There are long-time followers of Thoroughbred racing who will swear that in 1968, Dr. Fager could have run head to head with any horse in history and would never have been beaten at up to one mile. While I will always hold steadfast to the belief that Man o' War would beat any horse at any time over any distance, the Dr. Fager faithful have a very strong case.
So much has been written about Dr. Fager's career and his sensational, record-breaking 1968 season that I've decided to take a slightly different tact in remembering the horse 30 years later. I'll cover his racing career, but I will concentrate heavily on one race that is usually just mentioned in passing -- especially when compared to some of Dr. Fager's other brilliant performances that year. That race is the 1968 Californian Stakes, the lone start of his career on the West Coast.
I do so not only because that was the only time I was at a racetrack in person to see Dr. Fager perform, but because the race was far more impressive than it might look on paper. To understand how good this mostly overlooked performance was only helps heighten one's awareness of just how awesome his other performances were that year.
Dr. Fager was bred in Florida by his owner, the Tartan Stable of William L. McKnight, the chairman of the board of 3-M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Co. -- the "Scotch tape people.") The Rough'n Tumble colt was named for Dr. Charles Fager, a neurosurgeon who was credited with saving the life of John Nerud, who trained for Tartan.
Dr. Fager started 22 times, finishing first 19 times. Only three horses ever finished in front of the good doctor: Champion juvenile Successor; Horse of the Year Damascus; and Horse of the Year Buckpasser.
AT AGES TWO AND THREE
Dr. Fager made his juvenile debut on July 15, 1966 at Aqueduct. He won by seven lengths at 10-to-1. He then won an allowance race by eight lengths; the World's Playground Stakes by 12 lengths; and the Cowdin Stakes by three-quarters of a length. He ran greenly in the Champagne and finished second to eventual juvenile champion, Successor.
As a three-year-old, Dr. Fager finished first in every start except a race considered by many as the greatest matchup of the 20th Century, the 1967 Woodward Handicap at Belmont Park. The Tartan ace won the Gotham Stakes, the Withers Stakes, the Jersey Derby (he was disqualified for crowding on the clubhouse turn -- a story in itself), the Arlington Classic, the Rockingham Special, the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Vosburgh Handicap.
The 1967 Woodward featured three future Hall of Fame horses, all of who deserve the title, "great." They were 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser; 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus; and 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager. Damascus was simply a monster that autumn afternoon.
*THE* YEAR -- 1968
Because of a suspect knee and ankle, Dr. Fager was handled with extreme care by trainer John Nerud. The doctor made eight starts during his four-year-old season.
On May 4, 1968, he returned to the races. Carrying 130 pounds -- the lowest impost he would carry all year -- Dr. Fager coasted to a three-length win in the Roseben Handicap, missing the track record by one-fifth of a second.
Hollywood Park pleaded with Nerud to ship west, and John finally agreed. The race was the 15th running of the $100,000-added Californian Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on May 18. Dr. Fager won easily. (See in-depth report below.)
Next was the July 4 Suburban Handicap. Carrying 132 pounds in the 1 1/4 mile race, Dr. Fager put away an all-star field that included Damascus (who carried 130 pounds), Bold Hour and In Reality.
On July 20, Dr. Fager picked up 135 pounds for the Brooklyn Handicap, giving Damascus five pounds. This time, Damascus' stablemate, Hedevar, gave the doctor all he wanted on the front end, allowing Damascus to win.
At Saratoga a couple of weeks later, Dr. Fager carried 132 pounds to an eight-length victory in the Whitney Handicap.
Then came the final three starts of his career -- three of the most unbelievable performances in the sport's history.
The Tartan colt traveled to Arlington Park in Chicago (now Arlington International Racecourse). Under 134 pounds, Dr. Fager overcame a poor start and coasted to an eight-length win, eased up at the end. The teletimer told the story. Final time for the one mile: 1:32 1/5, a world record for the distance on the dirt. Thirty years later, that record is still the global standard.
On September 1, in the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City, Dr. Fager ran on the turf for the first and only time. Despite having never run on the grass, he was assigned 134 pounds -- giving 16 pounds to Fort Marcy (the grass champion from the previous year and, later, Horse of the Year) and Australian champion Tobin Bronze. Despite running on a surface of which he was unfamiliar and one that was wet and slick from rainfall, Dr. Fager fought head and head on the lead for the entire 1 3/16 mile distance, winning by a head over the solid grass performer, Advocator.
Now, as if running a world-record mile and struggling through a slippery 1 3/16 mile grass effort -- both times under 134 pounds -- wasn't enough, Dr. Fager shortened up to a sprint for the final race of his career.
As one historian wrote, "Dr. Fager put the exclamation point on his career in the 1968 Vosburgh Handicap." Carrying an incredible *139 pounds* and giving as much as 34 pounds to his opponents, Dr. Fager galloped off by six lengths, lowering the track record at Aqueduct to 1:20 1/5 for seven furlongs.
