Friday, January 11, 2013

Great Races of the Past 60 Years: Part 1

After writing about Native Dancer a couple weeks ago, I realized that the  new year would mark 60 years since the 1953 Kentucky Derby, in which Dark Star handed Native Dancer the only defeat of his career.

The pairing of this realization with my desire to write a post about some of my favorite races led to the decision to focus on the past 60 years only. This means no Citation, no Whirlaway, no War Admiral and no Man o' War, as well as many others. In addition, I will only focus on the United States--therefore, no Black Caviar, no Frankel, no Sea the Stars, and no Vodka.

I have tried to be as selective as possible by limiting myself to 20 horses, with at least one horse from each decade. Although I tried to choose just one race from each horse, in some cases I instead went with a 'body of work' selection that summarized the legend of an individual or a particular series of races. Lastly, I have chosen races that I personally will watch again and again versus what the racing public might select, so you may disagree with some of my selections because preferences are simply that.

Without further ado, presenting my favorite races from the past 60 years: part one, the 1950s and 1960s.

Native Dancer and Dark Star--1953 Kentucky Derby

As a little girl of about nine, I first learned about the allure of the Kentucky Derby while reading Walter Farley's Man o' War. Although Big Red didn't have his turn at the roses, it wasn't long before I learned about other great horses that did. Native Dancer was one that stood out--winner of 21 of 22 starts, 'the Dancer' had been denied the Derby--and Triple Crown--by the appropriately named Dark Star. I remember carefully reading about the Dancer's loss in one publication, which went something like--boxed behind a wall of horses, Native Dancer's jockey made the regrettable choice of waiting for a hole to open, vastly underestimating the power of the horse beneath him, for in that moment the Dancer could have easily swept around that wall of horses and taken the lead. Instead, by the time a hole opened up, it was far too late and although Native Dancer immediately exploded through it with horsepower to spare, he could not catch leader Dark Star in time, thereby losing the race by a closing head.

Regrettably, I do not have this book to quote from, as it was a well-loved, oft-checked out libary book on the history of the Kentucky Derby. But I did take the chance to photocopy several photographs in it.

"The horse that beat Native Dancer": That's how Harry Guggenheim's colt Dark Star was known after handing Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt's gray Native Dancer the only defeat of his career in the 1953 Derby, one of the greatest upsets in the race's history.

I can't tell you how many countless hours I have spent looking at this worn photocopy-of-a-photo, how many dozens of times I have read the caption below it. After all, this photo is taped to my refrigerator. But I can tell you that it resonates within me, as does the 1953 Kentucky Derby itself.

Northern Dancer--1964 Kentucky Derby

Not long after learning about Native Dancer's loss in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, I read about Northern Dancer's win in the 1964 Derby. These days, as a racing fan with a great interest in pedigrees, I clearly know the importance of the little bay stallion. However, at the time of reading this book, I had only the faintest idea of who Northern Dancer was. I quickly learned that not only was he a grandson of the fabled Native Dancer, but he was also a gritty little horse.

Luro-trained Northern Dancer, Bill Hartack up, outlasts Hill Rise in a stirring finish to take the 1964 Derby and shave two-fifths of a second from the record set in 1962 by Luro-trained Decidedly. Northern Dancer's record would stand until broken by Secretariat in 1973. According to The Blood-Horse, the race was probably won when Hartack "moved decisively with Northern Dancer at the five-furlong pole, taking Shoemaker and Hill Rise by surprise. The two horses had been running side by side behind a wall of three horses. Hartack eased his horse away from the rail and Northern Dancer spurted in front of Hill Rise and to the outside...Shoemaker said later that he...could not get his bigger horse moving in time to prevent Northern Dancer's nimble escape." Northern Dancer won by a long neck, running the last quarter in twenty-four seconds. In the process of making up ground, Hill Rise ran the last quarter in 23 3/5 seconds, equaling Whirlaway's famous final quarter.

As with the photocopied Native Dancer photograph, I have spent countless hours studying this one. Clearly visible are the determined faces of Hill Rise and Bill Hartack. Shoemaker's hands are hidden by Hill Rise's whipping mane, and of Northern Dancer one can only see a veined neck, braided mane and single ear tip. But it is enough.

Damascus--1967 Travers 

As a three-year-old in 1967, Damascus recorded one of the most impressive sophomore campaigns in racing history. Racing 16 times, he won 12 while finishing second in three and third in one. Along the way, he captured the Bay Shore, Wood Memorial, Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles. He finished third in the Kentucky Derby after having trouble handling the furor and  crowd of Derby Day, and a very respectable second to grass champion Fort Marcy in the Washington D.C. International.

Two jewels in the brilliant crown of Damascus gleamed a little brighter than the rest. One was his Woodward, in which he defeated champions Buckpasser and Dr. Fager by ten lengths in the 'Race of the Century', and the other was his 22-length romp in the Travers. Here, he pulled a Silky Sullivan and came from 15 lengths back to sweep by the field in the final turn, opening up to 22 lengths and tying Buckpasser's track record for 1-1/4 mile.

Of Damascus turf writer Charles Hatton said, "He danced all the dances and ran all the distances from a mile to two miles. Never did we see him spit out the bit, as the homely expression goes, and he was confronted with such defiant tasks as carrying topweight of 128 pounds in the Dwyer, giving Ring Twice and Straight Deal actual weight in the Aqueduct, and running smooth-shod in unaccustomed going in the grassy Laurel International. Fort Marcy won the money that day, but Damascus won the crowd's heart."

Dr. Fager--1968 Washington Park Handicap

Toting a hefty 134 pounds, Dr. Fager entered the 1968 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park as a great horse. But he emerged a legend.

Unlike most of his races, Dr. Fager did not make mad dash for the lead in the Washington Park. He lay quiet during the first quarter, which was run in 22-4/5--modest by the Doctor's standards. In the second quarter he turned on all rockets and fired to the lead, running the quarter in 20 seconds flat. He had essentially just run the fastest quarter within the body of a non-sprint race in the history of Thoroughbred racing. But the Doc didn't stop there. Carrying the weight as if it were a feather, he recorded an earth-scorching six furlongs in 1:07 3/5 and, under his own power, pulled away to win the race by ten lengths while setting a world-record time for the mile: 1:32 1/5.

With his long mane whipping in the wind he created, Dr. Fager was a nearly-unstoppable force on the racetrack. Steve Haskin said it best: "As he turns for home and surges down the stretch, he leaves a trail of scorched hoofprints in the sandy loam. As he crosses the finish line, the slow motion camera captures the poetry of his power and majesty. The fireworks from the tote board are now rocketing towards the sky as the Doc shatters another track record. The music of Beethoven's Ode to Joy builds to the thunderous crescendo. Then there is silence, as the crowd, still numb from the experience, tries to absorb all they have just witnessed. This was Dr. Fager..."

Dr. Fager vs. Damascus: Meeting of Champions 

As a bonus, I'm including a wonderful video montage of the four times the legends met on the track.

Next time: the wonderful 1970s--the glory decade of Thoroughbred racing!

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