It was Travers morning, and most of those in attendance for the morning training and breakfast on the apron were focused mostly on that afternoon’s card and the big race, headed by the controversial Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Forward Pass.
Saratoga was a welcome respite from the turbulent times, where people could forget the problems of the world. We had already endured the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in January, the student takeover at Columbia University, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. The My Lai massacre also occurred early in the year, but did not come to the public's attention until a few years later. In keeping with the times, we even had a drug positive in the Kentucky Derby, when Dancer’s Image was found to be medicated with the banned pain killer Butazolidan, which set off a firestorm of events and court battles.
But it was now August, and Saratoga was alive and well, as was the Sport of Kings. Unfortunately, we lost the up-and-coming superstar Stage Door Johnny, who was injured and retired after winning the Belmont Stakes, Saranac Handicap, and Dwyer Handicap under 129 pounds. Everyone had been talking about the flashy Greentree Stud chestnut taking on Damascus and/or Dr. Fager at some point.
As training hours drew to a close, the clanging of dishes went silent and the aroma of bacon was no longer wafting throughout the grandstand. The skies, which had been clear all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those powerful Saratoga thunderstorms was moments away. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, a faint voice could be heard over the public address system announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.”
He emerged from under the grandstand and headed onto the track. There he was, like a heavyweight prizefighter stepping into the ring. He looked like no other horse, seemingly taller than his 16.1-hands frame and with a wild, untamed look about him. Off the track he was a gentle soul who did not like being scolded or yelled at, but on the racetrack he ran with a reckless abandon, a force of unharnessed energy. He detested being whipped, as he demonstrated in the Californian and Brooklyn, and he defied any horse to look him in the eye and still be around at the finish.
The Doc was coming off a stroll in the park romp in the Whitney Handicap under 132 pounds following his pair of epic battles with his arch rival Damascus in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps. In the Whitney, Braulio Baeza kept the Doc well out in the middle of the track and just let him cruise around there. None of the others dared to get in range of his radar and seemed content to battle it out for second. Sent off at odds of 1-20, he coasted to the wire eight lengths in front of the hard-knocking 6-year-old Spoon Bait, in receipt of 18 pounds. Finishing third, also getting 18 pounds, was Fort Drum, who would go on to finish third to Damascus in the Aqueduct Stakes four weeks later. Although Dr. Fager won in a common gallop, with Baeza wrapped up on him and sitting motionless, he still missed the track record by only three-fifths of a second.
With the Whitney out of the way, the focus now in John Nerud’s barn was on the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. Everyone knew the Doc would be gunning for Buckpasser’s world record mile of 1:32 3/5. And on this morning, with the race a week away, he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.
Just as he made his way on to the track, the rain began to fall, as the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. Dr. Fager walked along the outside rail accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye.
Like some majestic shrouded figure, the Doc seemed larger than life. As he walked by, sporting his figure-8 bridle, he was oblivious to the elements. He had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red. The Doc was in a zone, and even as the skies darkened, his burnished blood bay coat still had a glow to it.
Through the murk and rain, Dr. Fager breezed five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from exercise rider Jose Marrero, who had to weigh close to 160 pounds, which provided enough weight to help keep the Doc’s work under control.
Everyone knew the world record was in jeopardy as soon as Nerud announced his plans to ship to Arlington, despite Dr. Fager being assigned 134 pounds.
Of all the distances, there was a mystique surrounding the mile record.
What makes a mile around one turn so appealing is that it brings together horses who have been sprinting and running longer distances and pits them against each other at the most demanding distance of all.
Looking at the mile distance from a human track star’s perspective, the three factors in running, whether it be horses or humans, are speed, anaerobic capacity, and aerobic capacity. Speed is simply velocity, together with length and rapidity of stride. Anaerobic capacity is the ability to expend more energy than you can accommodate with oxygen intake, or simply the ability to run while out of breath. Considering that in all sprint races, horses run slower the last quarter than the first, they all use speed and anaerobic capacity. The third factor, aerobic capacity, is the ability to expand circulation capacity by carrying oxygen from the lungs to the muscle tissue and to expand lung capacity. This is basically stamina.
