A colt by Rough’n Tumble out of Aspidistra, Dr. Fager wasn’t very impressive as a foal. He had two club feet and was rather clumsy, and his proportions were a little odd. He was one of those horses that had to grow into himself over time, plus his feelings were easily hurt. However, he was smart and kind, and well liked on the farm. He always tried his best to do what was asked of him, and was easily trained. His sensitivity lasted throughout his life… as a stallion on the stud farm; a litter of kittens were born in the corner of his stall. He kept watch over the kittens, giving them a soft nuzzle before heading to his feed tub. When the mother cat finally took her kittens from the stall, he was quite upset.
He grew into a big and tough colt, with the kind of long hip that spells power. Going out for exercise, it took him a while to get his legs moving together, and then his stride became longer and more smooth. After a while, he was outstriding the other colts. As a racehorse, he hated the whip. If a jockey hit him with the whip, his tail would fly up in the air in rebellion… he didn’t need a whip to give his all. He didn’t like the restraining bit either; his preferred style of running was to burst from the gate and run like a demon.
On July 15, 1966, at Aqueduct, Dr. Fager won his first race by seven lengths. His Hall of Fame trainer John A. Nerud had a “big horse” in his barn. Dr. Fager followed up his maiden victory with an eight-length win in an allowance race in August at Saratoga. His first stakes race was in the World’s Playground at Atlantic City. He was the odds-on favorite in the seven-furlong sprint, and he was never threatened while devastating the field by twelve lengths. His first year was off to an outstanding start.
All the top two-year-olds were entered at Aqueduct on October 5, 1966, to compete in the Cowdin Stakes, including In Reality and eventual 2-year-old champion, Successor. Dr. Fager broke last in the field of ten. He rushed up to catch the early leaders, forcing his jockey Bill Shoemaker to stand up in the irons to avoid running over the pacesetters. Entering the stretch, Shoemaker moved him to the outside, where Dr. Fager had a look around before the Shoe had to set him down to the task and he came in the winner by 3/4 of a length. Said the Shoe after the race, “He’s green, and I suppose this should be expected, but this could be a good horse.” Could be!
The Champagne Stakes was up next for the Doctor. But the trainer of Successor had a plan — he entered stablemate Great White Way as a “rabbit” to burn out Dr. Fager in a speed duel, leaving his more easily rated Successor to finish first. The plan worked all too well, and Successor came on to win by a length. The rabbit and other early speedsters were back up the track, except for Dr. Fager, who was four lengths ahead 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.
Dr. Fager’s three-year-old debut was in the Gotham Stakes on April 15, 1967. The Gotham would be his first meeting with Damascus, who would become Dr. Fager’s fiercest rival. Close to the lead throughout, Dr. Fager raced head and head with Damascus through the stretch before inching away in the final yards to win by a half-length. After this win, it was decided to pass up on the Kentucky Derby due to Dr. Fager’s chronic knee trouble, and the colt was pointed toward the Preakness.
His next start was almost a month later in the one mile Withers at Aqueduct. Dr. Fager ran the fastest mile ever recorded by a 3-year-old in New York, running in 1:33 4/5 while humbling previously unbeaten Tumiga in the process. It was decided that the colt would skip the Preakness, to be run the following week, because it would be asking too much of him considering his knee and ankle problems.
In the Jersey Derby on May 30, he crossed the finish line 6-1/2 lengths the ahead of his nearest rival, In Reality, winner of the Preakness. The stewards, however, decided that Dr. Fager had crowded the field entering the first turn, and he was disqualified and placed last. Dr. Fager had run the mile and one-eighth in 1:48 flat, three-fifths of a second faster than any previous running.
Next month in the $100,000 Arlington Park Classic, on a sloppy track, Dr. Fager drew off to win by 10, answering any questions about his off-track capabilities. In early September Dr. Fager was entered in the $250,000 New Hampshire Sweepstakes at 1-1/4 miles. Many thought he could not sustain his speed over that distance. Out of the gate quickly, Dr. Fager broke well in front of In Reality and expected 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. 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!
Then came what was called “Race of the Century” — the Woodward Stakes, in which 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser, and two future Horses of the Year, Damascus (1967) and Dr. Fager (1968) would compete. The trainers of Buckpasser and Damascus both entered rabbits in efforts to burn out Dr. Fager’s speed, knowing he was difficult to rate. Bobby.
