A little over a week ago Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors scored an unheard of 60 points in only 29 minutes, without playing at all in the fourth quarter. All anyone could do was to speculate how many points he could have scored had he been given the opportunity. Although Wilt Chamberlain’s other worldly 100 points seemingly is beyond reach, he could have threatened Kobe’s Bryant’s 2006 modern day record of 81 points.
I never know what is going to inspire a column, and the thought of the phrase “if given the opportunity” kept ringing in my singular focused brain. “How many” quickly turned into “how fast,” and, of course, the subject turned from basketball to horse racing. And when you use the word “fast” in horse racing that could only turn into one name – Dr. Fager, a horse I’ve been known to write about on occasion.
I certainly had no plans to do so, even during this slow period, but all the speculation about what would have happened had Klay Thompson been allowed to go for the record brought the good doctor back into my consciousness, along with one other horse who I shall get to a little later on.
We are all well aware that Dr. Fager set a new world record of 1:32 1/5 for the mile back in 1968, and did so carrying a staggering 134 pounds. It is a record that has not been broken in nearly 50 years.
All would have been well and good had the video of the race not remained and easily accessible on YouTube. I can just imagine today’s generation of racing fans watching this race and reacting just the way we did when we first saw it: “Look how easy he’s doing it.” “The jockey isn’t moving a muscle on him.” “He’s actually being geared down.”
Everyone knew the world record of 1:32 3/5, set two years earlier by the great Buckpasser, was in jeopardy when it was announced by trainer John Nerud that Dr. Fager would ship to Arlington Park for the 1968 Washington Park Handicap.
Buckpasser’s record also was set at Arlington, one of the faster surfaces in the country. But Buckpasser, as usual, had a pacesetter in the race, whose job was to go hell bent for leather and set up a victory and record for his illustrious stablemate, who had a powerful closing kick, but usually won his races by margins from a nose to two lengths, but rarely more than that. In the Arlington Classic, his pacesetter, Impressive, a former champion sprinter, burned up the track early with an outrageous half in :43 3/5 and an even more outrageous six furlongs in 1:06 4/5. That set it up for Buckpasser to come flying late to pick up the pieces and win by three-quarters of a length, breaking the previous world record.
When asked about the possibility of Dr. Fager breaking the record, Nerud said bluntly, “Those things aren’t important to me. I’m only interested in winning and you just try to handle a horse the best way you can to get him to win.”
Dr. Fager arrived at Arlington two days before the race right in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. Dr. Fager, like others in his family, was susceptible to colic and already had a severe bout that year, forcing him to miss the Met Mile. Nerud knew he had to watch him closely, and the afternoon before the race he sat with the horse and just talked to him and soothed him trying to keep him settled. That night he walked him to keep him moving and help him relax.
By race day, Dr. Fager was doing fine, and fortunately a cool wind whipped through the Chicago area breaking the sweltering heat and humidity.
In the paddock, Nerud did not give jockey Braulio Baeza any instructions and there was no talk at all about world records. If he was going to break the world record he would have to do it all on his own, while carrying nine pounds more than Buckpasser carried when he broke the record.
Dr. Fager broke on top from post 9, but was taken in hand by Baeza. One thing about Dr. Fager was that he could rate briefly in one turn races, but when breaking in from the cheering crowd he got his blood up early and was almost impossible to control if another horse tried to outrun him. Alone on the lead he could rate, as he did in his track record-equaling Suburban Handicap. That is why rabbits were thrown at him by the trainers of Buckpasser and his arch rival Damascus.
In the Washington Park Handicap, Dr. Fager dropped back to sixth early, less than three lengths off the lead, and when the teletimer revealed a tame opening quarter in :22 4/5, all thoughts of a world record evaporated.
As they continued down the backstretch, it was a mad scramble up front, but Dr. Fager had enough of Baeza’s restraint, and when the good doctor had enough of restraint so did the jockey, whether he wanted to or not. Baeza, as usual, let Dr. Fager take over and prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride. The Doc charged to the front, stopping the teletimer at :44 for the half-mile. He had run his second quarter in an unheard of :20 3/5. It 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.
Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began drawing away from the pack, with only the classy hard-knocking Racing Room giving chase. Baeza kept Dr. Fager well out from the rail and actually looked like he was giving him a breather. It was apparent the world record was the furthest thing from his mind. Dr. Fager, as usual, had his head up and was cruising along with Baeza just sitting on him, about four paths off the rail.
