Dr. Fager, Where Are You?

After looking the past two years for a viable Horse of the Year candidate who ran on dirt and being unable to find one, I realize just how sad that is. The thought of not being able to find a single dirt horse in two years worthy of a Horse of the Year title is staggering to someone who goes back to the ‘60s and has seen that crown worn by so many Hall of Famers and truly great horses.

Yes, the old fogey is harkening back to the good old days again. You may join me on my journey back in time if you wish. But it is understandable if you are immersed in the present and have no desire to rehash the exploits of horses past. I look at it this way; if Scrooge can find his true self by going back to Christmases past, that’s good enough for me.

I have no problem with Wise Dan getting another Horse of the Year award for pretty much duplicating his 2012 campaign, but it is the lack of competition for the award and lack of drama at the announcement that is disturbing.

So, in order to help alleviate these feelings of apathy toward the Horse of the Year title, I decided to light a fire in the old memory vault. Readers of this column have read ad nauseam how Damascus provided my escape into the world of Thoroughbred racing, so I will not rehash that again. Anyone wishing to, can look under Damascus in this blog’s archives. But that doesn’t mean you are safe from hearing again about Dr. Fager, who actually has remained closer to me over the years, due in good part to my friendship with John Nerud, who is two months away from his 101st birthday, and writing my first book on the good doctor. But to me, these two titans of the Turf remain closest to my heart.

So, if you’re game, and wish to read about a horse like no other (before or since), then step into the time portal and head back to a blustery November afternoon in 1968.

It was 45 years ago that Dr. Fager boarded a van for his 30-hour trip to Tartan Farm in Ocala, leaving behind one of the great legacies of the Turf. As he walked out of his barn at Belmont Park on that chilly November morning, a gust of wind blew his long mane on end, giving it a plume-like effect, as if atop the head of a Spartan warrior. Dr. Fager arched his neck and flared his nostrils just as he had done so many times before a race, and even preparing for a workout.

It was an appropriate final image for a horse whose like has never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. People will always argue who was the greatest horse ever, but few can argue that Dr. Fager was and still is his own measuring stick. With his fiery spirit in battle and the reckless abandon with which he ran, it was as if someone had captured a wild mustang dashing across the Great Plains and let him loose on the racetrack. Once the gates opened, Dr. Fager wanted nothing in front of him but the wind.

If you’re wondering why the subject of Dr. Fager has come up out of the blue as a remedy to this year’s Horse of the Year scenario, the answer is simple: I have no idea other than the fact that the tumultuous 1960s has been in the news and on TV recently on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Every so often, racing fans today should be reminded of the extraordinary accomplishments of the great horses of the ‘60s. As I mentioned earlier, having written several columns in recent years on the horse who paved my path in racing, Damascus, I thought it was time to re-introduce fans to Dr. Fager, who remains the most unique Thoroughbred I have ever seen.

Dr. Fager’s amazing season in 1968 could not have come at a better time for Americans, who, back then, would jam Aqueduct Racetrack and the newly opened Belmont Park every Saturday with anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 fans.

By the end of April that year, we had already endured the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in January, the My Lai massacre in March, and the student takeover at Columbia University and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in April.

In fitting with the times, that May, Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image failed a drug test, becoming the only Derby winner ever to be disqualified.

In other sports, the New Yankees dynasty had already begun to crumble, and the superstars of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, such as legends Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Roger Maris, were in decline or nearing the end of their careers. The dynasty in professional football came from the tiny town of Green Bay, Wisconsin, with names like Starr, Dowler, Dale, and McGee, hardly household names at the time.

Back in the ‘50s and early ’60s, the three most popular sports in America were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, as difficult to believe as that may seem today. Professional football only started to reach public consciousness on a major scale after the classic 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts and the emergence of stars such as Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff, and Jim Brown. Basketball and hockey also were just starting to become popular.

As the innocence of the early ‘60s gave way to the anti-war and drug culture of the late ‘60s, Americans desperately needed a sports hero and an outlet to escape from these turbulent times, and racing fans found both in Dr. Fager in 1968. There was a certain beauty and poetry in the simple joy of watching this magnificent Thoroughbred run, setting track and world records despite being burdened with staggering weights.  

Racing secretaries tried to break him, putting as much as 139 pounds on his back, but all that broke were the teletimers, as this force of unharnessed energy merely laughed in their faces.

Horses have had more productive careers than Dr. Fager, winning Triple Crown races and retiring unbeaten, and horses have broken more track records. But that was because Dr. Fager started only 22 times, No horse, however, ever achieved what Dr. Fager achieved in one year. In 1968, he was the ultimate athlete, displaying every attribute of greatness at its highest level.

In the last 10 starts of his career, he won nine, and actually missed the track record by a fifth of a second in his only defeat to Hall of Famer Damascus, while carrying 135 pounds and conceding five pounds to his arch rival.

In those 10 races, Dr. Fager broke two track records and a world record, carrying 139 and 134 pounds, and equaled another track record, carrying 132 pounds. He also missed two track records and a world record by a fifth of a second and another track record by two-fifths of a second. In 1968, he carried 130 pounds or more in all eight of his starts, winning seven, from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles on dirt and grass. He became the only horse ever to win four championships in a single year – Horse of the Year, Handicap Horse, Grass Horse, and Sprinter.

Even the year before when he was still a work in progress, he set track records at 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/4 miles and ran the fastest mile ever in New York by a 3-year-old, missing the track record by a fifth of a second. In his last start of the year, he came off three consecutive 1 1/4-mile races and missed the track record for seven furlongs at Aqueduct by two-fifths of a second, winning his first Vosburgh Handicap eased up in 1:21 3/5.

