Dr. Fager and the Greatest Year Ever Part 1

It is 2018, which means it’s the 50th anniversary of what many believe to be the single greatest year by a Thoroughbred in modern times--certainly the greatest year I have ever seen. No horse has ever excelled at as many facets of the sport in one year as did the legendary Dr. Fager, who combined world-record speed from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, despite carrying staggering weights all year. He won world-class stakes on dirt and grass; and won major stakes on both coasts and in the Midwest.

Despite carrying 130 pounds or more in all eight of his starts, including a burdensome 139 pounds in his career finale--and carrying an average 133 pounds--Dr. Fager still equaled one track record, broke another track record, broke a world record that has still never been topped on dirt, and missed the track record by a fifth of a second on two occasions. Along the way, he defeated two Horses of the Year and three future Hall of Famers.

At the end of the year he became the only horse in history to win four championships in a single year: Horse of the Year, Handicap Horse, Sprinter, and Grass Horse.

I will be turning the clocks back and reminiscing about Dr. Fager’s incredible and historic year in a series of five columns this year: Part 1, the Spring of 1968; Part 2, the two epic battles with archrival Damascus in the Summer; Part 3, the World Record at Arlington Park; Part 4, the United Nations Handicap; and Part 5, the grand finale in the Vosburgh Handicap.

The innocence of the early-to-mid ‘60s was over, and the United States was anything but united. Early 1968 saw the bloody Tet Offensive escalate the Vietnam War. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and two months later Robert Kennedy also was assassinated. America was in turmoil, with rioting and protests throughout the country.

It was hard to believe that only a few years earlier, from 1960-1964, the country was going through its halcyon years, without a care in the world. It was pretty much a continuation of the ‘50s, without the Hula Hoops and the Davy Crockett craze. Musically, the big hits were mainly by girl groups, most of them African American, singing catchy upbeat songs written by Jewish kids from Brooklyn. Everyone wanted to be friends with Rob and Laura Petrie and visit them in New Rochelle, N.Y., as the Dick Van Dyke Show opened a new era of sitcoms.

In the isolated world of Thoroughbred racing, we had the ultimate continuity and hero worship, with Kelso voted Horse of the Year an unheard of five consecutive years from 1960 to ’64 and inspiring the first ever national fan club for a horse. Then in a flash, it all changed dramatically, with the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and the drug culture. And by 1968, the country was starving for heroes.

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris both retired that year and an aging Willie Mays was a shell of his former self. The year before, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army. Thoroughbred racing still was one of the most popular sports in the country, and with the reign of Kelso over, we saw new equine heroes like Buckpasser, Damascus, and Dr. Fager grace the sport from 1965-1968.

When 1967 ended, there was no doubt who was the best horse in the country. In the Woodward Stakes, dubbed “The Race of the Century,” the explosive, tough as nails Damascus stamped himself as the undisputed Horse of the Year with a resounding 10-length victory over reigning Horse of the Year Buckpasser and the brilliant Dr. Fager. The latter was victimized by a pair of “rabbits,” entered by the trainers of Buckpasser and Damascus. With instructions to kill off the impetuous, hot-blooded Dr. Fager, jockeys Bobby Ussery and Ron Turcotte broke from the gate hootin’ and hollerin’ and whipping their horses to make sure they stirred up Dr. Fager and got his competitive juices overflowing.

But taking nothing away from Damascus, who had a spectacular year in 1967, winning 12 of his 16 starts, there was no denying he was King of the Turf and one of the most exciting horses ever seen, with his spectacular acceleration and cat-like quickness. No matter what anyone may think about the rabbits, Damascus did beat two of the sport’s all-time greats by 10 lengths in the year’s championship race.

