10/13/2011 3:52PM

Frankel a fitting honor to his namesake

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Charles Fager was not exactly comfortable at first when John Nerud named a horse in honor of the good doctor. This was 1965, and in those days physicians kept a low profile, discouraged by custom to avoid the beating of their own drum.

“It seemed a little like advertising to me,” Dr. Fager said a few years ago. “I was certainly grateful John would honor me like that, but I was just doing my job.”

That job, as a neurosurgeon at a Boston hospital, included saving Nerud’s life. The trainer had suffered a head injury in an fall from his pony at Belmont several weeks earlier and had began to suffer the symptoms consistent with a subdural hematoma. One day during his recovery, the trainer was talking about a yearling back at the farm in Florida.

“He looks like a good one, Doc,“ Nerud said. “And I want to call him Dr. Fager.”

Naming horses after people can be risky, but not when that horse is going to go on to become one of the greatest of the 20th century. Dr. Fager, the Thoroughbred, is the most decorated Horse of the Year in history, when in 1968 he was crowned champion of dirt, grass, and sprints. Dr. Fager, the neurosurgeon, finally got over his shyness regarding public exposure and enjoyed watching the horse run, while nurturing a lifetime friendship with Nerud.

On Saturday, in the town of Ascot just east of London, Juddmonte Farm’s Frankel, trained by Henry Cecil, will go for his ninth victory without a defeat in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. The 3-year-old colt is a flashy package of speed and determination named for the late Robert Frankel, who trained Juddmonte’s main North American string of horses for so long that they became as much an instituion on the U.S. side of the pond as the other. Frankel died in 2009.

“We always knew we wanted to name one in his honor,” said Teddy Grimthorpe, Juddmonte’s British racing manager. “It was just a matter of hopefully choosing the right one. This fellow showed us he was something special from the start. Now that he’s taken the name to such heights, he’s got a tremendous following both here and in America.”

Whether or not the circumstances surrounding the naming of Dr. Fager or Frankel made them run any faster can be left to those who believe in the mysteries of karma. Certainly, no one names a horse for a friend thinking that horse will end up pulling a wagon.

At least, that’s what I thought in early 1995 when Charlie Whittingham told me he’d given my name to a 2-year-old by Greinton out of a mare called Novel, ostensibly because I’d just written a biography about the man. Charlie also had a pretty good sense of humor.

How good? On the day the colt was to make his debut, I was greeted upon entering the Del Mar grandstand with an announcement from Trevor Denman regarding program changes. I remain convinced Denman’s voice could be heard all the way to La Jolla.

“In the sixth race,” Trevor intoned, “make Hovdey a gelding.”

I’ll admit I flinched. Long story short, Hovdey needed 23 starts to win his maiden and wound up running for $5,000 at Fonner Park.

You can count on one hand the horses in the Hall of Fame carrying proper names inspired by real people. John Henry and Peter Pan don’t count. But Ben Brush does, as well as Harry Bassett and Luke Blackburn from the 19th century, and Chris Evert from the 20th, along with Dr. Fager.

There are issues of permissions, of course. The Jockey Club, when fulfilling due diligence, is supposed to confirm that the person for whom a horse is to be named is aware of the request and is on board with the deal. I do not recall getting a heads up about Hovdey until after the fact. But, of course, I trusted Charlie.

Jerry and Ann Moss, among the nation’s leading owners, spend a lot of time naming their horses. Sometimes they choose to honor people that they know – Tarlow, Sardula, Giacomo, Tiago. In other instances they settle on a name that trips thoughts of a shared experience – Delicate Vine, Spellbinder, Rhapsodic, Zenyatta. In every case, insists Jerry Moss, the name must fall gracefully upon the ear.

“I’m convinced our racehorses come to learn their own names, if no other reason through the repetition of those names around the barn,” Moss said. “It makes a difference in the way a person says a particular name, and a horse picks up on that, which is why we like their names to have a little class, a little melody.”

In essence, Moss is saying that it’s hard to keep a straight face or be anything but goofy around a horse named, say, Spanky’s Hanky or Bung Starter, as opposed to something like Exterminator, Warfare, or Heavenly Cause. He has a point.

Plenty of owners have turned to famous trainers as inspiration, hoping some of the old magic might light the way. Of the two horses named Whittingham the first one, trained by Charlie himself, won a stakes race at Hollywood Park. Barrera (as in Laz) was fast enough to win the Premiere and the Toboggan. Cefis, the “C” in Woodford C. Stephens, won the Pennsylvania Derby and nearly $800,000, while Bafferta, the feminized version of Bob, was a filly who earned more than $200,000. Unfortunately, neither Sunny Jim nor Jerkens could run a jump.

“No question the pressure was on by naming him what we did,” Juddmonte’s Grimthorpe noted. “Now, we’re all feeling a bit protective of him, undoubtedly because evokes the memory of someone we loved and admired.

“There are evenings I’ll be thinking of him – the man – and what he accomplished, and I’ll have to go over to Henry’s yard just to look in on the colt,” Grimthorpe said.

“Those are good moments,” he added. “I call him Bobby.”