Dr. Fager 1968 Part 5: Farewell, Doc

Dr. Fager emerged from his street brawl in the United Nations Handicap in good shape, despite having to withstand the fight of his life against the tenacious Advocator, the 134 pounds on his back, and the 22-pound weight concession to his adversary.

But, unlike his previous races, the Doc was not ready to come back in only 17 days to face his arch rival Damascus in the Woodward Stakes. John Nerud had to come up with another swan song for his horse, one worthy enough to sing the Doc's praises and send him off with the fanfare he deserved.

Nerud decided on the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap on November 2, which would give him plenty of time to get over the United Nations and have him fresh enough and sharp enough to go out with a bang. After all, only a performance for the ages would prove a fitting farewell for a horse as special as Dr. Fager after all the Herculean feats he had performed that year.

This was s perfect race for the Doc to let loose and run a hole in the wind. There were no more tomorrows, no more races to save him for. It was time to empty the tank and see just how fast Dr. Fager could run.

Meanwhile Damascus' once stellar 4-year-old campaign had taken an unfortunate turn. Frank Whiteley had been reluctant to use Braulio Baeza on the colt, but it started out looking like a good move, as Baeza guided Damascus to victories in the William DuPont Handicap and Aqueduct Stakes, both carrying 134 pounds. Then Whiteley sent Damascus to Detroit Race Course for the September 14 Michigan Mile and an Eighth and it all began to unravel. Damascus was assigned 133 pounds, and despite the weight was sent off as the 1-5 favorite. It was an odd spot in which to run him, but Whiteley had been showing Damascus off all over the country throughout his career. There wasn't a racetrack he couldn't handle, regardless of the condition, and that devastating move was lethal anywhere.

The race would prove to be controversial, as Baeza kept Damascus far back and never really got into him until it was way too late. Damascus, who usually had his field buried by the eighth pole and often by the quarter pole, was still back in sixth at the eighth pole, nearly seven lengths behind the 3-year-old Nodouble, who had taken over the lead under a feathery 111 pounds. Once Damascus got rolling, he came flying late, but had to settle for second. Damascus was never a deep closer, so one had to wonder why Baeza waited so long to move on him. Whiteley was not happy with Baeza's ride, feeling he gave Damascus way too much to do. But Baeza said Damascus did not kick in like he normally does and didn't feel like the same horse he rode in his two victories.

The bottom line was that Damascus' quest for back-to-back Horse of the Year titles had taken a bit of a blow, and many believed that Dr. Fager, having won the U.N. three days earlier, was now the leading contender. Unfortunately, unlike the year before, there would be no showdown in the Woodward Stakes.

Without Dr. Fager, the Woodward looked like a mere formality for Damascus, who finally was back in a weight-for-age race without being burdened with heavy weights. All Damascus had to do was sit back against lesser competition and unleash his run. But to the surprise of everyone, Baeza put Damascus right on the lead going head and head first with Grace Born and then the hard-knocking New York-bred Mr. Right. Both Damascus and Mr. Right were at each other's throat every step of way through moderate fractions of :47 1/5 and 1:11 1/5. As they came to head of the stretch, it was time for Damascus to burst clear. But Damascus was a horse who needed to be roused, and Bill Shoemaker would often go to an early vigorous whip on him, even as early as the half-mile pole. Baeza, however, never went to the whip and Damascus basically loafed home through a slow final quarter and was beaten the scantest of noses in a pedestrian 2:03. Damascus, with any encouragement, could run that fast backwards.

Whiteley was livid and let Baeza know how he felt after he returned, shouting several choice words that can't be repeated. The fans booed Baeza, and even owner Tom Bancroft questioned why Baeza didn't hit him. Whiteley's most telling comment was, "I don't know why Baeza did it and I didn't ask him." Whiteley never spoke to Baeza again.

Baeza, as he stated after the Michigan Mile and an Eighth, said Damascus didn't feel right, suggesting that there was a problem with the colt.

