Dr. Fager 1968 Part 4: Courage on the Grass

Fall was approaching, and in Thoroughbred racing that meant the beginning of the championship season. Dr. Fager was coming off his world-record mile in the Washington Park Handicap, having previously won the Whitney, Suburban, Californian, and Roseben Handicap, all of them carrying 130 pounds or more.

But having split his two epic confrontations with Damascus, the Horse of the Year title still was in the hands of the Belair colt. It was his until he gave it away or someone took it away from him.

There was always another showdown in the Woodward Stakes for the title, but for now John Nerud had other goals in mind. He had reached a point with Dr. Fager where he wanted to show the world there was nothing this horse couldn’t do. He had no rivals as a sprinter, he had no rivals as a miler, and he had already equaled a track record at a mile and a quarter under 132 pounds, beating Damascus eyeball to eyeball. The defending champ would have to wait.

The only world Dr. Fager had not conquered was the grass. Damascus had tried in the previous year’s Washington D.C. International, and while he ran a terrific race at the end of a long, arduous campaign, he could not crack Rokeby Stable’s tenacious gelding Fort Marcy, who would not let Damascus get by him, winning by a nose.

The premier grass race in America, along with the Man o’War Stakes, run in New York, was the United Nations Handicap, run at Atlantic City. Grass racing in America still was in its early stages, with the first grass champion, Iceberg II, being crowned in 1953, the same year the United Nations was inaugurated. When grass racing started to become more popular thanks to the heroics of the Round Table, who was a superstar on both dirt and grass, nailing down three consecutive grass championships from 1957 to 1959, it was decided by the New York Racing Association to inaugurate the Man o’ War Stakes in 1959.

Then in 1964, the great gelding Kelso won his record fifth consecutive Horse of the Year title by defeating arch rival Gun Bow in a showdown for championship honors in the Washington D.C. International, the first time Horse of the Year was decided in a grass race. Round Table had been voted Horse of the Year in 1958, but he closed out his year with a victory in the Hawthorne Gold Cup on dirt, and in fact, had been beaten in the United Nations Handicap that year by Clem, in receipt of 17 pounds.

By 1968, the United Nations had become one of the most sought after prizes in the country following victories by major stars Round Table in 1959, T.V. Lark in 1960, Mongo in 1962 and ’63, Parka in 1965, and Assagai in 1966.

Nerud nominated Dr. Fager to the U.N. just to help Atlantic City generate some publicity, and had no intention of running. But he started having a change of heart when he realized that the timing was right, coming 18 days after his world record performance, and he thought, “Hell, I’ll send him down there and show them he can do anything.” He also realized that a victory could put Dr. Fager in a position to do something that had never been done before: win four championships in a single year.

Nerud felt the U.N. would be the perfect spot for Dr. Fager to display his versatility and show that he was a champion at all distances and on any surface. But this wasn’t going to be easy, with the array of talent that was gathering for the mile and three-sixteenths race.

With Dr. Fager pointing for the U.N. to be on September 11, Damascus set forth on his path to another Horse of the Year title. But something strange transpired with the defending champ. The Bancrofts, who owned the horse, were looking for a new rider to replace Manny Ycaza, who was committed to ride Dark Mirage in the Alabama Stakes the same day Damascus was running in the William DuPont Handicap at Delaware Park. Of all jockeys, they chose Braulio Baeza. Trainer Frank Whiteley was not happy about bringing the enemy into the Damascus camp, knowing Baeza’s loyalties belonged to Dr. Fager, and if there was to be another confrontation between the two, Baeza surely would return to Dr. Fager, while having gathered even more valuable knowledge about Damascus, who would need a new rider once again. It made no sense, other than the Bancrofts simply wanting the best jockey in the country. Ironically, Dark Mirage was forced to skip the Alabama with a minor injury. Losing Ycaza would have a huge effect down the road on Damascus’ quest for a second straight Horse of the Year title.

As Dr. Fager prepared for the U.N. Damascus, with his new rider aboard, won the DuPont Handicap under 134 pounds, giving 21 pounds and 24 pounds to the second and third-place finishers. He then returned to New York, where he captured the Aqueduct Stakes, again carrying 134 pounds and conceding 20 pounds to runner-up More Scents, winner of the Fall Highweight Handicap, Bernard Baruch Handicap, Tidal Handicap, and Longfellow Handicap in course record time. So far, getting Baeza looked to be a good move, at least temporarily. But that would change in the weeks to come.