Dr. Fager was named Horse of the Year, champion sprinter, champion grass horse and champion older male -- the only horse in history to capture all four honors.
A CLOSER LOOK--THE 1968 CALIFORNIAN
John Nerud's decision to go west was a controversial one. Dr. Fager would go off at 6-to-5 in the $100,000-added Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, the only time that year that he was not odds-on. There was good reason.
While shipping back and forth between coasts is much more commonplace today, such was not the case in the 1970s and earlier. Shipping to the West Coast -- especially Hollywood Park -- was frequently a disaster for trainers of eastern stars. The number of eastern stakes horses who simply could not handle the hard, pasteboard surface of Hollywood Park in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s would fill a small volume.
Until 1981, Hollywood Park would only race in late spring and summer, a time of little rainfall in Southern California. In one period in the 50s and 60s, Hollywood Park would go *eight years* without an off track. Because of regular rainfall, eastern tracks had to be more sandy and deeper. Hollywood Park did not need to worry about a surface that drained well. By the early 1980s, Hollywood Park adopted a more sandy loam composition for its dirt track, thus making it more like eastern tracks.
Just four years before Dr. Fager ventured to Hollywood Park, five-time Horse of the Year Kelso made his only two starts on the West Coast in Hollywood Park's Los Angeles Handicap and Californian Stakes in 1964. The great one finished up the track in both these starts. In the Californian he was soundly defeated by a fugitive from the Pacific Northwest named Mustard Plaster -- a horse who couldn't have warmed up Kelso's stable pony on eastern tracks.
Four years after Dr. Fager's trip, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge ventured to Hollywood Park for the 1 1/4 mile Hollywood Derby on July 1, 1972. The Meadow Stable ace won, but Penny Tweedy said it was the biggest mistake of her life. "They just keep running at you the entire distance," she said. The race took so much out of Riva Ridge that it was a year before he fully recovered. He lost the three-year-old championship, despite his Triple Crown achievements.
Undefeated Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew had natural speed that everyone thought might be beneficial in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on June 18, 1977. In his only trip to the West Coast, the undefeated champion -- going off at odds of 1-to 5 -- struggled home 16 lengths behind J. O. Tobin, suffering his first career loss.
So for Dr. Fager to come west was no easy decision. To make matters worse, he drew post position 11 in the 14-horse field. With a short run to the clubhouse turn, Dr. Fager needed a lot of luck in a field that included several horses with 1:08-plus six-furlong races to their credit (Kissin' George, Dr. Roy E and Rising Market). In addition, the field included Gamely, William Haggin Perry's national champion older mare -- who loved Hollywood Park's glib surface.
The Californian was run under allowance-stakes conditions, with a maximum of 130 pounds -- light weight for Dr. Fager and one of the reasons that Nerud agreed to come west.
On a personal note, it was one of the thrills of my early racing days being among the crowd of 50,208 who jammed the Inglewood oval. The Race of the Century a year earlier between Dr. Fager, Damascus and Buckpasser had whetted everyone's appetite on the West Coast to see the good doctor. Damascus and Buckpasser had already come this way, both campaigning on the much more favorable Santa Anita surface. And this would likely be the only chance we would ever have to see Dr. Fager in California.
On a sunny, warm May afternoon, Dr. Fager broke alertly, but there was no way he could outbreak the sprinters inside of him. As expected, Kissin' George, Rising Market and Dr. Roy E all gunned for the lead. As the field went around the clubhouse turn, Dr. Fager was a tad wide in fourth. The first quarter went in 22 2/5. As the field straightened down the backstretch, Braulio Baeza slowly guided Dr. Fager into second place along the rail behind Kissin' George. The half went in 45 flat.
Turning for home, Dr. Fager took the lead, passing the six furlongs in 1:08 3/5. From there, he simply coasted to the wire.
I can still hear track announcer Harry Henson's call as Dr. Fager took the lead from Kissin' George. The champion mare Gamely came along for second, but as the Daily Racing Form chartcaller noted, Dr. Fager "drew away and won with authority." The margin at the end was three lengths. The time was 1:40 4/5, almost two seconds off the track and world record -- *but* that was set by Swaps in 1956 (1:39 flat).
Dr. Fager and John Nerud left Hollywood Park as quickly as they had come. Dr. Fager had arrived on Thursday, galloped on Friday, won the Californian on Saturday, and was safely bedded down back in his barn at Belmont Park in New York on Monday morning.
But, while Dr. Fager came and went quickly to California, there are those of us among the 50,000-plus at Hollywood Park that afternoon who will carry the memory of his performance with us forever. He was simply awesome.
Postscript: Dr. Fager was inducted in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing at Saratoga Springs, NY, just three years after he left the racetrack. He went to stud at Tartan Farm near Ocala, FL, where he stood for eight years before his premature death at age 12 on August 5, 1976. Death was attributed to a colon obstruction.