04/04/2014 3:56PM

History Challenge: Dr. Fager's 50th birthday recalls an all-time great


In 1965, future Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, who turned 101 this past Feb. 9, was chasing a runaway horse. When he reached for the horse’s reins, the pony he was riding propped, tossing Nerud over the top.

The trainer landed on his head, but walked it off and went back to his business.  Over the next five weeks, Nerud ignored fainting spells and slurred speech until finally his wife insisted he go to a highly regarded Boston hospital.

The neurosurgeon who saw him took X-rays and immediately rushed Nerud to surgery to remove a brain clot threatening the trainer’s life.  A second surgery followed after he began having seizures.

During his recuperation, Nerud resumed some of his tasks as managing partner and trainer for Tartan Farms, owned by multi-millionaire William L. McKnight, chairman of the board of 3-M Company, and later owner of Tropical Park Race Track and Calder Race Course.

One of the chores that needed immediate attention was meeting the Jockey Club deadline for naming the Tartan yearlings.  Nerud wanted to name one of the better young horses for McKnight, so he chose the name Minnesota Mac  because 3-M’s headquarters were in that state.

Nerud then named another promising yearling after the neurosurgeon who had saved his life. The doctor’s name was Charles Fager.

With the 50th anniversary of Dr. Fager’s birth on April 6, 1964 upon us, test your knowledge of the life and times of the horse consistently ranked high in top 10 lists of the 20th century’s greatest Thoroughbreds.

1. Dr. Fager was a son of 1951 Santa Anita Derby winner Rough ‘n Tumble, who missed the spring classics because of an injury, and retired with four wins and earnings of $126,980.

 Dr. Fager’s dam was a birthday present to his owner, William McKnight.  In 1957, McKnight turned 70 and his executive staff was looking for a unique present for the boss. They came up with the idea of a racehorse and pooled their money to come up with $6,500.

The filly they gave McKnight never won a race for her new owner and was retired at the end of that year with total earnings of $5,115.

Unremarkable on the racetrack, the filly was triumphant in the breeding shed. She produced 13 named foals – four who were stakes winners and two who today are enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, NY.  Name the dam of Dr. Fager.

2. John Nerud did not believe in rushing his horses to the races and was notorious for having them work slowly in the morning.

It was therefore not surprising that Dr. Fager went off at nearly 11-1 in his juvenile debut on July 15, 1966 at Aqueduct.  He won by seven lengths. In his second start, he won an allowance race by eight lengths.

In his next start, Dr. Fager won the World’s Playground Stakes at Atlantic City by a dozen lengths.

He then entered the Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct having won his initial three outings by a combined 27 lengths.  He won by three-quarters of a length.

In his final start of the year, Dr. Fager was rank and wouldn’t rate, running the first six furlongs of the one-mile Champagne Stakes in 1:09.40.  He was run down in the final sixteenth by a horse who would also best him for the honor of champion 2-year-old male.  Name the horse.

3.  After Dr. Fager beat Damascus in the Gotham Stakes, Nerud did all he could to fend off pressure from owner McKnight and sportswriters to rush his speedball into the classics.  Nerud succeeded.

At age 3, Dr. Fager’s victories, in addition to the Gotham, included the Withers Stakes, Arlington Classic, Rockingham Special, and Hawthorne Gold Cup, among others.

The only race in nine starts in 1967 in which he did not cross the finish line first was the Woodward Stakes – considered by many historians as the greatest meeting of three Thoroughbreds in the 20th century. Dr. Fager, facing two rabbits, tired to finish third behind Damascus, who won by 10 lengths, and Buckpasser.

In a stunning blemish on his record, Dr. Fager also won a stakes that year by 6 1/2 lengths but was disqualified and placed last. Name the race and what happened.

4. At age 4, Dr. Fager completed a season for the ages. He won 7 of  8 starts, never carried less than 130 pounds, and broke the world record for one mile on dirt – a record not surpassed in the past 46 years.

He was voted Horse of the Year, and champion older male, turf horse, and sprinter – the only horse ever to be so honored.

In the final start of his career, Dr. Fager put the icing on the cake with an astonishing performance. Name the race.

5. Like many of the offspring of his dam, Dr. Fager suffered from bouts of colic frequently during his life.  Nerud had a special technique for treating the champion that helped the colt through these scary episodes.

In his eighth season at stud at Tartan Farms, Dr. Fager had another serious bout of colic on the evening of Aug. 5, 1976. Over several hours, four vets fought to save him, but this was one battle the great horse could not win.  He lay down and died at 11:30 p.m.  Cause of death was a colon obstruction.

Dr. Fager had been slow to start at stud, but had finally become a major producer.  A year before he died, one of his daughters won the Eclipse Award as 2-year-old filly champion. Name her.


