The Ultimate Miler
by Steven Ragone
Dr. Fager, br.c.
born 1964Rough'n Tumble
1948Free For All, 1942Questionnaire, 1927PanayRousedBull Dog (Fr), 1927Rude AwakeningAspidistra,
1954Better Self, 1945Bimelech, 1937Bee MacTilly RoseBull Brier, 1938Tilly Kate
(female family # 1)
won - World's Playground Stakes (by 12 lengths)
won - Cowdin Stakes
2nd - Champagne Stakes
won - Gotham Stakes
won - Withers Stakes
won - Jersey Derby (but disqualified to 4th)
won - Arlington Classic (by 10 lengths)
won - Rockingham Special
won - New Hampshire Sweepstakes
won - Hawthorne Gold Cup
won - Vosburgh Handicap
3rd - Woodward Stakes
won - Roseben Handicap (130 lbs)
won - Californian Stakes (130 lbs)
won - Suburban Handicap (132 lbs)
won - Whitney Stakes (132 lbs - won by 8 lenghts)
won - Washington Park Handicap (134 lbs - New World Record 1m in 1:32 1/5)
won - Vosburgh Handicap - (139 lbs - won by 6 lengths)
2nd - Brooklyn Handicap
This strapping bay colt first set foot on the racetrack for competition on July 15, 1966, at Aqueduct. An easy 7-length winner, it was apparent from the start that he was no ordinary animal. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer John A. Nerud, and a product of Tartan Stable, Dr. Fager raced 22 times in his career, and along the way established himself as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds that ever lived. Many horses reside in the Racing Hall of Fame, but there are a select few for whom a case can be made that they were the greatest of all time. Dr. Fager belongs in that special group just as assuredly as Man o' War and Secretariat.
Dr. Fager followed up his maiden victory with an eight-length allowance win in Auguest at Saratoga. His first stakes effort soon followed in the World's Playground. The odds-on favorite in the seven furlong Atlantic City sprint, he was never threatened while devastating the field in a 12-length romp.
All of the country's top two-year-olds gathered at Aqueduct on October 5, 1966, to compete in the Cowdin Stakes, including In Reality and eventual 2-year-old champion, Successor. With Bill Shoemaker up, Dr. Fager broke last in the field of 10. He eagerly rushed up to catch the early leaders, which forced Shoemaker to stand up in the irons to avoid running over the pacesetters. Moved to the outside entering the stretch, the Doctor surveyed his surroundings as they straightened for home. Shemaker, however, kept him to task, and he returned the winner by 3/4 of a length. The Shoe offered the following observation after the race, "He's green and I suppose this should be expected, but this could be a good horse."
Dr. Fager came into the Champagne Stakes undefeated in four lifetime starts, but Eddile Neloy, trainer of Successor, had a plan to end the win streak. He entered stablemate Great White Way as a rabbit to burn out the even-money favorite in a speed duel. After being softened up by Great White Way and Bold Hour, the Arlington-Washington Futurity winner, Dr. Fager tasted defeat for the first time as Successor came on to win by a length. The early pacesetters were long gone, save Dr. Fager, who was four lengths clear of third place finisher Proviso. The Champagne ended Dr. Fager's 2-year-old campaign, and despite having soundly beaten Successor in the Cowdin, he was not voted champion 2-year-old.
A blood ailment that winter set Dr. Fager back in his training, and he had to run in an exhibition race to prepare for his three-year-old debut in the Gotham Stakes on April 15, 1967. The Gotham would be his first meeting with Damascus, who was to become Dr. Fager's defining counterpart and fiercest rival. Near the lead throughout, Dr. Fager raced on even terms through the stretch with Damascus before inching away in the final yards to win by a half-length under Manuel Ycaza. Nerud cited Dr. Fager's chronic knee trouble as the reason for passing up the Kentucky Derby on the short timeline, and the Tartan star was pointed toward the Preakness.
His next start came nearly a month later, in the one mile Withers at Aqueduct. Before a crowd of 50,233, Dr. Fager turned in the fastest mile ever recorded by a 3-year-old in New York, running it in 1:33 4/5, while humbling previously unbeaten Tumiga in the process. Nerud announced that Dr. Fager would skip the Preakness, to be run the following week, because it would be asking too much of the weak- kneed superstar.
The lightly raced Tartan charge was then sent to Garden State Park to compete in the Jersey Derby on May 30. Easily the best that day, he crossed the finish line 6 1/2 lengths the better of his nearest rival, In Reality. The stewards, however, decided that Dr. Fager had crowded the field entering the first turn, and he was disqualified and placed last. Preakness runner-up In Reality was declared the winner, although finishing well behind Fager, who had run the mile and one- eighth in 1:48 flat, three-fifths of a second faster than any previous running. Ironically, Dr. Fager's jockey, Ycaza, was riding on his day of grace prior to serving a 20-day suspension for carelessness. The Jersey Derby ride got him another fifteen days. He would never mount Dr. Fager again.
