02/07/2013 4:17PM

Dr. Fager: The horse, the name, the stuff of legend

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Dr. Fager, here in his historic win in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap, was named after Charles Fager, the brain surgeon who saved John Nerud’s life.

Phone log excerpt from Jan. 30, 2013:

“Hello?”

“Hello, may I speak to Dr. Fager?”

“One minute, please.”

Pause.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Dr. Fager?”

OK, hold on. At this point it is important to reassure worried readers that your reality-based correspondent has not descended into one of those anthropomorphic flights of fancy in which Seabiscuit answers his fan mail, or Secretariat offers a blow-by-blow account of his Belmont Stakes, or Zenyatta muses on the manhood of Bernardini.

Dr. Fager, a Florida-bred foal of 1964, died in 1976 and as far as anyone knows never said a word. In fact, the voice on the other end of the line belonged to Dr. Charles Fager, the Boston neurosurgeon of considerable reputation for whom the horse was named.

And what a horse. Much has been made of the triple-threat champions of American racing history, horses such as Wise Dan, who earned two divisional awards for 2012 as well as Horse of the Year. The others on the list during the Eclipse Award era include Ack Ack, Secretariat, Forego, and John Henry, which pretty much takes care of anyone’s fantasy stable right there.

In 1968, Dr. Fager was acclaimed champion older horse, champion sprinter, champion grass horse, and Horse of the Year. In short, he was considered the best at literally everything an American racehorse is asked to do, except jump a fence. Then again, he never tried.

That year, the 4-year-old son of Rough’n Tumble raced in the East, West, and Midwest; started eight times and won seven; and set a world record for the mile at Arlington Park under 134 pounds and a track record in the Vosburgh at Aqueduct under 139 pounds.

Who did he beat? Glad you asked. In 1968 Dr. Fager defeated Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Damascus, Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Fort Marcy, two-time champion and Hall of Famer Gamely, and, among others, the multiple major stakes winners In Reality, Mr. Right, Kissin’ George, Rising Market, and Diplomat Way.

But enough about the horse. The man who inspired his name earned that singular distinction because of what he did for Dr. Fager’s trainer, John Nerud, who is celebrating his 100th birthday this weekend with family and friends near his Long Island home. Charles Fager will be among the guests, which is the way it should be. Were it not for Fager’s surgical precision under emergency circumstances 47 years ago, John Nerud would not have made it to age 53.

The story has been lore for decades. One morning at Belmont Park, in October 1965, Nerud took a tumble from his pony and cracked his head, protected as it was by only his trademark driving cap. Nerud, a tough Nebraska farm boy, shook it off and went back to work, but soon dire symptoms began to intrude. Dutifully alarmed, Charlotte Nerud found out the name of the best neurosurgeon in the Northeast and put her husband on a plane.

“Charlie had some big dinner to go to that night Charlotte brought me in,” Nerud said this week. “He took one look at me and changed his plans.”

This is a received recollection, since Nerud was in no condition to absorb such minor details at the time. As for the physician, Fager makes no bones about what he saw that night when he exposed the subdural hemorrhage exerting ever increasing pressure on Nerud’s brain.

“He wouldn’t have lasted until the next morning,” Fager said last week. “Even then, sometimes with an injury like that they get beyond a certain point and they’re practically dead. There’s a lot of brain damage. Fortunately, he didn’t have that. We got to him soon enough.”

Fager, 89, is retired and enjoying the life of a private citizen who is not on call.

“I stopped seeing patients two years ago, but I stopped doing surgery when I was 72 or 73,” Fager said. “I felt I was not quite as sharp. My colleagues thought I was OK, but I didn’t think so.”

Nerud was still in his hospital bed on the day he promised Fager that in a gesture of gratitude a horse would be named in his honor, just as soon as a suitable candidate could be identified. At the time the Rough’n Tumble colt was at the Florida farm Nerud ran for breeder William McKnight. Fager, whose patients would someday read like a Who’s Who, thought of Nerud’s promise as a quaint tribute, unaware that in Thoroughbred circles there was no higher form of flattery. When that colt grew into a racehorse of wide renown, Charles Fager was surprised to find himself in an uncomfortable spotlight.

“There was more publicity than I like to think about,” he said. “I was well known in my field at the time, but I would meet people who already knew my name because of the horse. It seemed like it was in the newspaper all the time, and it bothered me terribly. I was delighted with the result we had in John’s particular case. But the notoriety was something I was not prepared for.”

Far from being falsely modest, Fager was reflecting the mood of an era during which the idea of a grandstanding physician was roundly discouraged by the profession. The only doctors who were allowed to enjoy such mainstream fame were called Casey and Kildare. For two solid years, though, Dr. Fager’s name made sports headlines whenever he ran. And while those headlines were almost always good news – the horse won 18 of his 22 starts – there was always a chance for something like “Dr. Fager Disqualified” to hit the streets, as happened when he was taken down for interference in the 1967 Jersey Derby.

“I’d forgotten about that,” Fager said with a laugh. “Yes, that did bother me at the time.”

Fager eventually embraced his fate of having lent his name to a racing icon, and over the ensuing years Charles Fager and John Nerud allowed their fortuitous medical encounter to blossom into a lasting friendship.

“My wife, Charlotte, saved my life by getting me to Charlie Fager in time, and it was his skill that took care of the rest,” Nerud said. “I’m awful glad he decided to cancel out on that dinner.”