow two-year-olds had won $100,000 or more. And one of them, Successor, had earned the divisional championship and close to half a million dollars.
Then a strange thing happened. One by one the public handicappers, racing writers, and horsemen decided that Damascus was better than these others, that Damascus was the horse to beat for the Triple Crown.
These are men not known for their mysticism, but early last winter their faith in Damascus looked like just that, and Successor was installed as the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He finished four lengths behind Damascus, who was third. And two weeks later, while Damascus was making the mystics look like geniuses by winning one of the greatest Preaknesses in history, where was the two-year-old champion? Sixth in a second-class field of eight in a mediocre allowance race at Aqueduct.
This is a crazy game and the Triple Crown, for which millions of dollars are bet all winter on horses that never even get to the post, is probably the craziest part of it all. There won't be a Triple Crown winner this year, and tomorrow's Belmont Stakes, the oldest, last, and longest of the three races resolves itself into one question: which horse will make it two out of three-- Proud Clarion, who beat Damascus in the third-fastest Derby in history, or Damascus, who beat Proud Clarion in the second-fastest Preakness.
In penance for my long lack of faith, I have spent an exam period evening with a typewriter and a pile of Thoroughbred Records and decided to call it for Damascus. His Preakness was beautiful. Approaching the stretch turn, he was second to last and then, according to the official chart, "circled the field with a mighty rush" and "established a commanding lead." Coming from the invariably monosyllabic chart writer, that is poetry. Proud Clarion, despite a less than perfect ride by jockey Bobby Ussery, also started to make a good move in the stretch, and for a split second it looked like it might be the Derby all over again. But he tired and his stride shortened, while Damascus, without the whip through the last half furlong, kept drawing away. The slow-motion TV camera caught his almost effortless stride at the end, and it looked as if the Belmont's additional 5/16 of a mile could have been his for the asking.
Proud Clarion, according to observers, has lost weight and does not look at the peak of his Derby form, while Damascus has apparently thrived on the work. Still, the Derby cannot be discounted, and Proud Clarion should get a piece of the money.
The remainder of the field will not be definite until today, but they will end up strung out behind Damascus. Cool Reception, last year's champion two-year-old in Canada, has the best record of these others, looks like he can go a distance, and may be closest to the Preakness winner at the Wire.
Reason to Hail, in his seventh tough stakes in two months, will try hard, as always, and will wind up fourth, as always. If he were a person he would go on strike. Nehoc's Bullet's only claim to fame is that he is Damascus's half-brother. Proviso's record is intriguingly mediocre. Blasting Charge and Gaylord's Feather ran one, two in a nice route on the grass against older horses last week, but that hardly qualifies them to win the country's toughest three-year-old race.
And Solar Bomb will go to the post only for reasons of misplaced nostalgia. Last year his stablemate Kauai King, who won the Derby and the Preakness, tried for the crown in the Belmont and finished fourth. That is a lot better than Solar Bomb will do tomorrow. The time has come to keep the faith.
The Belmont Finish 1. Damascus 2. Cool Reception (longshot special) 3. Proud Clarion 4. Reason to Hail 5. Gaylord's Feather 6. Blasting Charge 7. Proviso 8. Nehoc's Bullet 9. Solar Bomb