The following month found Dr. Fager confronting something new, a sloppy racetrack. The $100,000 Arlington Park Classic was the latest test for the big bay. With new regular rider Braulio Baeza up, Dr. Fager drew off to win by 10, answering any questions about his off- track capabilities. Baeza stated after the race that he felt Dr. Fager could defeat Preakness and Belmont winner Damascus at any distance.
Three weeks later, in July, Fager was off to Rockingham Park for the $75,000 Rockingham Special. An easy 4 1/4 length winner over Reason to Hail, Dr. Fager set his first track record by running the mile and one-eighth in 1:48 1/5, decimating the previous mark by one second.
Dr. Fager next appeared on track in early September to meet four rivals in the $250,000 New Hampshire Sweepstakes, to be contested over 1 1/4 miles. In the field was the always competitive In Reality. Up until this point, Fager had never been asked to run beyond a mile and an eighth, and there were those who contended he was not capable of sustaining his blazing speed over a classic distance, citing this as the reason he skipped the Triple Crown and Travers. Following this race, there would be few detractors. Over a track termed "dead", both Fager and In Reality shattered the track record. Out of the gate quickly, Dr. Fager gained a clear advantage over In Reality and anticipated front-runner Barb's Delight. Earlie Fires, on In Reality, set out after Dr. Fager and drew even with him with five- eighths of a mile to go. The crowd gasped audibly as In Reality edged to a half-length lead at the half mile pole. The race, though, was far from over. Braulio Baeza urged Dr. Fager forward and the two battled it out head and head down the stretch. Inside the sixteenth pole, Dr. Fager was too much for the game In Reality, and under a hand ride pulled away from his rival to win by 1 1/4 lengths. It was nine more lengths back to the nearest competitor, Barb's Delight. Dr. Fager had obliterated the track record by a full three seconds.
On September 30, 1968, three of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever grace a racetrack were brought together for an historic meeting in the Woodward Stakes. They were 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser, and two future Horses of the Year, Damascus (1967) and Dr. Fager (1968). Although certainly not a highlight of Dr. Fager's career, this race proved a representation of the only way this great horse could ever be defeated. In perhaps the greatest respect a horse has ever been accorded in competition, the trainers of both Buckpasser and Damascus entered sprinter stablemates in an attempt to fry Dr. Fager on the front end in order to set up the race for their come-from-behind superstars. An unfair practice perhaps, but clever horsemanship nonetheless. Buckpasser with Great Above and Damascus with Hedever, versus Dr. Fager.
Booed upon their appearance on track during the post parade, Hedevar and Great Above were no doubt unaware of the displeasure their presence created. Fans of racing knew precisely the purpose they were there to serve. According to Dr. Fager's jockey, Bill Boland, Bobby Ussery aboard Great Above disturbed Dr. Fager at the start by whooping and hollering, a not unheard of technique used to frighten speed horses into going full throttle. Great Above, and especially Hedever, forced the great Doctor into fractions of 45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5, exhausting him into capitulation, accomplishing their singular mission. Damascus rolled on to a 10-length win over Buckpasser, who struggled to finish just a half-length in front of the weary Dr. Fager. It would be Buckpasser's final race.
In the mile and a quarter Hawthorne Gold Cup in October, just three weeks after the Woodward, Dr. Fager coasted home the winner by 2 1/2 lengths under a Braulio Baeza hand ride. Conceding nine pounds to second choice and second place finisher Whisper Jet with Craig Perret, Dr. Fager drew off in the stretch, wiring the field.
Back at Aqueduct for his 1967 finale in the Vosburgh, Dr. Fager faced several of the top sprinters in the country, including Jim J. Assigned 128 pounds, the great 3-year-old conceded six pounds straight up to his nearest elder and several more pounds on the scale. Uncharacteristically, he drew off to a convincing 4 1/2 length victory. The highweight completed the seven furlongs in 1:21 3/5, just 2/5 off the track record. In registering his seventh official win from nine starts, Dr. Fager was convincing enough to be voted champion sprinter of 1967 despite having just one start under a mile. Damascus, winner of the Preakness, Belmont, Travers and Woodward, was names Horse of the Year.