Only three horses ever finished in front of him and all three were champions, two of whom (Damascus and Buckpasser) were Hall of Famers.

It is safe to say that in his victory in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap, setting a world record mile of 1:32 1/5 under 134 pounds and winning by 10 lengths, no horse has ever run that fast, that easily and won by that far, as jockey Braulio Baeza never moved a muscle on him the entire length of the stretch. The sight of Baeza sitting motionless, with Dr. Fager’s long mane blowing in his face, truly was a sight to behold. Many horsemen watching the race firmly believed that had Baeza even asked him slightly, Dr. Fager would have easily run the mile in 1:31 and change, maybe even faster; that’s how easily he won. And he did it giving the runner-up, the classy Racing Room, 18 pounds.

In that race, in which he went the half in :44 flat and six furlongs in 1:07 3/5, he ran his second quarter in an unheard of :20 3/5, which was believed to be the fastest quarter-mile fraction ever run in a non-sprint race and the fastest quarter within the body of a race at any distance.

Before his final start, the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap, trainer John Nerud went in to see racing secretary Tommy Trotter and told him that this was Dr. Fager’s farewell and he wanted Trotter to assign him 145 pounds. Trotter couldn’t justify that, so he gave him a “mere” 139 pounds.

The day before the race, Nerud noticed the track had changed dramatically and was playing much slower. Hirsch Jacobs, one of the great trainers, owners, and breeders of all time, walked the track with his son John that morning and commented, “It’s pretty deep today.” The surface had been winterized with a deeper cushion, making the track considerably slower.

Despite the deepness of the track and the staggering 139 pounds, Dr. Fager ran the brilliant Kissin George into the ground with a scorching half in :43 4/5 and three-quarters in 1:07 4/5, which shattered Near Man’s six-furlong track record, set under 112 pounds in 1963.

Once again, Baeza, just sat motionless on Dr. Fager, who easily put Kissin George away and cruised to a six-length victory in 1:20 1/5, breaking Rose Net’s track record by a full second and missing the world record by a fifth of a second. Once again, it left everyone pondering how fast Dr. Fager would have run if asked even slightly or if the track had not been winterized.

Earlier in the year, he won the United Nations Handicap in his grass debut under 134 pounds, defeating a star-studded field of grass horses that included future Horse of the Year Fort Marcy, Australian wonder horse Tobin Bronze, and Advocator, who would come back and set a course record over that same course in the Sunrise Handicap. It was the U.N. where Dr. Fager showed his courage and will to win, losing the lead three times to Advocator, who was in receipt of 22 pounds, and coming back each time, while slipping and sliding over a slick course that he never was able to grab hold of. Baeza said he knew he was in trouble right from the start when he saw how much difficulty Dr. Fager was having over the wet course. Fort Marcy’s trainer, Elliott Burch, felt confident his horse was going to win considering it was Dr. Fager’s first try on grass and he was giving Fort Marcy 16 pounds.  

After the race, Graham Heagney, trainer of “wonder horse” Tobin Bronze, who had won the prestigious Caulfield Cup under 136 pounds and who was in the U.N. with 118, said of his horse’s defeat, “If anyone had told  me a horse could give Tobin Bronze that much weight and beat him I would have laughed in his face. But Dr. Fager is truly a great horse.”

Clyde Troutt, trainer of the gutsy Advocator, said after his horse went eyeball-to-eyeball with Dr. Fager for over a half-mile, “I wonder if my horse has any heart left.”

Dr. Fager displayed that same tenacity and courage under fire in the Suburban Handicap when he turned back three challenges from Damascus, blazing the third quarter in :22 3/5. He refused to let Damascus get by him and drew off to a two-length victory over Bold Hour, equaling Gun Bow’s 1 1/4-mile track record of 1:59 3/5, carrying 132 pounds and giving 16 pounds to the runner-up. And this came just a little over a month after he nearly died from a severe case of colic.

When Nerud sent him to Hollywood Park for the Californian Stakes in May, it was with the understanding that Dr. Fager would carry 124 pounds under the allowance conditions. But after the colt had departed from New York, Nerud was informed that there had been a miscalculation and Dr. Fager would have to carry 130 pounds. Nerud’s response: “If he’s got thirty, he’s got thirty. It won’t matter.”

And it didn’t, as Dr. Fager overcame the 11-post in the 14-horse field and cruised to a three-length victory.

With Dr. Fager, it is easy to throw mind-boggling statistics and times at you. But they only tell part of the story. You had to see him do it. You had to see that burnished copper coat that would turn blood bay depending how the sun hit him. You had to see him appear to actually expand his body like a blow fish when he got on the muscle, seeming much taller than his 16 hands frame. You had to see that long mane blowing wildly in the breeze or the fire raging in his eyes when staring down an opponent.

Dr. Fager died much too young at age 12, one year before he would be the leading sire in America. Tartan Farm is long gone, but there is one section of hallowed ground that has remained untouched. Atop a hill, overlooking the serenity of Lake Ta Wee, named after the Doctor’s sister, is the farm’s old cemetery. There, behind a cedar tree and shaded by two oak trees are the headstones of the horses that helped build the Tartan empire. Among them is the grave of Dr. Fager, whose spirit still touches all those who were privileged to witness his greatness.

As I concluded in my book, perhaps the late racing writer, David Alexander, described Dr. Fager best when he wrote: “The memory of him is the memory of the wind. I shall remember the brilliant Dr. Fager like a sudden shaft of sunlight on a darkening day.”

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