A one-time claimer of the year beat a potential horse of the year Saturday when Slew Of Damascus won the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup while The Wicked North, the 3-5 favorite, struggled home fourth in a five-horse field.
Slew Of Damascus had never won a major race, never won at 1 1/4 miles and lost to The Wicked North at Hollywood Park a month ago. But Slew Of Damascus went to the front this time under Gary Stevens, who got the mount when Corey Nakatani switched to ride Fanmore, and outran Nakatani's horse through the stretch for a three-quarter-length victory.
Fanmore, running on dirt for the first time, finished a half-length ahead of Del Mar Dennis, and it was another 7 1/2 lengths back to a punchless The Wicked North, who dropped out of contention with a half-mile left. Arcangues, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, finished last in the smallest field for the stake since 1967.
Paying $18 as the third betting choice, Slew Of Damascus capped an incredible run for his owners, Victor Naccarato and his cousins, Edris Harbeston and George Losh, all of Yakima, Wash. They paid $1,500 apiece to buy the Tennessee-bred at an auction in Arkansas in 1990, and the son of Slewacide and Damascus Isle has now earned $996,550 after Saturday's $412,500 victory.
Slew of Damascus, a 6-year-old gelding, has 14 victories, four seconds and four thirds in 31 starts. "By rights, a horse this age can't be dancing all the dances," said his trainer, Bay Meadows-based Craig Roberts. "But he's still dancing."
Early in his career, Slew Of Damascus ran for claiming prices as low as $16,000, and as recently as March 7, 1993, he could have been bought out of a race at Golden Gate Fields for $32,000. He won that day by seven lengths, clinching claimer-of-the-year honors, and hasn't run for a claiming price since.
A $10,000 yearling, The Wicked North has also been an over-achiever, and he was a leading horse-of-the-year candidate before Saturday, having finished first in four consecutive stakes, including a disqualification for interference in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Kent Desormeaux might have been beaming after some of The Wicked North's workouts since his victory in the Californian on June 5, but he was not a confident jockey going into the Gold Cup.
"I'm not shocked," Desormeaux said after the race. "The past couple of weeks, he hasn't been 100%. He was not himself in one of the works. He might have turned in a pretty number (time), but it wasn't pretty if you had to make him do it."
Going down the backstretch, with Fanmore running closely behind Slew Of Damascus, Desormeaux had The Wicked North a close third on the outside, seemingly in a perfect spot.
"He emptied out," Desormeaux said. "I think I was empty when we got in the gate. I mean, the horse was tired. At the half-mile pole, I knew it was over. Give him a little rest, and I think he'll be the one to beat again."
Under the race's handicap conditions, Slew Of Damascus carried 117 pounds, five less than the high-weighted The Wicked North and Arcangues. Slew of Damascus' time of 2:00 3/5 was the slowest for a Gold Cup winner since 1987.
"I don't want to knock the other horses, but if you had a horse that was healthy, this was the kind of a race you'd want to run in," Roberts, 59, said after his biggest victory.
Slew Of Damascus got an unexpected breather in February after he broke through the starting gate before the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita. He ran off, was scratched by the stewards and suffered a torn right front hoof. Idle for about a month, he couldn't run in the race Roberts was pointing for, the Santa Anita Handicap, but returned to action in April with a sharp victory on grass at Golden Gate.
Slew Of Damascus had been wearing a bar shoe to protect the hoof, but he worked a fast five furlongs at Bay Meadows on Tuesday without the special shoe. Then Roberts, borrowing a strategy that might have started with trainer Charlie Whittingham, an eight-time winner of the Gold Cup, saddled Slew Of Damascus in the tunnel, away from the other horses in the paddock. Before Slew Of Damascus won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood in December, he kicked his trainer in the paddock, causing a grapefruit-sized swelling in Roberts' right thigh.
"I got over that in a hurry," Roberts said Saturday. "And today I don't feel anything."
Stevens had ridden frequently for Roberts when they were among the leading horsemen at Longacres in suburban Seattle in the 1970s. When Nakatani, who rode Slew Of Damascus to a third-place finish in the Californian before winning the Native Diver with Roberts' horse, told the trainer that he was riding Fanmore out of a loyalty to trainer Bobby Frankel, Roberts hired Stevens.
Stevens' previous Gold Cup winner, Cutlass Reality in 1988, was also a 6-year-old. "This is a very intelligent horse," the jockey said of Slew Of Damascus. "At the sixteenth pole, he gave me another burst. Then he kept stretching his neck out. He wouldn't let go."
Slew Of Damascus' next start is expected to be the Del Mar Classic, a $1-million race, on Aug. 13.
"This horse may have run his last race at Bay Meadows," Craig Roberts said.