Dr. Fager's 4-year-old campaign would be one for the ages. If his 3-year-old season was reasonably described as brilliant, then 1968 was beyond description. Following nearly a seven month hiatus, Dr. Fager returned to racing in the Roseben Handicap on May 4, 1968. Despite his lengthy respite, he went to post the 1-5 favorite, and responded with a resounding three-length wire to wire win. Conceding his rivals from 9 to 20 pounds, Dr. Fager negotiated the seven furlong test in 1:21 1/5, just 1/5 off the track record, while toting 130 pounds. With that performance, he served notice that he had not lost a step.
With weight now becoming an increasing concern for trainer Nerud, Dr. Fager was sent cross country to Hollywood Park for the $100,000 Californian. Believing the big horse would only have to carry 124 pounds there, Nerud was upset to discover upon his arrival he had misread the condition book, and that his prized steed would have to once more bear 130 pounds. Dismayed, Nerud decided that six pounds did not merit a return flight and proclaimed that Dr. Fager would start anyway.
Undaunted by the presence of the east coast phenomenon, thirteen combatants were entered to engage Dr. Fager. In the hopes of showcasing left coast talent, the Californians threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Tartan champion. They were sorely disappointed. Starting from post eleven, Braulio Baeza got Dr. Fager away cleanly. Prominent throughout the early going, Dr. Fager slipped through along the rail and grabbed possession of the lead as they straightened for home. He drew away for an easy three-length win over the outstanding filly and future Hall of Famer, Gamely.
There figured to be fireworks off and on the track on the Fourth of July in 1968. The mile and a quarter Suburban was setting up to be another important race that year, and certainly one of the most important in the career of Dr. Fager. In the field was 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus, hoping to duplicate last year's Woodward effort. To ensure that, trainer Frank Whiteley had again entered stablemate Hedevar to guarantee speedy early fractions for Damascus' closing kick. Also in the field was the third best of the 1964 crop, In Reality. Bringing a four-race win streak which included victories in the Carter and Metropolitan Handicaps, In Reality was in great form for this test. Bold Hour, a greatly improved four-year-old whose 1968 form commanded respect, was also entered. Rounding out the field was Amerigo Lady, a filly trained by Elliott Burch.
There was disappointment among some of the trainers, most notably John Nerud, that the rabbit Hedevar had again been entered as a hedge against Dr. Fager's brilliant speed. This, they thought, would compromise the quality of a race among worthy competitors by diluting it with a horse that had no chance to win. Not one to extol the virtues of Dr. Fager's competition, Nerud asked anyone who would listen why, if a man thought he had the best horse, would he need two to defeat Dr. Fager? When news came early July 4, that hedevar had sustained a training injury and was scratched, the race of the year was on and there would be no excuses. If Damascus could win under 133, he would establish himself as the superior classic distance horse of his generation. If Dr. Fager triumphed under 132, he would remove all doubt about his class and stamina and solidify his pre-eminence. In Reality, carrying 125, would have the opportunity to step out of the giant shadows cast by the former two.
Out of the gate from post one, Damascus was quickly passed by Dr. Fager, who dropped down to grab the rail. In Reality was a close third. Entering the backstretch, Damascus, under Manny Ycaza, drew to even terms with Dr. Fager. Stride for stride down the backstretch, Damascus' repeated challenges for the lead were met each time with an equal burst by Dr. Fager. Eyeball to eyeball, these two great horses battled around the far turn until, finally, Damascus could give no more. Blazing the mile in 1:34 3/5, the only question was if Dr. Fager himself would have anything left to stave off a late challenge. The challenge did not come from In Reality, but rather from Bold Hour. Looming boldly in the stretch, he could do no more than momentarily threaten Dr. Fager, who held him safe to win by two lengths. Dr. Fager, the 4-5 crowd choice, was greeted with resounding applause as Damascu finished third, five lengths behind the winner. The winning time of 1:59 3/5 tied the track record for a mile and a quarter.
Less than three weeks later, a rematch in the mile and a quarter Brooklyn Handicap saw Dr. Fager assigned 135 while Damascus was given 130. This time, however, the rabbit was healthy. Hedevar flew out of the gate and raced to an early lead, with Dr. Fager giving chase. His duty done, Hedevar surrendered to Dr. Fager at the 3/4 pole after pushing the first half in a torrid :45 4/5. The 3-5 favorite raced six furlongs in 1:09 2/5 and the mile in 1:34 3/5, and no one thought even he could hold off Damascus to the finish under the heavy package. Damascus collared him in the stretch, and although Dr. Fager held well, he was unable to stay with his nemesis who won by 2 1/2 lengths in track record time.
