Frank Whiteley might have bent a few rules in his time as trainer of thoroughbreds, but he did not break them.
So, if you ask about the time he was late with Damascus to the paddock for the 1967 Preakness, he corrects you.
"I was on time," he says. "You're supposed to be there 20 'D minutes before post time. I was there at 21 minutes [before].
Then comes this small confession: "I never did go to the paddock early."
In 1967, Whiteley, then a Laurel-based trainer, had good reason to be a fashionably "late" to the Preakness paddock. Damascus, son of Sword Dancer, had been a disappointing third in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier as the 9-5 favorite. By the time Whiteley had gotten Damascus to the paddock at Churchill Downs, the horse was noticeably nervous -- "ringing wet and all ** shook up," Whiteley said.
Running out of the No. 2 stall with jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard, Damascus quickly got hemmed in along the fence and, according to one newspaper report, "was unruly for the first six furlongs."
The bad start allowed 30-1 long shot Proud Clarion and Maryland-bred Barbs Delight to finish ahead of Damascus.
The next morning, Whiteley, who now breaks yearlings in Camden, S.C., asked Shoemaker to ride Damascus again in Baltimore.
"I was disappointed in the horse after the Derby, like a lot of people," Whiteley said. "I said to Bill, 'Will you ride him back at the Preakness?'
"He said, 'I'll ride him back. You just get him over there quiet, and I'll win it, too.' "
That became Whiteley's mission. To keep Damascus away from the pre-race frenzy, Whiteley kept the medium-sized bay at Laurel the week before the race. When he trucked Damascus to Baltimore the morning of the Preakness, he sent along a pony -- "Duffy" -- for the first time.
Did those small touches work?
Apparently so. Whiteley delivered a calm Damascus to the Pimlico paddock, and Shoemaker made good on his promise.
Damascus was running ninth -- ahead only of Proud Clarion -- at the clubhouse turn. With five furlongs left, Shoemaker made his move. At the final turn, he swung Damascus around three horses and moved to the rail for his drive to the wire. Damascus won in 1:55 1/5, beating In Reality by 2 1/4 lengths. Proud Clarion came in third.
Twenty-five years later, Thomas M. Bancroft Jr. says he remembers the feeling of vindication.
"After the disappointment of the Derby, it was fabulous to win the Preakness," said Bancroft, the son of the late Edith W. Bancroft, who owned Damascus. "I remember there was the anticipation of a beaten favorite, and all sorts of questions going around. It was one of our most satisfying races."
It was also the making of a legend. Starting with the Preakness, Damascus won 10 straight Grade I stakes races, including an easy victory in the Belmont.
The winning streak culminated with an impressive victory in the Woodward Stakes that fall. The race featured three horses of the year -- Buck Passer (1966), Damascus (1967) and Dr. Fager (1968).
The only time Damascus finished out of the money in 32 career starts was the final race of his career, when he broke down. In October 1968, he bowed a left front tendon with a half-mile to go in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and limped home last in a six-horse field. He wound up with 21 victories, seven second-place finishes and three thirds, and won $1,176,781.
Damascus was easily the best race horse that Edith Bancroft had owned. She was a descendant of the William Woodward family, who owned the Belair Stud stable outside Bowie and produced two Triple Crown winners -- Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935. Belair Stud was sold in 1955, but when Bancroft started anew in the thoroughbred business two years later, she kept the colors -- white and red-dotted silks -- and boarded her horses at Jonabell Farm in Kentucky.
Her son, Thomas, the former president of the New York Racing Association, still races horses with his brother, William Woodward Bancroft, out of the Pen-Y-Bryn Stable.
Today, Damascus, 28, is a pensioner at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., after a long, successful run at stud.
"He was an excellent sire," Thomas Bancroft said. "He never had a super horse, but he had a lot of awfully good ones," among them Private Account, Time for a Change and Highland Blade.
Except for that one nervous start in the Kentucky Derby, Damascus could well have been a Triple Crown winner. But there never was any wringing of hands over the near-miss.
"There was no second-guessing," Bancroft said. "We were more happy he won those two [Preakness and Belmont] than bothered because he lost the Derby. There was no $5 million bonus then, either. Just a nice trophy."