Dr. Fager – Never Back Down

Dr Fager 1

They say in sports that records are made to be broken. Many records that have been set by elite athletes that seemed unattainable do eventually get topped by an athlete of a future generation. The great Lou Gehrig, known as the “Iron Horse”, had his thought to be unbreakable consecutive baseball games played streak broken by Cal Ripken, more than fifty years later. The one-hundred and three shutouts record set by NHL goaltender Terry Sawchuk stood for forty-two years, until Martin Brodeur surpassed him.

On August 24, 1968, a thoroughbred named Dr. Fager ran a one mile race on dirt, in the time of 1:32 1/5. It would take another thirty years and thousands of one mile races around the world before the record could be broken. He accomplished this feat at Arlington Park in Chicago during the Washington Park Handicap, carrying one-hundred and thirty-four pounds. He held countless track and world records at distances ranging from seven furlongs to 1¼ miles when he retired from racing. There have been many very fast supreme thoroughbreds since Dr. Fager, but not as consistently fast as he.

Dr. Fager was foaled in the same year as Damascus, and did face his contemporary four times, with each winning two races apiece. Dr. Fager won eighteen of twenty-two races placing second twice and third once. He raced against the best horses at the top tracks. As well as his supreme speed, he was durable and tenacious, never giving in to any horse in any race. He could carry big weight, as much as one-hundred and thirty-nine pounds was put on his back in his final race, never succumbing to the high imposts. He won four championship awards in 1968, another feat that has not been surpassed by any other thoroughbred.

In his all conquering 1968 season Dr. Fager won nine of ten races, his only loss being a second place finish to Damascus in the Brooklyn Handicap. His victories included the Suburban Handicap, Californian Stakes, Roseben Handicap, Vosburgh Handicap (his final race), Whitney Handicap, the United Nations Turf (his only grass event) and the long standing record in the Washington Park Stakes. His high strung racing style was tested when trainers of some of his opponents entered front running speed horses to try and burn out Dr. Fager and then hope that their come from behind star would have a better chance to beat him.

This practice is known as entering a “rabbit”. It did work occasionally, Damascus benefited twice from the tactic, but Dr. Fager also had great stamina and could carry his blinding speed farther than a good sprinter or miler. The United Nations victory demonstrated this superbly as he would fight off challenge after challenge defeating Advocator, Fort Marcy and the Australian champion Tobin Bronze, giving huge weight to all, on an unfamiliar surface.

Just as Damascus would revive a fading sire line, so too would Dr. Fager. His sire is Rough ‘N Tumble, a direct male line descendant of Himyar through the Plaudit branch. Rough ‘N Tumble was a moderately good horse winning four races from sixteen starts, and had his biggest moment in the winner’s circle when he won the Santa Anita Derby in 1951. Dr. Fager was influential in the growth of Florida as a region of successful thoroughbred breeding. His all too short career as a sire, he died at the age of twelve due to a colon obstruction, would see him become the leading sire of winners in North America in 1977 posthumously.

Dr. Fager sired thirty-five stakes winner, 14% of named foals, including champion sprinter Dr. Patches, winner of the Patterson Handicap over Seattle Slew, and the Meadowlands Cup. L’Alezane, a beautiful bright golden-red chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, was the Horse of the Year in Canada and champion two year old in North America after winning the Princess Elizabeth Stakes, Alcibiades Stakes, Adirondack Stakes, Schuylerville Stakes and Winnipeg Futurity against the boys. Dearly Precious won the Astoria, Fashion, Colleen and Spinaway Stakes in her two year old championship season. Dr. Blum won the Toboggan Handicap and the Sport Page Handicap, and Tree of Knowledge won the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Two of his daughters produced an influential sire each. Killaloe, a minor stakes winner, was the dam of Fappiano, winner of the Metropolitan Handicap. Fappiano has become one of the more important sons of Mr. Prospector as a sire. The other daughter of Dr. Fager to throw a future top sire was Demure. Demure was from Tartan Farm’s foundation mare Cequillo, by Princequillo, and is the dam of Quiet American (NYRA Mile etc) who in turn was the sire of Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. Quiet American was inbred to Dr. Fager 3×2 as his sire was Fappiano.