1. In the 1950s and 1960s, William McKnight took the 50-year-old Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. to new heights with massive television campaigns for its cellophane tape (Scotch Tape) and the invention in 1961 of its almost-invisible Scotch Magic Tape.

It was also the era when he hired John Nerud to expand his racing operations. Nerud started by buying more than 1,000 acres in Ocala, Fla,, for McKnight’s Tartan Farms.

Among the first horses to arrive at the new farm were new broodmares, including a horse who was given to McKnight on his 70th birthday – the filly Aspidistra, a foal of 1954.

Aspidistra did not race at age 2, making her debut at Fair Grounds on Jan. 30, 1957 at age 3.  She won her maiden in her second start and then won again in her seventh start. She never won for McKnight.

Aspidistra – a term for plants in the lily family – produced her first foal in 1960. So little was expected of the new broodmare that the stallion was an obscure Argentine-bred.

Her next two foals – A Deck and Chinatowner – each won one stakes race.

 On April 6, 1964, at 12:55 in the afternoon, Aspidistra gave birth to a bay colt by Rough’n Tumble. Nerud recalled that, while the foal who would be named Dr. Fager was healthy, he had two club feet.

Two years after Dr. Fager, Aspidsitra produced a filly by Intentionally who was named Ta Wee.

Together, Dr. Fager and Ta Wee finished first in 34 of 43 combined starts.  Both were champions in two seasons.  And both carried 130 pounds or more in their final seven career starts.

2. In 22 lifetime starts, only three horses ever finished a race in front of Dr. Fager – future Hall of Famers Buckpasser and Damascus, and 2-year-old male champion Successor.

A son of Bold Ruler out of Misty Morn, Successor was a full brother to Bold Lad, who had been voted champion 2-year-old male two years earlier.

Successor won the Tremont Stakes, was beaten by Dr. Fager in the Cowdin, and then beat Dr. Fager in the Champagne. Successor finished the year winning the world’s richest race, the $314,721 Garden State Stakes. Successor raced 16 times at ages 3 and 4, but won only one stakes.

Damascus, who beat both Dr. Fager and Buckpasser for the title of Horse of the Year in 1967, did not start his 2-year-old career until late in the year 1966, winning his second and third starts by a combined 20 lengths, and capturing the Remsen Stakes in his fourth and final start of the year. He did not face Dr. Fager or Successor as a juvenile.

3.  Historian Ed Bowen wrote, “Dr. Fager had brilliant speed, but not equal brilliance in knowing how to use it.”

Dr. Fager was a handful, so much so that the great Bill Shoemaker said, after being aboard the horse in his only loss at age 2, that he just didn’t have enough strength to handle a horse that headstrong.

Future Hall of Famer Braulio Baeza had taken over the mount on Dr. Fager, but was committed to ride Buckpasser in the Met Mile on Memorial Day in 1967. Dr. Fager was entered the same day in the Jersey Derby.

Nerud turned to Manuel Ycaza, another future Hall of Fame rider, but a jockey with a reputation for being the roughest rider in the sport. That same year, Time magazine wrote that Ycaza had been suspended for rough riding a record 608 days in the previous 11 years.

Ycaza’s reputation was so redoubtable that Garden State Park president Eugene Mori came to the paddock on the day of the race to ask the rider to behave himself aboard Dr. Fager – a highly unusual action.

With only four horses in the Jersey Derby, Dr. Fager, breaking from the outside, crowded the field when he was going for the lead in the clubhouse turn. He went on to coast to victory, but the stewards – no fans of Ycaza – reviewed the films and placed Dr. Fager last, a decision that remains controversial to this day.

4. John Nerud wanted Dr. Fager to go out with a performance everyone would remember and he wanted him to do it sprinting. 

After having carried 132 pounds twice, 134 pounds twice, and 135 pounds once in his previous five outings, Dr. Fager was assigned 139 pounds for the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap.

Despite an Aqueduct surface that was slower than usual, Dr. Fager beat the California speedster Kissin’ George by six lengths and broke the track record by a full second (1:20.20) – just one tick off the world record.

A year later, his half-sister Ta Wee beat males in the Vosburgh. In her 21st and final start in 1970, she carried 142 pounds to victory in the Interborough Handicap, after having just beaten males in the Fall Highweight under 140.

5. Dr. Fager produced only one minor stakes winner in his first two crops, but things began to improve in 1974, when he finished in the top 10 sires of the year.

In 1975, after losing her first start, Dearly Precious, a daughter of Dr. Fager, rattled off eight straight wins, including the Sorority and Spinaway stakes, en route to being voted champion 2-year-old filly.

A year after his death, Dr. Fager was the leading sire in North America, with his offspring earning nearly $1.6 million.

Dr. Fager sired two other champions: 1978 co-champion sprinter Dr. Patches and 1977 Canadian Horse of the Year L’Alezane.