Dr. Fager, 1968

Charles Hatton on 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager from the 1969 American Racing Manual.


Dr. Fager was a singular performer as a four-year-old in 1968. He was appropriately awarded Horse of the Year honors, which is the ultimate accolade, and excelled in more departments and more divisional titles than any horse since the Daily Racing Form and The Morning Telegraph poll was instituted in 1936. William McKnight’s Tartan Stable homebred also was proclaimed the handicap, turf course and sprint champion all rolled into one.

Dr. Fager set and tied records from seven furlongs to a mile and a quarter, slashing the world mile mark to 1:32 1/5 en route. He did everything with flair, though he was not tested at cup routes and his stamina was not incorruptible by the iconoclasts. His prodigal wire to wire speed, his impartiality concerning track conditions, his bravery under fire and his ability to make light of enervating weights elicited widespread acclaim. If not a great horse in the purest sense that France’s Gladiateur, England’s St. Simon and Ormonde, Ireland’s Barcaldine, Hungary’s Kincsem, Argentina’s Botafogo and our own Man o’ War epitomized that character, he was assuredly exceptional.

Critical Faculty Comes With Age

Even in saying that, one suspects some of the more enthusiastic and impressionable Dr. Fager buffs among contemporary connoisseurs will demur he is being “damned with faint praise.” It may sound pompous but it is one of the few benefits of increasing age that with it comes widened experience and a resultant development of critical faculty. It is not possible to pass judgment of value on different racing eras and their champions without having lived with them. Even then, one’s comparisons of the horses are insupportable by factual evidence.

Acquaintance with Old Rosebud, Exterminator, Reigh Count, Ribot, Gallant Fox, Regret, Equipoise, Eight Thirty, Pharis, Man o’ War and Hyperion tempers one’s enthusiasm for venturing curbstone opinions on the successive seasons’ champions. Emotional judgments of the moment are not terribly important once they may be seen in the perspective of time.

Nevertheless, any statistical summary of Dr. Fager’s record has a ring. At four, he won seven of eight races and earned $406,110, then retired to the breeding paddocks at Tartan Farm, Ocala, Florida, in sound condition.

In three seasons of his active career, he won 18 of 22 starts and placed ninth on the roster of all-time money leaders with $1,002,642.

Dr. Fager is partially syndicated for stud duty, with his breeder retaining 24 shares and his trainer and one-fourth owner, John Nerud, disposing of three of his eight shares at the heady rate of $100,000 each. The horse is insured for $2,500,000, and this seemingly hysterical evaluation places him in the front rank of first season sires. Two decades ago, one could scarcely give away a Florida-bred, and the fact Dr. Fager is out of a gift mare is more romantic than the gospel according to Vuilliers, Lowe and other proponents of breeding theorem.

Extraordinary Genetically and Physically

Genetically and physically, he is as extraordinary for one of his parentage as he was out of the ordinary in competition, and students of these inscrutable matters are at odds explaining him, though one can not argue with the race course test.

He is “inbred” 3×4 to Bull Dog and line-bred to Himyar. Inbreeding 2×2 comes to a probability of only 1 in 8, assuming genes behave according to a mathematical pattern, which they steadfastly refuse to do.

There is more than the usual preponderance of heterozygosity in the immediate stirps of Dr. Fager’s pedigree, but somehow a homozygous gene positive for superlative quality got through to him. The McKnight stallion is not genotypical of any of the animals in the first two removes of his pedigree. It is a question whether to attribute his capacity to atavism, or some felicitous complex of the elements derived through the union of Rough’n Tumble and Aspidistra, by Better Self.

Quite apart from whatever the cultists in the computer age care to make of him, it is conceivable Dr. Fager will flout precedence and fashion and improve the breed in the sense he will mark a further improvement in his male line commensurate with that noted in his performance record.

Dr. Fager is a scion in tail-male of the light-boned, sickle-hocked, heavy-quartered Himyar, “from whose ashes speed springs eternal.”

He derives more of this American line, thought to be moribund, from Aspidistra, a mare culled from King Ranch and claimed by McKnight’s office staff for $6,500 as a birthday gift to their employer. She was by Better Self out of Tilly Rose, a stakes winner by Bull Brier, who came perilously close to being no horse, not unlike the sire of the next dam, Tilly Kate, a progenitor almost unknown as Draymont.

Traces to Dam of Whalebone

This is a workaday Kentucky family, tracing through Nina, by Kentucky, to Penelope, the dam of Whalebone. Glencoe is in this family, but it is not noted for successful sires. However, neither was War Admiral’s until he and Eight Thirty came along. Aspidistra was reared on a bottle and had frightful knees, but she is a prolific producer and her first eight foals also included A. Deck, Chinatowner and Aforethought. All except the Horse of the Year were one-dimensional sprinters.

Dr. Fager’s knees and ankles were mushy as a young horse and he was not nominated to the futurities. He was afforded time for the bones to develop, before the introduction of X-ray programs for yearlings’ underpinning, which has made some significant differences to horses’ conformation, concerning the soundness of the species.

In the course of the ’68 season, Fr. Fager won the Roseben, Californian, Suburban, Whitney, Washington Park, United Nations and Vosburgh, and placed in the Brooklyn. He won from seven furlongs to a mile and a quarter, under weights ranging from 130 to 139, carried 134 pounds to a mile in 1:32 1/5, winning the Washington Park by 10 astonishing lengths, and gave Advocator 22 pounds and a beating in his only start on grass in the United Nations.

It required the combined efforts of Damascus and his surrogate, Hedevar, to negotiate his defeat in the Brooklyn, run in 1:59 1/5 for the 10 furlongs. At three, the Tartan flyer won seven of nine starts and $484,194, including the mile and a quarter New Hampshire Sweepstakes at Rockingham in track record time of 1:59 4/5.

