In James Michener’s epic novel and later TV miniseries “Centennial,” an Arapahoe boy learns that his father had been killed in battle and is told, “Only the rocks live forever.”
Well, in Thoroughbred racing, there is one rock that sadly will not live forever. On Aug. 31 Rockingham Park, one of the most charming racetracks in America since 1906, will close its gates for good, having been purchased by a land developer.
I was invited to come to The Rock, the “Saratoga of New England,” to speak in 1998, and my wife and daughter and I made a vacation out of it, spending a day at the races and then going to Lexington and Concord, Vermont, Fort Ticonderoga and other attractions in upstate New York, and concluding in Cooperstown and finally Unadilla, N.Y. to visit Spectacular Bid.
I was so impressed with Rockingham and its country fair atmosphere and beautiful grandstand and infield. And everyone there could not have been friendlier. An enthusiastic crowd turned out to hear me speak and feebly attempt to sound like a handicapper. It was one of the most enjoyable days spent at a racetrack, just soaking up the atmosphere.
This is a racetrack that drew over 10,000 fans for its inaugural card, with people coming all the way from New York to the small New Hampshire town of Salem Depot. The reviews called the new track, “the finest racecourse in the world.”
Because gambling was illegal in New Hampshire and all betting had to be conducted “underground,” Thoroughbred racing ended, eventually giving way to motorcycle racing and other events. In 1912, the Rockingham Fair opened on the racetrack grounds, and the week-long event included non-betting harness racing, hot air balloons, livestock shows, exhibits, a carnival, and numerous other events.
By 1931, with the country suffering through The Great Depression the track had fallen into disrepair and the New Hampshire Breeders Association purchased the track for $300,000 and spent another $200,000 on a facelift for the stable area, grandstand and clubhouse, and other buildings, in anticipation of legalized gambling in the state. Through the efforts of Lou Smith and Sam Simon, gambling was legalized in New Hampshire in 1933, and on June 21, over 15,000 came from all over to attend the first Thoroughbred meeting at the new Rockingham Park, which also conducted harness racing and steeplechase racing.
In 1934 and 1935, Rockingham attracted two legendary racehorses in their respective sports – the great harness horse Greyhound and one of the most popular Thoroughbreds of all time, Seabiscuit.
In 1936, The New Hampshire Jockey Club, controlled by Lou Smith, was formed and took over ownership of the track. It was Smith’s kindness to a young trainer that eventually led to Rockingham Park attracting one of the greatest Thoroughbreds in history for back-to-back appearances many years later.
But prior to that, Rockingham Park and Smith proved to be innovators in the Sport of Kings. In 1951 it became the first track to use a moving starting gate. In 1958 it became the first track to offer insurance to jockeys. In 1960 it introduced the first Pick 6 wager.
And in 1964, New Hampshire passed the first state-operated lottery in the United States. Sold only in state liquor stores and a few select other locations, the winning lottery ticket was based upon the outcome of a Thoroughbred race at Rockingham Park. Smith then inaugurated the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, patterned after the Irish Sweepstakes. The initial running on September 12, 1964 was won by the following year’s Horse of the Year Roman Brother in track record time for 1 3/16 miles, and was covered by the national media and televised by ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports.
By 1967, the purse for the New Hampshire Sweepstakes had doubled from $125,000 added to $250,000, making it the richest race in America. By comparison, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont had purses of $125,000 and the Preakness $150,000. In fact, the actual value of the New Hampshire Sweepstakes in 1967 was $265,900.
In 1967, America was clamoring for a showdown between the two best 3-year-olds, Damascus and Dr. Fager, who had faced each other only once in the Gotham Stakes, with Dr. Fager outdueling Damascus to win by a half-length. Both colts looked to be stars in the making and went off as co-favorites at 6-5.
Damascus went through the Triple Crown, winning the Preakness and Belmont and finishing third as the heavy favorite in the Kentucky Derby, a race in which he fell apart mentally before the race for some reason never explained. Dr. Fager’s trainer, John Nerud, was not a fan of the Derby, and he felt Dr. Fager was too fast and too precocious to be subjected to races that far this early in his career. The rumblings began for a rematch after Dr. Fager romped by six lengths in the Withers Stakes, running the fastest mile ever by a 3-year-old in New York, then romped again, this time by 6 1/2 lengths, in the Jersey Derby, only to be disqualified for bearing in shortly after the start, which created a huge controversy. When Dr. Fager demolished his field by 10 lengths in the Arlington Classic, that’s when the rumblings really grew loud.
The July 15 Dwyer Handicap at Aqueduct looked like the perfect spot to have these two magnificent Thoroughbreds meet again. Trainer Frank Whiteley was looking for redemption after Damascus dropped a shocking nose decision to the older Exceedingly, in receipt of 17 pounds on the scale, in the William DuPont Handicap at Delaware Park. So he wheeled Damascus back one week later in the Dwyer.
But Dr. Fager skipped the Dwyer to compete the same day in, of all races, the Rockingham Special, a $75,000 race that had been inaugurated the year before as a prep for the New Hampshire Sweepstakes. When Nerud was a young up-and-coming trainer in New England, he decided to leave Rockingham Park and try his luck on the tougher New Jersey circuit. Lou Smith, who was Rockingham’s president and chairman at the time, told Nerud before he left, “Well, John, if you go broke, don’t go to strangers.” Nerud never forgot those words. As he departed Rockingham he thought, “That old sonofabitch, I owe him something.”