Dr. Fager was now the clear-cut favorite for Horse of the Year. All he had to do was win the Vosburgh and the title likely would be his.

Next for Damascus was The Jockey Club Gold Cup, run one week before the Vosburgh, this time with Larry Adams aboard. The year before, Damascus had won this race as if in a workout. There were rumors that Damascus was having physical issues, but Whiteley and Bancroft felt it wasn't serious enough to scratch and that Damascus could cakewalk the two miles as he did the year before. But when the colt came on to the track wearing front bandages for the first time in his life, it sent up warning flares.

Damascus never was comfortable in the race and wasn't moving well. Adams didn't like what he was feeling and tried to ease him, but Damascus, now trailing the field, refused to come to a stop until one step past the finish line. To him, only then was the race over. It was a sad sight seeing Damascus, one of the toughest, soundest, and most durable horses of all time, being loaded into a horse ambulance. It was a humiliating way for him to bid farewell. But in his own way, by refusing to pull up until he crossed the finish line, it was a proud and noble way to make an exit.

No one will ever know the true reasons for his defeats in the Michigan Mile and an Eighth and Woodward. Was it Baeza'a inexplicable rides or was the horse already feeling the effects of the injury that would end his career? Until the day he died, Whiteley blamed Baeza for the defeats, especially since he was Dr. Fager's regular rider. Most people had been shocked when Baeza, of all riders, was named to ride Damascus, so it came as no surprise when the relationship ended in such bitter controversy.

So, Damascus was now gone from the scene, leaving Dr. Fager and his farewell performance in the Vosburgh as the grand finale of one of the most extraordinary chapters in racing history.

Nerud wanted to make it an event people would remember for a long time. With racing secretary Tommy Trotter pondering how much weight to put on Dr. Fager, Nerud went to him and said, "I'll tell you how much to put on him, Tommy. I want you to put 145 on him and then I'll send him home."

But Trotter couldn't justify putting that much weight on. It had never been done before, and it meant he would be assigning Dr. Fager 11 pounds more than he had carried at Atlantic City. It would set a precedent in which he refused to partake. So he compromised and raised Dr. Fager five pounds off his gut-wrenching win in the U.N., assigning him a staggering 139 pounds. With that much weight it would take an otherworldly performance, even for Dr. Fager, to break the track record.

If anyone still felt the Doc was capable of breaking the track record in spite of the weight, their optimism dissipated quickly when the New York Racing Association winterized the Aqueduct surface several days before the race, putting in a deeper cushion. The day before, Nerud noticed the track had changed dramatically. The great Hirsch Jacobs and his son John had walked the track that morning, and the elder Jacobs commented, "It's pretty deep today."

With the track considerably slower than it had been, and with 139 pounds piled on Dr. Fager, any kind of record now seemed out of the question.

The Vosburgh wasn't going to be a walk in the park for the Doc with the presence of the California speedster Kissin George, who Dr. Fager eyeballed earlier in the year in the Californian Stakes. But this was a totally different scenario. Kissin George was back sprinting and was now in the hands of the "Giant Killer" Allen Jerkens. Before being sent East, Kissin George had won the six-furlong Peninsula Handicap at Bay Meadows in a scintillating 1:08 4/5 under 128 pounds. Jerkens started out by running him in the six-furlong Sport Page Handicap at Belmont, which Kissin George won by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:09 1/5, the fastest six furlongs of the meet.

Having upset the legendary Kelso three times with Beau Purple, shocking Buckpasser in the Brooklyn Handicap with Handsome Boy, and upsetting champion fillies Cicada, Moccasin, Straight Deal, Lady Pitt, and Gamely, the Giant Killer now aimed his slingshot at Dr. Fager.

Kissin George was assigned 127 pounds, 12 fewer than Dr. Fager, with the classy late-running sprinter Jim J. carrying 125. The low weight, carrying a mere 105 pounds, was Villamor, who would be in receipt of an unheard of 34 pounds from Dr. Fager.