Bred by William McKnight’s Tartan Farms in Florida, Dr. Fager was out of Aspidistra by Better Self, and trained by Hall of Fame member John Nerud. Aspidistra was another key foundation mare for the Tartan racing empire and came to McKnight as a birthday gift when he was beginning his involvement in racing and breeding. She not only produced Dr. Fager but Ta Wee (champion sprinter twice) as well. Ta Wee became a great broodmare herself and would be the link to continue the Rough ‘N Tumble line.

Ta Wee was by Intentionally, a sire on the Man O’ War male line that became a cornerstone in continuing this grand old line to future stakes winners. Ta Wee’s son Great Above by Minnesota Mac, a son of Rough ‘N Tumble, would further the importance and credibility of Florida foaled thoroughbreds. Great Above was the result of combining two upwardly improving male lines coming from Floridian breeding. The Rough ‘N Tumble line having already produced Dr. Fager and the Intentionally line, which begot Tentam, and In Reality. Great Above sired Holly Bull, a grey that ran his races much the same manor as Dr. Fager.

The racing career of Dr. Fager is one of the most cherished and admired of any thoroughbred in history. He was voted as the sixth best horse of the 20th century by the Blood-Horse poll at the beginning of the new millennium. He was not only a dominant runner, but did so against one of the better generations of horses in the past century. He beat Damascus, Fort Marcy, Gamely, In Reality, Diplomat Way, Bold Hour, Mr. Right and so on. The first three in the above list are all Hall of Fame inductees, as is Dr. Fager.

Dr. Fager had a fiery spirit and ran with a recklessness that is seldom, if ever, seen today. He was tough, durable, never gave in to any challenge, and was very, very fast. He was the kind of horse that could get people out of their seats and attract their undivided attention. Dr. Fager was unique in that he would go as fast as can, as long as he can, and do it over top class opponents over a distance of ground, any kind of ground. Can you name me one horse in the past twenty years who could do that?

He looked the part of the wild stallion, loose on the range, his long mane blowing in the breeze, if it were not for the fact that he had a jockey on his back. The top horses and trainers would try to break him. The handicappers would try to break him. Sometimes the elements would try to break him. He could not be broken. He just kept running free and won his races his way. Nerud was so confident of Dr. Fager’s ability, he accepted all challenges to his star, and prove to all of the turf world what a true equine marvel Dr. Fager really was.

Some horses retired unbeaten and some had more famous race victories, but I would bet that if they had to face Dr. Fager, mano et mano, they would have been hard pressed to pass him. A true equine athlete. I doubt if we will ever see his like again.

(Photo by Tony Leonard courtesy of NYRA)

(Illustration by Richard Stone Reeves)


  • You’re right Colin we will never see another Dr Fager. Too bad he died so soon. I think he could of had alot more champs.

  • I started following racing in the seventies because of Secretariat. Now that would have been a dream race big red against the doctor. I never saw him because he was born the same year as me but the way you describe him i wish i could have seen him. Great story. thank you for this great story.

  • Ken Breitenbecker

    The Doctor was a great one. I had the fortune of being the last person to care for him in the stallion barn at Tartan. He was quite the character. My wife was a exercise rider at Tartan and she was the last person to ride him. We truly have a unique bond with the Doc.

  • Thanks, Colin, for an insightful piece about the wonders of Dr. Fager.
    As a kid, our television news came out of Chicago. Phil Georgeff’s unforgettable call of the Arlington Park races were recapped on the evening news. Even now, fifty years later, I enjoy watching the Doctor’s
    record breaking run, and Phil’s call on YouTube.
    Thanks again for a great piece about a truly great racehorse,Dr. Fager.

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