Baeza admitted he never knew how fast Dr. Fager was running and if only he could have seen the tote board he would have realized that the horse seemingly galloping along beneath him was actually flying, his six furlongs run in a blistering 1:07 3/5. The world record would be his with a sub :25 quarter. But Baeza could never have imagined it was within his reach, so he not only did not ask Dr. Fager to run down the stretch, he wrapped up on him as soon as he straightened for home.
Despite Baeza sitting like the proverbial statue every step of the way, Dr. Fager still kept opening up on the field in the final furlong. The Doc’s ears were straight up, his long mane blowing wildly in Baeza’s face, and it was obvious there would be no last-ditch attempt at the record. With each humongous stride, Dr. Fager’s lead increased and he crossed the wire eased up by 10 lengths.
Track announcer Phil Georgeff, stunned by the performance, forgot to turn his microphone off. As Dr. Fager pulled up, out of the silence came a single faint word: “Wow!”
Like Baeza, the last thing on Georgeff’s mind was the world record. “He was just galloping through the stretch and was running so effortlessly that I had forgotten all about the record, especially since he was carrying 134 pounds,” he recalled. “When I saw the time I was shocked.”
Georgeff announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, may we draw your attention to the final time of 1:32 1/5, which is a new world record.”
Baeza admitted he had no idea Dr. Fager was within reach of the record. “I never in any of his races knew how fast he was going,” he said. “He moved so smoothly and his action was so fluid I felt like I was in a Lear Jet. All I knew was that he was going faster than the rest of them. I’d try to slow him down, but he’d still pull away from them.”
Unlike Klay Thompson, Dr. Fager did break the world record. But that’s not where the “if given the opportunity” comes in. Over the decades, those of us around to experience and truly appreciate this historic event keep asking the same question. If only he had been given the opportunity, how fast could Dr. Fager have run that day? As I have always said of the good doctor, he was a wild thing in a world of restraint.
The legendary jockey Ted Atkinson, for whom Nerud once worked as agent and who eventually became a state steward at Arlington Park, told Nerud after the race, “Hell, he could have done it in (one) thirty and change. He was six lengths within himself.”
Officially, one horse, Najran, has equaled Dr. Fager’s world record on dirt, but he did it carrying 21 fewer pounds, and his time of 1:32.24 was measured in hundredths of a second, while times back then were measured in fifths of a second. So it is quite possible that Dr. Fager still does have the world record all to himself. That is something we will never know and is not really important in the grand scheme of things.
What is important is Atkinson’s comment that had he been asked to run even slightly, Dr. Fager could have run the mile in a mind-boggling 1:30 and change. Even if you don’t agree, it is difficult to argue that he would have run 1:31 or no worse than 1:31 and change. One thing is fairly certain. Although it still has not been surpassed after 48 years, Dr. Fager’s world record would be almost as unreachable as Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes record.
As friendly as I became with Nerud over the years, and as much as I loved and worshipped the man, I only wish just once he would have told Baeza to let Dr. Fager run and show the world just what unworldly feats he could accomplish.
As a postscript in the “what if” department, what if NYRA hadn’t winterized the Aqueduct surface, slowing it down considerably, just days before Dr. Fager broke the track record for seven furlongs in his career finale in the Vosburgh Handicap? Despite that and carrying a crushing 139 pounds, Dr. Fager still won the Vosburgh in a track record 1:20 1/5, winning by six lengths, again never being asked to run by Baeza. Not many can argue that Dr. Fager could or should to this day have world records on dirt at both seven furlongs and a mile…carrying 139 and 134 pounds.
The other horse who fits into the “if given the opportunity” category is Rachel Alexandra in a race that few people ever talk about. All you have to do is look at the past performances of the Mother Goose Stakes and read the comment, “Under wraps final sixteenth.”
Watching the race, she was being eased well before that by Calvin Borel, so much so that it looked as if she were going to come to a full stop before the wire. So, how can a filly win a race that easily by an absurd 19 1/4 lengths and still run the mile and an eighth in 1:46 1/5? Does anyone doubt that had Borel let her run even a little she would have broken Go For Wand’s record of 1:45 4/5, which remains the fastest nine furlongs ever run by a filly on dirt.
I have to admit, I have never seen a horse run so fast so easily.
In conclusion, I do not follow basketball, but I must thank Klay Thompson for igniting another bizarre flame in my brain and for giving me an impromptu reason for opening the sacred Dr. Fager vault yet again.
You never know where an early Hanukkah or Christmas present is going to come from.