The night before the race, Dr. Fager started acting a little colicky, so Nerud stayed with him until two o'clock in the morning, walking him and giving him something to help settle his stomach.. He couldn't treat the horse with medication because it was too close to the race. In his 47 years as a trainer, Nerud was never fined or suspended for a medication violation.

Dr. Fager came out of it fine and was none the worse for wear on race day. Dr. Fager broke from post 3 and Kissin George from post 6. With Dr. Fager coming off distance races, this was an opportunity for Kissin George, a pure sprinter, to get the jump on him out of the gate. The last time they had met going 1 1/16 miles, Kissin George outran Dr. Fager for five furlongs and gave him a battle around the far turn.

After an opening quarter in :22 1/5, both horses were at each other's throat. Bill Boland, on Kissin George, was pushing and scrubbing for all he was worth, but couldn't shake loose from Dr. Fager.

Still locked together, they blazed the half in a spectacular :43 4/5, and on a slower winterized track. It had to be discouraging for Boland to be in an all-out drive and looking over and seeing Dr. Fager under cruise control, as if he were just humoring him. Turning for home, Baeza let the Doc loose and he kissed Kissin' George goodbye. A shocked Boland said afterward, "He went by me at the three-sixteenths pole like I was tied to the rail. And my horse was running pretty good at that point."

As he did in the Washington Park Handicap, Dr. Fager drew clear under no urging at all from Baeza, who could have gone for a record, but chose to just sit on him. Dr. Fager led  by three lengths at the eighth pole, as the crowd began its thunderous salute to a great champion. Despite the slower track, Dr. Fager, on his own, had scorched the six furlongs in 1:07 4/5, four-fifths of a second faster than Near Man's track record for the distance, set under 112 pounds.

Dr. Fager continued to pour it on, with Baeza merely hand riding him. He crossed the wire six lengths ahead of Kissin' George, and his time of 1:20 1/5 broke Rose Net's track record by a full second and came within a fifth of a second of the world record, which he would have easily broken with any urging from Baeza.

But Baeza knew the track was slower than usual and felt Dr. Fager was going so easily there was no way he was going to break any records, especially with 139 pounds on his back.

"John said this was his last hurrah and to let him put on a show," Baeza said. "I was concerned about the 139 pounds, but at the quarter pole I was already looking back. There was no competition, so I took a hold of him. If I knew how fast he was going I would have chirped to him and he would have gone faster."

Boland came back and was in awe of Dr. Fager, who he had ridden in the previous year's Woodward Stakes fiasco. "I don't know if he was all out at the finish, but when he was close enough for me to judge, Baeza had him under a tight hold," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Even Nerud couldn't believe it, knowing how much slower the track was. "I can't imagine how fast he would have run if they had pulled some of that cushion off and got the track back to where it was," he said. "He would have smoked a little, wouldn't he?"

New York Post racing writer William Rudy, covering the race for the Thoroughbred Record, opened his story by saying, "Dr. Fager said goodbye with one of the great performances in New York racing history."

Unfortunately, there is no film of the Vosburgh and no one at NYRA had any idea what happened to it, whether it was destroyed or lost or stolen. So, one of the greatest ever performances and exhibitions of pure speed exists only in the memory of those who witnessed it.

That ended an amazing career and a 4-year-old campaign unlike anything seen before or since, resulting in an unprecedented four championships (Horse of the Year, Handicap horse, Sprinter, and Grass Horse), a feat that has never been duplicated.

It took a rabbit, the stewards, and an admitted bad ride by Bill Shoemaker at 2 to beat him. Only three horses ever finished ahead of Dr. Fager. Two of them are in the Hall of Fame and the other was a champion.

On November 14, 1968, the great Dr. Fager prepared to leave the racetrack for good. It looked like any other autumn morning on the Belmont Park backstretch. The stinging winds blowing in off Jamaica Bay made trainers and barn workers thankful the annual mass exodus of man and beast to Florida was only weeks away.