Ussery aboard Great Power is said to have shouted and hollered, a not unheard of technique used to frighten horses into going full throttle (and Dr. Fager was not only a full throttle type horse, but also a sensitive one).The rabbit horses forced the great Doctor into fractions of 45-1/5 and 1:09-1/5, exhausting him into capitulation, accomplishing their mission. Damascus ran on to a 10-length win over Buckpasser, who struggled to finish just a half-length in front of the weary Dr. Fager.
In the mile and a quarter Hawthorne Gold Cup in October, three weeks after the Woodward, Dr. Fager coasted home the winner by 2-1/2 lengths under a hand ride. Dr. Fager drew off in the stretch to wire the field. Back at Aqueduct for his 1967 finale in the 7 furlong Vosburgh, Dr. Fager faced several of the top sprinters in the country, including Jim J. Uncharacteristically off the early pace, Dr. Fager rallied from fifth to take the lead entering the stretch and, very characteristically, drew off to a convincing 4-1/2 length victory in 1:21-3/5, just 2/5 off the track record. In finishing his seventh official win in nine starts, Dr. Fager was voted Champion Sprinter of 1967 despite having made just one start under a mile. Damascus, winner of the Preakness, Belmont, Travers and Woodward, was named Horse of the Year.
Following a break of over six months, Dr. Fager returned to racing in the Roseben Handicap on May 4, 1968. He went to post the 1-5 favorite, and accomplished a three-length wire to wire win. Dr. Fager ran the seven furlongs in 1:21-1/5, just 1/5 off the track record, while carrying 130 pounds.
Dr. Fager was sent cross-country to Hollywood Park for the $100,000 Californian, where he again would carry 130 pounds. The California tracks were not something he was used to running on — in the East the tracks are softer, while in California at that time, the surface at Hollywood Park was quite hard, a concern for any horse with knee and ankle problems. Starting against 13 rivals from post eleven, Braulio Baeza got Dr. Fager away cleanly. Prominent throughout the early going, Dr. Fager slipped through along the rail and made 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. So much for the track surface.
The mile and a quarter Suburban was 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, trying to duplicate last years’ Woodward. Also in the field was the third best of the 1964 crop, In Reality. With a four-race win streak which included the Carter and Metropolitan Handicaps, In Reality was peaking for this renewal. Also entered was Bold Hour, a decent four-year-old whose 1968 form was improving.
Breaking alertly from post one, Damascus was quickly passed by Dr. Fager, who then dropped over to grab the rail. In Reality was a close third. Entering the backstretch, Damascus drew head to head with Dr. Fager. Stride for stride down the backstretch, Damascus’ repeated challenges for the lead were met each time with a burst forward by Dr. Fager. Eyeball to eyeball, these two great horses battled around the far turn until, at last, Damascus had no more. Blazing the mile in 1:34-3/5, the only question was if Dr. Fager himself would have anything left to hold off a late challenge. And here it came — charging on in the stretch, Bold Hour could do no more than momentarily threaten Dr. Fager, who held him safe to win by two lengths. Dr. Fager was greeted with resounding applause as Damascus 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 pounds Damascus 130. This time, however, the rabbit Hedevar was in the race… he flew out of the gate and raced to an early lead, with Dr. Fager right after him. His duty done, Hedevar surrendered to Dr. Fager at the 3/4 pole after pushing the first half in a blazing: 45-4/5. Dr. Fager ran six furlongs in 1:09-2/5 and the mile in 1:34-3/5, but Damascus collared him in the stretch, and won by 2-1/2 lengths in track record time. The rabbit had done in Dr. Fager.
On August 3, Dr. Fager won the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga by eight lengths and resulted in the first minus win pool in track history. Giving 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 time was just 3/5 off the track record.
The Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park at one mile was next for the four year old. His performance would make history. Conceding 16 pounds to his nearest competitor, and 20 or more to most of the others, including Hedevar the rabbit, Dr. Fager cruised to a 10-length win under another Braulio Baeza hand ride. After running the first 3/4 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. His record stood for 29 years.
On September 11, 1968, Dr. Fager changed styles and ran in the mile and three-sixteenths United Nations Handicap on wet turf. He’d always run on dirt. He carried 134 pounds and ran against international turf specialists who carried less than 120 pounds. Dr. Fager had trouble getting hold of the footing, but fought back valiantly and crossed the line the winner by a neck in a gritty, hard fought effort.
At Aqueduct on November 2, racing in the seven furlong Vosburgh Handicap, Braulio Baeza climbed aboard for Dr. Fager’s final race. The great horse was saddled with 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 track record. In the stretch, Dr. Fager drew off to a six-length win. The final time of 1:20-1/5 broke the previous track record by a full second, and was only one fifth off the world record. The record stands today.