By September, In Reality, the third best older horse in the country, and Stage Door Johnny, the best 3-year-old, had been retired, lessening the competition for Dr. Fager and Damascus in distance dirt races. There actually was now more depth in the grass division that Dr. Fager was about to take on.

On September 7, Dr. Fager’s baby sister Ta Wee won a six-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct, which would be her final start of year. Amazingly, she would also go on to a Hall of Fame career and back-to-back Sprint championships, carrying weights as high as 140 and 142 pounds and defeating the boys on several occasions. So, here were brother and sister who would account for four consecutive Sprint titles. It truly was a special time for Nerud and Tartan Farm.

But for Nerud, his focus now was on the United Nations Handicap. When Dr. Fager was assigned 134 pounds, despite never having run on the grass, Nerud was unfazed, just as he was before the Californian Stakes, and actually felt fortunate that 134 was all he was assigned.

Nine days before the U.N. Nerud gave Dr. Fager his first work on the grass and he seemed to handle it well, going a solid half in :48 4/5. He then shipped Dr. Fager to Atlantic City where he worked five furlongs in 1:02 over a soft course. The Doc, with his big sweeping stride that attacked the ground, didn’t seem to handle the soft going that well, and all Nerud could do was hope the course came up dry on race day.

There was rain prior to the race, however, and although it was listed as firm, it was still wet and very slippery. And Dr. Fager would have to try to get good footing and grip the turf while toting 134 pounds. Could they have listed the course as firm to make sure Dr. Fager didn’t defect?

Because it was the Doc’s first try on grass and the course condition would not suit him, this was a perfect opportunity for every trainer with a top-class grass horse to enter the fray and try to knock off the great Dr. Fager.

One of those entered was Fort Marcy, who was trying to become the first horse to beat both Damascus and Dr. Fager. Another major danger was the Australian “Wonder Horse” Tobin Bronze, who won 24 of his 44 starts Down Under, including a victory in the prestigious Caulfield Cup carrying 136 pounds. Also in the field were Irish Rebellion, winner of the Pan American Handicap at Gulfstream; the powerful closing Flit-to, winner of the Seneca and Bougainvillea Handicaps as well as the previous year’s United Nations Handicap; and Round Table’s versatile son Advocator, winner of the Seminole, Westchester, and Toboggan Handicaps and runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, Met Mile to In Reality, and third in the Kelly-Olympic Handicap at Atlantic City in his first grass appearance. The Kelly-Olympic was Atlantic City’s prep for the United Nations.

To make matters more difficult, Dr. Fager would be giving 16 pounds to Fort Marcy (a former grass champion) and Tobin Bronze, 17 pounds to Flit-to and Irish Rebellion, and 22 pounds to Advocator.

Still, Nerud remained confident, but perhaps not as confident as Fort Marcy’s trainer Elliott Burch, who was convinced Dr. Fager would not handle the grass.

“It’s been my experience that speed horses on the dirt are usually not turf horses,” he said. “They can’t handle the turns. They tend to run out and I think ‘Fager’ is going to have his problems keeping from racing wide.”

Dr. Fager was stabled right next to Tobin Bronze. The day before the race, Tobin Bronze’s trainer in Australia, Graham Heagney, who had come for the race, went over to Nerud and said, “I didn’t think you’d come here.” When Nerud asked him why, he replied, “Because there isn’t a horse in the world who can give Tobin Bronze that much weight.”

Dr. Fager, the 4-5 favorite, broke on top from post 6 and was sent to the lead by Baeza. But the challenge came quickly, as Laffit Pincay Jr., on Advocator, decided to take advantage of the huge weight concession and breaking from the rail and sent his horse right up inside Dr. Fager. Just as Elliott Burch had predicted, Dr. Fager took the first turn very wide, unable to get any traction on the wet turf. Baeza could already sense he wasn’t comfortable.