But 1967 was history, and it was time for trainer John Nerud to plot the course Dr. Fager would take to dethrone Damascus. Nerud knew Dr. Fager wasn’t quite ready to tackle Damascus and Buckpasser at a mile-and-a-quarter as a 3-year-old. He had a great deal of maturing to do, and Nerud was confident that the boy Doctor was now all man, and that during the course of the year, the man would turn into a beast.

The Dr. Fager who emerged from his winter quarters at Hialeah Park in the spring of 1968 was a different creature from the one racing fans had seen the previous two years, even though he still was talented enough to win 11 of his 14 starts in ’66 and ’67, including one defeat via disqualification in the Jersey Derby, despite finishing first by 6 1/2 lengths in one of the most controversial disqualifications in memory. As a 3-year-old, Dr. Fager shattered the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Rockingham Park in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, the richest race in the country, and also ran the fastest mile by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, winning the Withers Stakes by six lengths in 1:33 4/5, crushing a lightning-fast colt named Tumiga, running him into the ground, something Tumiga usually did to other horses. The Doc also defeated Damascus by a hard-fought half-length in the Gotham Stakes in his 3-year-old debut.

Those accomplishments, and his many others over the prior two years, were mere footnotes to the story that would be told in 1968. From the classy and incredibly fast 3-year-old we saw in 1967 came a horse who looked like no one, ran like no one, and who displayed a combination of speed, power, tenacity, versatility, and weight-carrying ability never before seen.

Dr. Fager laughed in the faces of racing secretaries, who could find no weight burdensome enough to stop him. They piled tons of weight, as much as 139 pounds, on his back, but all that broke were stopwatches and teletimers.

It had been a quiet winter for Dr. Fager. He was given three weeks of walking the shed before being put back in light training. In the beginning he would walk a day, then gallop a day until Nerud felt it was time to pick up the tempo. A problem with his right knee, then an ankle, put him behind schedule. On Nerud’s mind was another showdown with Damascus. All he wanted was an opportunity to match both colts against each other without the use of a rabbit.

Unlike Dr. Fager, Damascus thrived on racing and didn’t need much time to get over his grueling 3-year-old campaign. He was sent to Santa Anita that winter, where he captured the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes in a sizzling 1:21 1/5 and 1 1/8-mile San Fernando Stakes. When the 1 1/4-mile Charles Strub Stakes was postponed a week due to a horsemen’s boycott and regular rider Bill Shoemaker suffered a broken leg, Damascus went into the race with substitute rider Ron Turcotte, and instead of racing on a fast track, as he would have the week before, he was forced to race in an absolute quagmire and got stuck down on the rail, the worse place to be. As a result, Damascus was upset, losing by a head to Most Host, a horse he had handled easily in the San Fernando. Trainer Frank Whiteley sent Damascus back to his home base at Delaware Park for a well-deserved freshening.

Dr. Fager, meanwhile, was still three months from a race, so any thoughts of a rematch were way in the back of people’s minds, knowing it would not come until the summer.

The Doc finally started gearing up for his long-awaited 4-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Roseben Handicap, run on Derby Day. With Dr. Fager’s jockey Braulio Baeza committed to ride Iron Ruler at Churchill Downs, Nerud gave the mount to “Gentleman” John Rotz, one of the most dependable riders on the circuit.

As the race neared, Nerud wanted to provide the fans with a sneak preview of the new and improved Dr. Fager, while giving Rotz a chance to get acquainted with the horse. He scheduled a five-furlong workout between races with Rotz aboard. Whatever Rotz was expecting, he was in for a rude awakening. This was Dr. Fager’s time of the day, and afternoons with fans packing the grandstand meant putting on a show.

With Dr. Fager now bigger, stronger, and wilder, Nerud decided to have him look the part, so he let his mane and forelock grow over the winter. “It was a great show,” Nerud said. “The way his mane waved in the wind, it made him look like a wild horse.”

So, with the Doc’s long mane blowing in Rotz’s face, the rider just sat on him and never moved his hands. He couldn’t believe it when he was told the colt had worked in a mind-blowing :56 4/5. The only word that came to mind as he dismounted was “phenomenal.”