To excel over a flat mile around one turn, a horse must utilize all three factors, which enable him to run fast early and late without having a breather. Anaerobic capacity alone will not carry a horse a mile at the grueling pace he is running. He must complement it with aerobic capacity (stamina). The ability to utilize all three of these factors is what separates the miler from the sprinter, the middle-distance horse, and the stayer.
Nerud said a miler simply is “a sprinter with stamina,” adding, “They make the best sires because they have everything – versatility, lung capacity, muscle tone, tenacity, guts, and they’re fast. At a mile around one turn, the pressure is on from the gate. It is very demanding because it makes you pick your head up and run every step of the way. Watching a good miler is like watching an Olympic swimmer. The great ones always reach down for that something extra.”
Dr. Fager and Buckpasser had totally different running styles, just like the Doc and Damascus. Buckpasser usually raced with a pacesetter to assure lively fractions to set it up for his huge late charge. Trainer Eddie Neloy felt this was necessary, considering Buckpasser’s flair for the dramatic, winning by small margins and doing no more than he had to. Despite his running style he rarely ever lost. In his world record performance, he had stablemate Impressive blazing the trail for him, setting ridiculous fractions of :43 3/5 and 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. For a horse with his running style, Buckpasser was an amazing winning machine. His victories in the Flamingo Stakes and Suburban Handicap had to be seen to be believed.
Unlike Buckpasser, Dr. Fager was on his own. Regardless of who was going to show up against him, it was was going to be him against the clock. 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.” That is what was so amazing about Dr. Fager. Nerud never trained him or asked him to set records. He just wanted him to get the job done and come back sound for the next race.
Dr. Fager arrived at Arlington two days before the race right in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. The Doc, like others in his family, was susceptible to colic, as we saw prior to 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 without any urging from Baeza, while carrying 134 pounds, nine pounds more than Buckpasser carried when he broke the record.
A field of 10 was entered, with the main danger coming from the fast and versatile Racing Room, who was in receipt of 18 pounds. In the span of one month, Racing Room had won the 5 1/2-furlong Hollywood Express Handicap in a blistering 1:02 2/5; finished third in the mile and an eighth American Handicap on the grass; finished second, beaten a neck, in the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 4/5; and won the mile and three-sixteenths Citation Handicap on the grass.
Also in the field, carrying a feathery 112 pounds, and going off at odds of nearly 48-1, was none other than the thorn in Dr. Fager’s side, Hedevar, Damascus’ rabbit and a previous world record holder who ironically was breaking right next to Dr. Fager. To further ensure a rapid pace was the 3-year-old speedster Kentucky Sherry, who earlier that year had run the fastest opening six furlongs (1:09 4/5) and equaled the fastest opening half (:45 4/5) in the history of the Kentucky Derby.
Also in the field was the tough and resilient 7-year-old miler R. Thomas, winner of the Westchester Handicap twice, Equipoise Mile, Salvator Mile, Sysonby Mile, Vosburgh Handicap, and Sport Page Handicap.
Dr. Fager, sent off at 3-10, 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 front of 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, as R. Thomas slipped through on the inside to stick his head in 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 flat 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 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 scorching 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 not only did he 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.”
Over the decades, those of 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?
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.”
Thus began the futile chase to break Dr. Fager’s world record. Some have come close, but like the Doc himself, it was like trying to catch the wind.
Based on Dr. Fager’s time for the mile, a study was made a year and a half later with the help of the St. Louis and Bronx Zoos, which concluded that Dr. Fager was faster than a cheetah, recognized as the fastest animal on Earth.
Officially, one horse, Najran, has since equaled Dr. Fager’s world record on dirt, but he did it carrying 21 fewer pounds.
It has now been 50 years, and no one has been able to break a world record set by a horse carrying 134 pounds and winning eased up the entire length of the stretch. Every record in the sport of track and field has been broken since 1968, but Dr. Fager’s record still stands. Have only humans gotten faster or is it that horses have also gotten faster, just not faster than Dr. Fager?
The Doc had written a new page in the record books and the history books. But for Nerud and Dr. Fager, there were new worlds to conquer.
Dr. Fager and the Greatest Year Ever Part 1
Dr. Fager 1968 Part 2: Epic Battles With Damascus