February 23, 2024

Fifty years on from the “Race of the Century,” the Woodward has an entirely different look

Damascus takes over from Dr. Fager in the 1967 Woodward At Aqueduct (Getty Images)

The official anniversary is a month away, but with Saturday’s renewal of the Woodward (G1) will come remembrances of the clash that occurred in the same race 50 years ago, a showdown often dubbed “The Race of the Century.”

From its inception in 1954 and for more than four decades afterward, the Woodward was often the first major test between the classic generation and their older counterparts, serving the same purpose as the Eclipse (G1) and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) do in England. Arguably the largest collection of raw talent ever to contest the Woodward occurred on September 30, 1967, at Aqueduct, which involved future Hall of Famers Buckpasser, Damascus, and Dr. Fager.

A brief look at the combatants at the time of the Woodward:

BUCKPASSER: The 1966 Horse of the Year and 1965 champion juvenile colt had won 15 consecutive stakes appearances from October 1965 through May 1967, but a potential tilt at the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France was scuttled after the win streak was snapped in the Bowling Green H. on turf that June. After winning the Suburban H. (like both his parents) under a 133-pound impost, he lost the Brooklyn H. to fellow Woodward opponent Handsome Boy by eight lengths while lugging 136 pounds and conceding 20 pounds to the winner. Quarter crack issues which had kept him out of the Triple Crown at three and the Santa Anita H. the previous winter re-surfaced that summer, and he entered the Woodward off a 10-week layoff, a practice more common and accepted today but not at that time.

DAMASCUS: Although the beaten favorite in the 1967 Kentucky Derby, he roared back to win the Preakness and Belmont S. and later added the Leonard Richards, Dwyer H., American Derby, Travers (by 22 lengths), and the Aqueduct S. against older horses 26 days before the Woodward. Prior to the Derby, he had won the Bay Shore and Wood Memorial, but had lost the Gotham by a half-length in his first ever meeting with Dr. Fager.

DR. FAGER: Never seriously considered for any of the classics, the freakishly fast colt followed his Gotham triumph with a six-length score in the Withers. Controversially disqualified from a 6 1/2-length win in the Jersey Derby, he preceded the Woodward with a 10-length score in the Arlington Classic (like the Gotham and Withers a one-turn mile), a 4 1/4-length romp in the nine-furlong Rockingham Special, and a 1 1/4-length victory in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham Park. Held four weeks before the Woodward over 1 1/4 miles, it carried a purse of around $265,000 (nearly $2 million in today’s dollars).

Much has been written about this race over the years by historians and noted turf scribes that were actually there, so there is little unique or new to add to what has already been said. The late-closing Buckpasser (8-5 favorite) and Damascus (9-5 odds) both had rabbits entered to help them, but only Damascus’, Hedevar, proved effective at keeping Dr. Fager (9-5 odds) honest, pushing the Florida-bred sensation into setting wicked splits of :22 2/5, :45 1/5, and 1:09 1/5. Damascus swooped to the lead on the far turn and drew off to a win by 10 lengths. Buckpasser, barely overcoming the effects of infirmities and the long layoff, just edged a game Dr. Fager by a half-length for second.

Damascus sealed the 1967 Horse of the Year title that day, but all three were awarded divisional hardware that season. Buckpasser claimed the older male title in the Thoroughbred Racing Association poll, while Dr. Fager nabbed champion sprinter honors. He would win his own Horse of the Year title the following year while earning divisional championships in the older male, turf horse (Daily Racing Form poll) and sprinter categories.

The result was arguably anti-climatic, but that kind of inter-generational clash, sadly, is unlikely ever to occur in the Woodward again. Two years after Holy Bull won both the Travers and Woodward in 1994, the date of the Travers was moved from the third Saturday of August to the fourth Saturday as part of an expanded Saratoga meet. The shorter gap between the two races and the declining appeal of running three-year-olds against their elders before the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) or Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) forever changed the Woodward’s identity.

Moved to Saratoga in 2006, the Woodward is now run just one week after the Travers, a richer and more prestigious prize in the eyes of owners with top three-year-olds. The only sophomore to win the Woodward since Holy Bull was a once-in-a-lifetime case — Rachel Alexandra became the first filly winner in the race’s history in 2009.