The wild horse went on to make a mockery of the Roseben, although Nerud didn’t want anything so spectacular that it would start turning the heads of NYRA racing secretary and handicapper Tommy Trotter and other racing secretaries.

He was already starting the year off with 130 pounds with an entire year of handicap races ahead of him. The Doc was sent off at 1-5 against his old rival from the Withers, Tumiga, who was back for another try after winning the Cherry Hill Handicap at Garden State in a dazzling 1:08 4/5, equaling the track record.

Tumiga, in receipt of nine pounds, attempted to outrun Dr. Fager right from the gate and try to discourage him, but like the Withers, he couldn’t get him to break a sweat. After a half in :45 flat, Dr. Fager bid farewell to Tumiga, with Rotz pulling back on the throttle, way up in the saddle, and with the Doc’s mouth open. He knew he couldn’t let the horse win by too much with the heavy-handed Mr. Trotter watching. It was all he could do to get him to win by only three lengths. Dr. Fager crossed the wire with his ears straight up, stopping the teletimer in 1:21 2/5, just one-fifth off the track record set six years earlier by Rose Net under a feathery 114 pounds.

The Dr. Fager everyone witnessed in 1968 looked and ran more like a wild mustang dashing across the Plains and then turned loose on a racetrack. Even walking, with his head high and that long mane standing on end, he appeared much taller than horses who were actually the same size.

Nerud’s spring target was the Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day. But he wanted to get another race in between, so he decided to do the unthinkable and ship Dr. Fager to Hollywood Park to run in the 1 1/16-mile Californian Stakes two weeks after the Roseben and 12 days before the Met Mile. He had originally considered the seven-furlong Carter Handicap, but shortly after the Roseben he received a phone call from Hollywood Park racing secretary Jack Meyers, informing him that under the allowance conditions of the Californian, Dr. Fager would only have to carry 124 pounds.

Nerud decided to go and put Dr. Fager on a plane for his first cross-country trip. When he arrived, however, he discovered that there had been a miscalculation, and that Dr. Fager actually had to carry 130 pounds and give away substantial weight to the entire field that included the brilliant speedster Kissin’ George, coming off three sensational sprint victories; the hard-knocking and classy Rising Market; and the future Hall of Fame filly Gamely, who was getting 14 pounds from the Doc. Nerud just shrugged it off: "If he's got thirty, he's got thirty. He'll win anyway."

This wasn’t New York. This was California, and in California, no one outran Kissin’ George, who was had won the six-furlong Premiere Handicap in 1:08 3/5 and a division of the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap in 1:21 1/5, both at the current meet. As a pure sprinter, he posed little threat to Dr. Fager in terms of winning the race, but he certainly could do damage if the Doc, breaking from the disadvantageous 11-post, hooked up with him early. With 14 entered, it was obvious that trainers were expecting a suicidal speed duel between Dr. Fager and Kissin’ George and were determined to take advantage of it.

Rising Market had finished second to Kissin’ George in the Premiere Handicap and then won the other division of the Los Angeles Handicap in 1:20 3/5, three-fifths faster than Kissin’ George. Earlier in the year, he was second to Damascus in the Malibu and was able to stretch out his speed, winning the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio Stakes. Gamely was the Queen of California, who made a number of successful raids back East, and was coming off a decisive victory in the seven-furlong Wilshire Handicap in 1:21 flat. The following year she would finish second to Nodouble in the Santa Anita Handicap.

So this was not going to be any walk in the park for Dr. Fager. They were throwing their full arsenal at him, including the fastest sprinter west of the Rockies.

In the saddling stall, Dr. Fager was restless, tossing his head around and working up a mouthful of saliva. The longer he waited the more agitated he became. He began pawing at the ground, first with the right foot, then the left. His groom, Joe “Packrat” Findley, held him on one side, while Nerud kept pushing against him from the other side, all the while talking to him.

