Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
He was a "freak" before the label was coined. A colt with uncommon desire and dash, Dr. Fager put away swift horses with relative ease. Headstrong and maniacally competitive, any horse that dared to pass him risked being lunged at and savaged. When the leggy bay wanted the lead there was no one to stop him.
“He could punch a hole in the wind,” marveled his regular rider, Braulio Baeza.
To many observers, Dr. Fager was the fastest horse who ever ran. His mind-boggling 1:32 1/5 dirt mile in the Washington Park Handicap in August 1968 destroyed the world record. It stood for more than 30 years.
That season may have been the best ever by any horse. Dr. Fager was named Horse of the Year, champion sprinter, champion turf male, and champion older male in 1968 — the only horse in history to capture all four honors. A tall horse at 16.3 hands, he won sprinting and he won going a route of distance. He won on dirt and he won on grass. He did all this despite carrying heavy weight, as much as 139 pounds.
“He was very easy to train, a very willing and smart horse,” said his trainer, John Nerud. “He also was very sensitive. He didn’t want you to raise your voice to him, and he didn’t want anyone whipping him. If something didn’t suit Dr. Fager, he would let you know immediately.
“He [had] beautiful action, and the smoothest, longest stride I've ever seen on any of my horses.”
Foaled at Tartan Farms in 1964, Dr. Fager was a son of 1951 Santa Anita Derby winner Rough’n Tumble for William L. McKnight, the chairman of the board of 3M (the “Scotch Tape people”) and proprietor of the Ocala, Fla. farm. Nerud was Tartan Farm's trainer and breeding manager in the 1950s.
Prior to his entrance into Thoroughbred racing, Nerud was a rodeo cowboy in his native Nebraska and a veteran of World War II. On an October morning at Belmont Park in 1965, Nerud took a tumble from his pony and smacked his head. The trainer shook it off and went back to work, but soon started suffering scary symptoms. Nerud traveled to Boston where he was operated on by the best neurosurgeon on the East Coast, Dr. Charles Fager.
“A subdural hemorrhage was exerting ever increasing pressure on his brain; he wouldn’t have lasted until the next morning,” Fager said. “There can be a lot of brain damage. Fortunately, he didn’t have that. We got to him soon enough.”
Back then, the surgeon didn't know a horse trainer from a lion trainer.
“A while later John called me to ask if he could name a horse after me,” he recalled. “Time passed and one day a package of papers arrived from The Jockey Club, and I gave my consent for the horse to be called ‘Dr. Fager.’ When the horse started racing, it seemed like he was in the newspaper all the time. The notoriety was something I was not prepared for.”
In early April 1967, a crowd of 50,522 crammed into Aqueduct Racetrack to witness the Gotham Stakes in Dr. Fager’s 3-year old debut. He was tackling one of the brightest Kentucky Derby prospects in Damascus, ridden by the great Bill Shoemaker. The betting crowd called it even, making the horses co-favorites for the one-mile race.
That past winter, Dr. Fager had developed a blood infection that kept the colt out of action. By the time he got to New York all was fine with his blood count, but then there was another cause for alarm.
“This colt is not the soundest horse around,” Nerud explained on the day of the Gotham. “More important than his blood infection is a bad right knee. It worries me a lot. Besides that, I've never believed Dr. Fager is a genuine Derby horse. He may not be tough enough.”
When the gates slammed open in the Gotham Stakes, Damascus broke like a shot from the outside as Dr. Fager gained good position down on the inside. Drawing clear of the field at the top of the stretch the two colts matched stride for stride. Roaring down the stretch on the outside Dr. Fager squeezed his rival so much that Shoemaker was forced to whip left-handed because he didn’t have enough room to switch to his right. Dr. Fager flashed across the finish line by a half-length in a time of 1:35 1/5.
Game on. The Dr. Fager vs. Damascus rivalry had begun.
Feeling his colt was not quite ready, Nerud skipped the 1967 Kentucky Derby where Damascus ran third. Instead, Dr. Fager destroyed the fields in the Withers and the Jersey Derby. However, Dr. Fager was disqualified in the Jersey Derby for “crowding on the clubhouse turn.”
With racing fans hollering for a rematch of the Gotham, the two colts went to the post in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park in late September. Four-year old Buckpasser, the 1966 Horse of the Year, also turned up in what was billed the “Meeting of the Champions.”
Damascus' trainer Frank Whiteley had a plan. He entered a pair of “rabbits” to siphon off some of Dr. Fager's devastating speed. In the stretch, Damascus collared the leg-weary Dr. Fager and rolled to a 10-length victory. Buckpasser finished second by a half-length.
Other than the Woodward, Dr. Fager whipped his 3-year-old rivals - and plenty of older horses - in every start, including victories in the Arlington Classic, the Rockingham Special, the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic, the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Vosburgh Handicap.
Worried about a suspect knee and ankle, Nerud handled the horse with extreme care. Dr. Fager made eight starts during his 4-year-old season. The Tartan Farms colt traveled to Arlington Park in Chicago in August. Racing on a track that was bone-dry following a week of intense heat and carrying 134 pounds Dr. Fager ran the mile in 1:32 1/5 to shatter the world record.
Dr. Fager shortened up to a sprint in the Vosburgh Stakes for the final race of his career. Carrying a stunning 139 pounds and giving as much as 34 pounds to his rivals, Dr. Fager galloped off to a six-length victory, lowering the track record at Aqueduct to 1:20 1/5 for seven furlongs. Later that fall Dr. Fager bowed a tendon and was retired as the sport’s ninth millionaire, bankrolling $1,002,642.
“I rated him a few times, but he resented it and fought me,” Baeza said. “If I knew he was setting a world record, all I had to do was chirp to him and he would’ve lowered the record even more."
Over a 3-year career he won 18 of 22 races (one of the losses came on a disqualification). Only three horses ever finished in front of him-- Successor, champion 2-year-old male in 1966; 1967 Horse of the Year Damascus; and 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser.
Later in life, his trainer reflected on the racing immortal’s career.
“He was the only horse I ever had that could run, the only one,” Nerud said. “No one horse could ever beat him. It took two, they had to run an entry to beat him. No horse could beat him at a mile. He was the fastest horse that ever lived.”
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in March 2014 and has been updated. Dr. Charles Fager, the namesake of the one of the greatest racehorses of all time, died in April 2014 at his home in Burlington, Mass., at the age of 90.
Dr. Fager went to stud at Tartan Farms, while Damascus headed to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. Both enjoyed success. Dr. Fager was partially syndicated for $3.2 million by some of racing’s biggest names — Phipps, Hancock, du Pont, Mellon, Vanderbilt and Whitney. His offspring included 35 stakes winners and three champions, some top sprinters, others elite runners on the turf. He died prematurely on Aug. 5, 1976 from a colon obstruction. The year after his death Dr. Fager stood at the top of national sire list. He was buried atop a hill at Tartan Farms, now known as Winding Oaks Farm. A flat piece of granite is inscribed: “Racing’s Grand Slam … 1968 Horse of the Year, Handicap Champion, Sprint Champion, Grass Champion … Set the World Record for a Mile.”