Conceivably, Dr. Fager was his own formidable foe. Except for being at once arrogant, conceited, impetuous and ingenuous, he might never have known defeat. A rank, headstrong individual who was a hard puller with a hard mouth, he always led trumps. Little Willie Shoemaker, with his delicate hands, never really fit him. Braulio Baeza got on fairly well with him, through cajolery and exercising care not to antagonize him.

Impatient to Get the Job Done

Dr. Fager could never tolerate following a rival or stalking the pace once his blood was up, and his impatience had a low threshold. Rival riders knew this and in the Woodward, when he was three, they made a dead set at getting him on the muscle early in the race, yelling alongside him and slapping their whips to excite him into excessive use of his resources. Somewhat similarly, Hedevar had only to prompt him into the first turn to set him up for Damascus in the ’68 Brooklyn.

Nerud was delighted, naturally, to find the colt had phenomenal speed at two—and he made the most of it. Could he have foreseen what manner of horse Dr. Fager would become, the trainer might have endeavored to teach him to wait, rating behind horses in his work. But then this tactic often has the effect of confusing and at length discouraging a horse so that he does nothing well. Considering Dr. Fager’s mettlesome, volatile nature, it is quite possible he would have been utterly spoiled and too hostile for any use.

The NYRA’s learned Dr. M. A. Gilman sized up Dr. Fager with standard and tape last September. The colt’s vital statistics:

Height, 16 hands, 2 inches

Point of shoulder to point of shoulder, 15 inches

Girth, 73 ¼ inches

Withers to point of shoulder, 29 inches

Elbow to ground, 38 ½ inches

Point of shoulder to point of hip, 48 inches

Point of hip to point of hip, 24 inches

Point of hip to point of hock, 41 inches

Point of hip to buttock, 24 inches

Poll to withers, 43 inches

Buttock to ground, 57 ¼ inches

Point of shoulder to buttock, 69 ½ inches

Circumference of cannon under knee, 8 ½ inches.

Girths Quarter Inch More Than Kelso

Dr. Fager’s easy competency at eliminating time and space is explicable in his conformation, which implements his fluent action. For the sake of comparison, her girths a quarter-inch more than did Kelso, but the latter measured 43 inches from hip to hock.

Buckpasser girthed a substantial 75 ½ inches and measured 43 inches from hip to hock. All have in common the fact they proved intuitively genuine race horses. The action, heart, nerves and combustion of oxygen into motivation power for the muscles are things one cannot see studying a horse in his box. They are the most crucial factors.

One of the greatest performers of all time, Sir Joseph Hawley’s Teddington, girthed 63 inches, had calf knees and a clubby foot. And yet he had such capacity and spirit he almost ran over the leaders coming up the hill from Tattenham to win the Epsom Derby, and he won the Ascot Cup at a nine-pound weight disadvantage from the massive Stockwell, one of the largest animals seen up to the 1800s. A daughter of Teddington, mated with Stockwell, produced the Derby winner Doncaster, sire of Bend Or.

Above all else, a thoroughbred of mark must have heart, which is another way of saying class. Beware of one whose heart thumps under the jockey’s boot, or one who sweats about the testicles in the paddock, or who has not sense and nerve enough to forego blinkers, lead ponies, and other false courage. It does not matter very much then how fast he is against the watch.

Dr. Fager is something of a sport, or freak, as old-time horsemen say. There are horses like that, above ordinances. Dr. George Ctrile, noted surgeon and biological researcher, and his associates in the Cleveland Clinic Foundation made extensive studies in the comparison of the energy controlling organs of various animals. This refers to the brain, heart, thyroid and adrenal glands. On an Arctic expedition they caught a whale that weighed approximately the same as Equipoise when he died and was autopsied. Investigation showed Equipoise’s heart was larger than the whale’s, 4,455 grams to 3,181. The thoroughbred’s glandular balance was remarkable and he synthesized oxygen into energy at an unbelievable rate.

Sr. Federico Tesio always wanted to breed a superhorse. He hoped to create a Nietzschean prototype, a Wagnerian divine animal, a Carlylean hero of the turf. Unbeaten Ribot was his masterpiece. Tesio used to say that a good horse walks with his legs, gallops with his lungs, resists with his heart, but wins only with his spirit or character.

He might scoff at such materialistic explanations, but Dr. Leopoldo Pagliano of Milan examined Ribot and found his chest out of all proportion to the rest of his physique, too large for the average saddle girth, so that one had to be tailored for him. Pagliano contended Ribot’s lung capacity pumped more oxygen through the heart and, as happens with leading human distance runners, his heart beat was low, 35 to the minute, 85-90 after a mile and furlong run. Pulse and blood pressure returned to normal after two hours. Ribot reached a fatigue point considerably later than most horses. In fact, jockey Enrico Camici thought that in the hardest of Ribot’s races his mount could go 500 more yards at the same speed without wilting.

Ribot frequently has transmitted some of his superior organization. Horsemen have noted his progeny tend to be uncommonly free of worms. One is tempted to think tests would show Dr. Fager also is systemically well above average.

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5 Responses to Dr. Fager, 1968

  1. Nicholas says:

    Any idea if a necropsy was done of Dr. F? Was Hatten proven right?

  2. Arjay says:

    he was the greatest of the greatest. no horse would have beaten him in a match race at any distance.

  3. Marc M says:

    i saw him race in person 3 times. You cannot imagine how superior he was on the track as a four year old. Even in his one loss as a 4 year old, he gave Damascus weight, carried over 130 and still ran in 159 3 in a losing cause. This with a record holding rabbit pushing him

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