When the gates opened, Dr. Fager broke cleanly, but took about 50 yards to get in gear. Kissin’ George, meanwhile, broke like a bullet and sprinted to the front. Dr. Fager was running freely, about four off the rail and several lengths off the pace, going into the clubhouse turn. There was to be no suicidal speed duel, at least not yet.

As they turned into the backstretch, Dr. Fager, under restraint from Baeza, was still back in fourth, but now running like a wild horse. With his head up and mouth open, he was literally leaping in the air, flip-flopping his leads. A weary-armed Baeza could not hold him any longer. When a gaping hole opened along the rail, Dr. Fager dragged Baeza in there. He then set his sights on Kissin’ George and took off after him. When the Doc got competitive and those eyes opened wide and his blood got to boiling, all he wanted in front of him was the wind.

He quickly pounced on Kissin’ George, who tried to dig in and put up a fight, but after six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, Kissin’ George, like every horse who eyeballed Dr. Fager, threw in the towel and went into retreat. Dr. Fager now found himself with a four-length lead in mid-stretch. Baeza gave the Doc a little right-handed love tap with the whip, and his tail shot straight up, as if telling Baeza to put the whip away; he was in complete control and had the race sewn up and did not need or want any encouragement. As competitive as Dr. Fager was on the track, he was very timid in the barn and did not like it if anyone yelled at him. He once took in a litter of kittens in his stall and watched over them.

After expressing his feelings to Baeza, Dr. Fager jumped back onto his left lead, causing him to duck in. Baeza got the message and wisely put the whip away and just hand-rode the Doc the rest of the way, winning by three lengths in a swift 1:40 4/5. No horse had ever won the Californian carrying that much weight.

It was after the Californian that Nerud decided to equip Dr. Fager with a Figure-8 bridle to give Baeza better control over him. He put the colt back on the plane and headed home to prepare for the Met Mile, only 12 days away. This was to be a rematch with the plucky In Reality, who had played bridesmaid to Dr. Fager and Damascus all year in 1967, but was on a roll, setting a track record in a prep for the prestigious John B. Campbell Handicap, then winning the Campbell over the previous year’s Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight before dropping back into a sprint and knocking off Tumiga in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap in 1:21 4/5. Dr. Fager knew In Reality, not only in competition, but from way back, having grown up with him on Tartan Farm. When the Tartan babies went out to the track, going through the field in double file, it was Dr. Fager and In Reality who were the front pair leading the group.

Whether it was the trip to California or not, on the eve of the Met Mile, Dr. Fager came down with a severe case of colic. This had always been a concern for Nerud, as Dr. Fager’s dam Aspidistra was always susceptible to it and eventually would lose several of her foals to colic.

Dr. Fager had returned from a gallop that morning and appeared to be in distress. Nerud summoned veterinarian Dr. William Reed, who gave the colt a normal dose of relaxant and tranquilizer, but it didn’t help. Dr. Fager was in agony.

“He was literally banging his head against the wall,” Nerud said. “I thought we had lost him.” Dr. Fager tried to get down, but several men held him up, knowing if he did go down there was a good chance he would never get up.

Dr. Reed wound up giving him three times the normal dose of relaxant. He was such a strong, rugged horse, normal doses had little effect on him. Finally, he began to settle down and in a short while he was calm. He came out of it fine, but, of course, the ordeal would keep him out of the Met Mile, which was won by In Reality, and knocked him out for a couple of weeks.

Who knows what spectacular feats he would have accomplished going a flat mile over a brand spanking new Belmont Park surface that had opened just 10 days earlier after a six-year rebuilding project? The Met Mile opportunity was lost, but on the horizon was his long-awaited rematch with Damascus that would result in a pair of epic battles between two titans of the Turf. No one could have known it as the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps approached, but racing fans would never witness two battles such as these again.

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