But this was not like any morning. Across the road from the track kitchen, the familiar glow that had emanated from Barn 41 for the past three years was rapidly dimming. In a few moments it would be gone forever. Maybe that's what made this morning seem a little bit colder than usual.

Outside the barn, Tartan Farm's green and white private van awaited its illustrious passenger. Soon it would roll out the stable gate onto Hempstead Turnpike, beginning its journey to Tartan Farm in Ocala, Florida, where Dr. Fager would begin his new life as a stallion. As the moment of departure neared, the atmosphere at the barn grew solemn. One by one, barn workers went up to Dr. Fager's stall to say their goodbyes. Groom and swing man Freddy (Beetle) Dimitrijevic walked up to the Doc and stroked him on the forehead. "Have a good trip," he said. "I hope to see you again soon."

At 8 o'clock, Dr. Fager was ready for the 30-hour trip back to his place of birth, His groom, Joe (Pack Rat) Findley, had fed the colt a light breakfast of oats and bran and mineral oil an hour earlier. Six jugs of Mountain Valley mineral water from Hot Springs, Arkansas were loaded on the van.

Earlier that morning, Dr. Fager had gone out for his final gallop with exercise rider Henry Skaates aboard. Jose Marrero, the colt's regular exercise rider for the past two years, was suffering from a bad back and asked Skaates if he'd like to gallop him that morning.

"He felt as strong as he ever did," said Skaates, who had galloped Dr. Fager on several occasions. He took a firm hold of him, knowing full well you didn't want to move your hands on this horse, especially on his final morning at the track.

At 8:25, John Nerud attached the shank to Dr. Fager's halter and led the big bay out of the barn for the last time. Outside, bundled up in heavy jackets and overcoats, barn workers lined up for final look at the great Dr. Fager. One of them held up a sign that simply read, "Farewell, Doc!"

As the horse emerged from the barn and strode majestically into the chilling November air, a gust of wind blew his long mane on end, giving it a plume-like effect, as if atop the head of a Spartan warrior. Dr. Fager arched his neck and flared his nostrils just as he had done so many times in battle and as he had done before his final work prior to the Washington Park Handicap. He always seemed to know the importance of the moment.

Once he was on the van, Nerud tossed in a bale of alfalfa. He went over to the Doc, gave him a pat on the nose and said, "See you in Florida, old boy."

Then the van drove off, leaving nothing but memories. Nerud went back in the barn and looked in Stall 4, which had been Dr. Fager's home for nearly three years. "Boys," he said, "this is the emptiest stall I've ever seen."

Freddy Dimitrijevic, whose father was Nerud's assistant, said with a touch of sadness in his voice, even years later, "We all felt like we lost something. The spirit just wasn't the same, and it took quite a while to build it back up."

The following afternoon, as the van neared its destination, it was stopped by Marion County Deputy Sheriff Don Moreland, who welcomed the arrival of Dr. Fager with his own brand of Southern hospitality. Accompanied by a photographer to record the historic moment, Moreland, a husky chap with hair cropped close to his scalp, stepped inside the van. He walked up to a curious Dr. Fager and presented him with a summons. Written on the ticket were two words: "Reckless Speed."

That was Dr. Fager. A force of nature who took the fire that was bred into the Thoroughbred 250 years earlier and ignited it at racetracks all over the country, running with reckless abandon. It is safe to say we will never see his like again.

I will close by quoting the great racing writer David Alexander, who summed up Dr. Fager best and brought back the vision of him on that gray Saratoga morning as he strode past me just as the skies opened up:

"The memory of him is the memory of the wind. I shall remember the brilliant Dr. Fager like a sudden shaft of sunlight on a darkening day."

Parts 1 thru 4

Dr. Fager and the Greatest Year Ever Part 1

Dr. Fager 1968 Part 2: Epic Battles With Damascus

Dr. Fager 1968 Part 3: The Unbreakable Record

Dr. Fager 1968 Part 4: Courage on the Grass

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