On July 15, it was payback time, and he decided to run Dr. Fager at Rockingham. Sent off at 1-10, it was nothing more than a paid workout, as Dr. Fager won in a canter by 4 1/2 lengths in 1:48 1/5 for the 1 1/8 miles, breaking the track record by a full second.
Damascus, meanwhile, was involved in a much tougher battle in the slop. Carrying 128 pounds and conceding huge chunks of weight, he turned in another of his rocket moves on the turn, making up a dozen lengths in the blink of an eye. But a stubborn Favorable Turn, who was in receipt of 16 pounds, put up a battle and Damascus had to work to win by three-quarters of a length.
Racing fans were now hoping the showdown would happen in the Travers Stakes, especially after Damascus went to Arlington Park and crushed In Reality by seven lengths in the American Derby, setting a new track record of 1:46 4/5. One of the gladiators was primed and ready, but Nerud stuck to his agenda and his payback to Lou Smith. “Old man Lou Smith was a wonderful guy, and I felt I owed him that,” Nerud said.
Also, Nerud, still unsure about Dr. Fager’s distance capabilities, chose to bide his time and wait for the right moment and for Dr. Fager to mature a little more before tackling a true mile and a quarter horse like Damascus. He felt the New Hampshire Sweepstakes would be an easier spot and help prepare Dr. Fager for the inevitable showdown in the 10-furlong Woodward Stakes at Aqueduct September 30, which also would draw defending Horse of the Year Buckpasser.
It proved to be a wise decision, as only three others showed up to face Damascus at Saratoga, including speedballs Tumiga and Gala Performance, who raced each other into submission in the slop, setting it up for Damascus’ spectacular move, coming from more than 15 lengths back on the backstretch, blowing by the two leaders as if they were standing still, and drawing off under wraps to win by 22 lengths, equaling the track record.
Two weeks later, it was Dr. Fager’s turn to put on a show in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes. But Nerud was worried. The colt hadn’t been acting right and wasn’t training with his usual enthusiasm. His temperature was normal, but Nerud knew Dr. Fager like the back of his hand and knew he was far from 100 percent. Dr. Fager, like many others in his family, was extremely susceptible to colic and always had to be watched closely.
“There was nothing I could do,” Nerud said. “I couldn’t find anything physically wrong with him, and I knew, even not being at his best, he’d still beat those horses. But he definitely wasn’t himself.”
Dr. Fager’s main threat was the hard-knocking In Reality, who couldn’t seem to find a race where he wasn’t running against either Damascus or Dr. Fager. He was a multiple stakes winner, including the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth, the Rumson and Choice Stakes at Monmouth, and was a good second to Damascus in the Preakness, but unable to threaten him in the American Derby. Also in the Sweepstakes field was Barb’s Delight, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, so this was far from a field of pushovers.
Dr. Fager, as expected, went right to front and opened a two-length lead through a quarter in :23 and a testing half in :46 3/5. That’s when Earlie Fires, on In Reality, decided he was going to try a bold and daring early move to catch Dr. Fager by surprise. He steered his colt to the inside and attempted a sneak attack. As he charged up on Dr. Fager’s inside, it was if the Doc became enraged at this unexpected intruder. Like any leader of the pack he wasn’t about to let this challenge go unanswered. As In Reality moved alongside Dr. Fager, the Doc reached over and attempted to take a chunk of hide out of In Reality’s neck.
He had never tried to savage a horse before, but perhaps it was the surprise inside move, or maybe he remembered his early days at Tartan Farm, where he and In Reality used to go out in the same set, walking side by side at the head of the column of twos as they paraded across the field and headed to the training track. They were eyeball to eyeball then and they were eyeball to eyeball now in battle.
They continued to battle for the next half-mile, with the much smaller In Reality hanging on to Dr. Fager like a terrier to a pant leg. Nerud knew that a 100-percent Dr. Fager would have run In Reality into the ground by now and that he was battling on guts alone. Inside the eighth pole, Dr. Fager finally put In Reality away and drew off to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
Not only had Dr. Fager won despite not being at his best, but to show that In Reality ran the race of his life, he finished nine lengths ahead of Barbs Delight and the final time of 1:59 4/5 crushed the top class Buffle’s track record by an amazing three full seconds. And Buffle was good enough to have won the previous year’s Suburban Handicap as a 3-year-old and finish a head behind Buckpasser in the Brooklyn Handicap.
Nerud now knew that Dr. Fager could handle the mile and a quarter, setting the stage for the final three rounds of his epic rivalry with Damascus.
It was races like the New Hampshire Sweepstakes that came to mind as I looked out over the beautiful Rockingham Park infield for the first and only time. Soon that infield and the grandstand will be gone, taking with it some of the great moments in racing history and some of the sport’s greatest innovations.
Ak-Sar-Ben, Detroit Race Course, Longacres, Bay Meadows, Garden State, Atlantic City, Hollywood Park, and now Rockingham are just some of the tracks that are now just a memory. To show what a major role these tracks played, Dr. Fager alone ran at four of them – Rockingham, Hollywood Park, Garden State, and Atlantic City, and Damascus ran at Detroit. When Rockingham closes its doors Aug. 31, racing fans will be more preoccupied with who won the Pacific Classic and Travers and Alabama and whether Frosted will win the Woodward, not realizing that a piece of Thoroughbred racing has just died.