It was to be their last meeting. They were both clearly superior animals. It was also clear that when both were in the same race, each needed the race to be run their way. John Nerud's contention that no horse could defeat Dr. Fager straight up appeared valid. But races are seldom run in a vacuum, and Damascus was able to prevail with the aid of his stablemate. The historic rivalry justly ended in a draw.
For Dr. Fager, though, greater things were yet to come. An eight- length win in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on August 3 resulted in the first minus win pool in track history. Conceding 18 pounds to each of his three rivals, Dr. Fager was sent off at 1-20, the shortest odds in the 28 year history of pari-mutuel wagering in New York. Easily wiring the field under 132 pounds, his clocking was just 3/5 off the track record.
The Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, to be contested at one mile, was next for the good Doctor. His performance would make history. Conceding 16 pounds to his nearest competitor and 20 or more to most of the others, including Hedevar, Dr. Fager cruised to a 10- length win under another Baeza hand ride. After running the first three-quarters in 1:07 3/5, the official final time showed that he had shattered Buckpasser's two year old track and world record by two- fifths of a second in 1:32 1/5. Buckpasser had broken the record under 125 pounds. No previous world record holder had toted more than 130 pounds in setting the mark. Dr. Fager carried 134. The record stood until 1997.
The racing career of Dr. Fager changed course on September 11, 1968, when he was asked to prove his greatness on grass. The mile and three-sixteenths United Nations Handicap pitted reigning North American turf champion Fort Marcy, Australian champion Tobin Bronze, and prior year victor Flit-To against the celebrated dirt phenomenon. Despite these facts, Dr. Fager was assigned the stifling highweight of 134 pounds, while the grass specialists were assigned 118, 118, and 117, respectively.
The race itself was unlike typical Dr. Fager races. Racing over a firm, but dampened course, Dr. Fager was ill at ease on the foreign surface. Unable to stride out in his usual manner, the Doctor gingerly stepped across the lawn exchanging places on the front end with Advocator, who carried 112 pounds. The fractions were slow throughout, but when Advocator edged ahead on the far turn, it looked as though Dr. Fager would be beaten. At the quarter pole, Fort Marcy put in his run while Advocator and Dr. Fager drifted out slightly, with Tobin Bronze toiling in fourth. As the hedge opened, Fort Marcy accelerated and looked the strongest, but Dr. Fager came back at Advocator as those two continuted on the lead. Drifting back to the hedge, the lead tandem, still clear of Fort Marcy, shut off that one's path and by doing so effectively ended his chance at victory. Head and head down the stretch, the lead changed hands again as Advocator nudged forward. Dr. Fager fought back valiantly and regained the lead once more, this time for good, as he crossed the line the neck winner in a gritty, hard fought performance.
Back to his preferred footing, Dr. Fager would make his swan song his sweetest tune. At Aqueduct on November 2, racing in the seven furlong Vosburgh Handicap, Baeza climbed aboard for the final go round on the champion Thoroughbred, who was saddled with the oppressive impost of 139 pounds. Pressed from the outset by speedster Kissin' George, Dr. Fager raced the half-mile in a breakneck :43 4/5. The six furlongs were run in 1:07 4/5, four-fifths faster than the standing track record. In the stretch, Dr. Fager separated himself from the field, as he often had throughout his magnificent career, and drew off to a six-length win. The final time of 1:20 1/5 shattered the previous track record by a full second, and was only one tick off the world record. All this under 139 pounds against crack sprinters. Applause reserved only for a select few over the decades met Dr. Fager as he pranced into the winner's circle for the last time. The jewel securely in the crown, this finishing touch pushed Dr. Fager's lifetime earnings to $1,002,642.
A review of 1968 saw Dr. Fager win at distances from seven furlongs to a mile and a quarter. He won seven of eight, on dirt and grass, all while carrying no less than 130 pounds. He set or equaled track records on three occasions and set a world record as well. He won on tracks in the East, the Midwest, and the West. In a glorious tribute, Dr. Fager was voted champion horse in all categories he was eligible: sprint, turf, handicap, and horse of the year.
Only three horses ever crossed the finish line ahead of Dr. Fager, each of them champions: Successor, two-year-old champion of 1966; Buckpasser, Horse of the Year in 1966; and Damascus, Horse of the Year in 1967. Dominant in each year he competed, and victorious on eight different racetracks, Dr. Fager was one of those rare Thoroughbreds who was superior from the beginning of his career to the end. His final record stood at 18 wins, 2 seconds, and a third from 22 starts, his only time out of the money being his Jersey Derby disqualification.
Dr. Fager died suddenly, at age 12, on August 5, 1976, from a torsion of the large colon. Fittingly, his name topped the nation's sire list in progeny earnings the following year. Dr. Fager.... his is a name immortal in the annals of horse racing.