Around the clubhouse turn, Dr. Fager, as usual, turned back the challenge and opened a length advantage. But Advocator continued to keep him in his sights. Down the backstretch, Pincay, one of the strongest riders in the country, began pumping on Advocator and he slipped through on the inside again to take a half-length lead. On dirt, Dr. Fager would never have allowed that, but he was unsure of the footing and couldn’t grip hold of the turf with any authority. It was the first time Dr. Fager seemed tentative when a horse posed a serious threat. This was a lot different than the previous year’s New Hampshire Sweepstakes when In Reality tried the same tactics, and the Doc reached over and savaged him.

Baeza, sensing the tentativeness, let the Doc just sit back and try to find his best stride.  “It was like he was ice skating,” Baeza said. “He was slipping and sliding the whole way around. I kept pulling on him to get him to stick his head up and get a grip of the ground, but he just couldn’t get hold of it. I was pretty worried, because he kept trying and trying and wasn’t going anywhere.”

Around the far turn, Baeza loosened up on the reins and Dr. Fager responded by charging up to challenge Advocator, as if realizing it was now or never. Tobin Bronze was right behind and seemingly going nowhere, but the plucky Fort Marcy was moving strongly along the inside.

At the quarter pole, Dr. Fager again took the turn wide, running with his head up, while Advocator cut the corner and stuck his neck back in front. Dr. Fager had never lost the lead twice in one race and Baeza knew he was in for a battle. This time, however, he was well aware that he didn’t have the wheels under him. Advocator was loving the turf, which made the 22-pound weight difference all the more important.

A relentless and dogged Dr. Fager dug in the best he could and made another run at Advocator, sticking his head back in front as they passed the eighth pole. Meanwhile, behind them, Fort Marcy was still trapped on the hedge waiting for an opening.

Inside the eighth pole, Pincay reached back for all the strength he could muster. He began pushing hard with his left hand, while pasting Advocator with a series of right-handed whips. To everyone’s surprise, Advocator came back at Dr. Fager for the third time and opened nearly a half-length advantage approaching the sixteenth pole. Baeza, knowing how much Dr. Fager detested the whip, continued to hand ride the colt, who now looked like a beaten horse. There was no more to give.

But this is when a true champion shines, and Dr. Fager, amazingly, wasn’t through yet. With his blood at a boil, he pinned back his ears and gave one final thrust. Although there was no push to his legs, which were still struggling to grab hold of the turf, Dr. Fager basically willed himself back in front, heading Advocator yet again. But the stubborn Advocator wasn’t giving up either and tried to come back again. This time, however, Dr. Fager clenched his teeth and refused to let him. He crossed the finish line a neck in front in the solid time of 1:55 1/5. Fort Marcy kept plugging away, but could not get closer than third, with Tobin Bronze right behind in fourth, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

In some ways, this may have been Dr. Fager’s greatest performance, as he somehow found a way to win with all his weapons taken away from him, except his heart.

After the race, Tartan Stable owner William McKnight turned to Nerud and said. “John I’ve heard all my life about horses trying to win, and now I’ve seen it. I can’t believe he kept fighting and fighting.”

Graham Heagney couldn’t believe it either. “If anyone had told me a horse could give Tobin Bronze that much eight and beat him I would have laughed in his face,” he said. “But Dr. Fager is truly a great horse.”

Advocator’s trainer, Clyde Troutt, could only think out loud: “I wonder if my horse has any heart left; though he still has four legs. All I can say is that the winner is one of the best horses I’ve ever seen.”

Troutt would soon find out what Advocator was made of, and what Dr, Fager had to be made of to beat him. To show how much Advocator loved the turf, and how much it moved him up, he returned to Atlantic City and won the mile and a half Sunrise Handicap, breaking the course record. Fort Marcy would go on to be voted Horse of Year two years later, winning his second Washington D.C. International as well as the United Nations Handicap and eventually was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He became the third future Hall of Famer to be defeated by Dr. Fager that year, following Gamely and Damascus.

Dr. Fager naturally came out of the United Nations a tired horse. He had given his all. With the Woodward Stakes coming up in only 17 days, it was too soon for Nerud to bring him back, and he decided to give the Doc some time to recover and point him for a farewell appearance in the Vosburgh Handicap, knowing racing secretary Tommy Trotter would assign him some staggering weight that would exceed anything anyone had seen in a long time.

And so, the great Dr. Fager was down to one more race; one final scene to play. We were all aware the Doc could put on a show like no one else, but we were about to find out he also knew how to bring down the curtain.


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