Hail, Dr. Fager, the conquering hero of the game
by Anne Scott
Daily Racing Form Reporter
June 12, 1996
When Dr. Fager went postward in the 1968 United Nations Handicap, he had just one fianl question to answer: Could he handle the turf?
He had breezed over it, but as John Nerud, who trained the son of Rough'n Tumble throughout his brilliant career, said, "You have to run them to find out."
Dr. Fager already had proved a great deal: He possessed daunting speed and could carry it up to 10 furlongs, he raced at nine different racetracks and successfully handled off going, and he toted 130 pounds or more in the final eight races of his career.
"He was an amazaing horse," Nerud said. "He beat himself. He didn't want any horse in front of him."
Only three times did horses finish in front of him, though he was disqualified from his 1967 Jersey Derby victory and placed fourth. For the record, he won18 times with two seconds and a third.
Bred in Florida by William McKnight's Tartan Farms, Dr. Fager was the fifth foal out of the Better Self mare Aspidistra, who had been claimed by MdKnight's office staff as a birthday present for him for $6,500.
Her earlier foals included Ponce de Leon Stakes winner A. Deck and Canadian Turf Handicap winner Chinatowner, and her later ones included top-notch sprinter Ta Wee, a winner of 13 stakes.
Dr. Fager demonstrated his class early on, winning four of five starts at 2, including the World's Playground Stakes by 12 lengths and the Cowdin Stakes.
At 3, he scored in seven of nine, all in stakes in company, including the Arlington Classic by 10 lengths and the New Hampshire Sweepstakes in track-record time.
But it was at 4 that he reached a new level, winning seven of eight and setting a track record for seven furlongs at Aqueduct and a world record at Arlington for a mile. At year's end, he was voted champion in four categories, a unique accomplishment.
The bay colt began his 4-year-old season in the seven-furlong Roseben Handicap May 4 under 130 pounds. Facing four rivals, Dr. Fager led throughout and won by three lengths while missing the track record by a fifth of a second.
Shipped to Hollywood Park, he picked up 130 pounds again in the mile and a sixteenth Californian Stakes, conceding from nine to 18 pounds to his 13 rivals. Sent off at 6-5, the only time he wasn't odds-on the entire year. Dr. Fager took the lead after three-quarters and won by three in 1:40 4/5. Gamely, the champion handicap mare that season, finished second.
For the Suburban Handicap, July 4, his weight assignment was increased to 132 pounds, though he was receiving a pound from Damascus in an all-star field of five. He led throughout, equaling the track record for a mile and a quarter of 1:59 3/5 and winning by two lengths. Following him across the finish line were Bold Hour in second, Damascus third, Amerigo Lady fourth and In Reality fifth.
In the 10-furlong Brooklyn, July 20, Dr. Fager carried 135 pounds, giving five pounds to Damascus and up to 26 pounds to the other five starters. This time, Damascus was coupled with Hedevar, whose job it was to give Dr. Fager company on the front end. The strategy paid off.
The Daily Racing Form chart of the race referred to Dr. Fager as being "rank while the rider attempted to hold him under restraint back of Hedevar for five-eighths of a mile . . ." At the finish, Damascus was two and a half lengths clear of Dr. Fager.
With the action shifting to Saratoga, Dr. Fager next ran in the Whitney Stakes, under 132 pounds. He responded with an easy eight-length victory on the front end in 1:48 4/5, just three-fifths off the record.
He followed that with his world-record performance in the Washington Park Handicap at a mile. Despite an uncharacteristically tardy start, he assumed command after a half-mile and completed the distance in 1:32 1/5 under 134 pounds, lowering Buckpasser's record by two-fifths of a second.
For the U.N., Dr. Fager received an impost of 134 pounds, including jockey Braulio Baeza, in a field of nine. His opponents included the previous year's grass champion Fort Marcy, carrying 118 pounds. Australian champion Tobin Bronze, also under 118, and proven grass performers Advocator, 112, and Flitto, 117.
The betting public sent him off at 4-5, apparently comfident the dynamo would be able to transfer his ability to the turf.
It proved to be a tough assignment, and one he nearly didn't master.
According to the chart: "Dr. Fager gained the lead in the run to the clubhouse turn . . . was pressed closely from the inside by Advocator, lost the lead to that rival leaving the backstretch, came again to regain advantage entering the stretch, lost it once again to Advocator, and then, responding to strong pressure from his rider, bested Advocator in a stiff drive."
The winning margin was a neck, the shortest of his career.
"He really didn't like the grass," said Nerud. "It had rained, and the course was slippery. At about the eighth pole, he found some good footing and he won. I thought he was beat, though. He kept putting his head down and kept pushing and pushing. It was quite a battle. That was a very good bunch of horses."
Nerud said McKnight remarked to him that Dr. Fager "didn't want to lose."
Nerud, now 83 and still involved in racing as an owner and breeder, said Dr. Fager "had an air about him," even as a young horse. "He was a big. lanky colt. He had something on the ball. He had tow club feet, and we had to take special care that no indection got in them. He was very straight in front, almost as straight as a post."
He put an exclamation point on his career in his final start,the Vosburgh Handicap, and awesome performance by anyone's standards. Carrying 139 pounds and giving away from 12 to 34 pounds, he won by six lengths and set a track record of 1:20 1/5 for the seven furlongs, a full second lower than the previous record. The $37,050 paycheck pushed his earnings to just above $1 million.
To honor him for his superb season, Dr. Fager was named Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and champion grass horse.
"No horse has ever done that," Nerud said, "and no one ever will again."
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