Relaxing in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Continental, 55-year-old John Nerud carefully stroked his graying hair and then toyed for a moment with a new putter that he hopes will improve his nothing-to-brag-about golf game. From the car he could see a big, handsome bay colt grazing by the side of his Belmont Park barn and Nerud's eyes twinkled as he started talking about his favorite subject. "He must be better than anything we've seen for a long time, because he's done the impossible so often. You just don't see many horses like this. He's everything. He can sprint, run on grass and go a mile and a quarter. I imagine if I sent him over to England to try the jumps of the Grand National, he'd probably win that, too! But as far as I'm concerned, without taking another step he's Horse of the Year right now."
The object of Nerud's adoration was W. L. McKnight's Dr. Fager, and even if you prefer not to believe every superlative of a hardly disinterested trainer, the Doc really is something of a wonder horse. Aside from his astounding three-year record of consistency—he has won 17 of 21 starts and $965,592—Dr. Fager's two latest feats, races taking place within 19 days on tracks more than 700 miles apart, are enough to stamp him as a rare champion in a lot of other books besides Nerud's. On August 24 at Chicago's Arlington Park he broke Buckpasser's world record for the mile, and last week at Atlantic City he raced over turf for the first time in his life to win the United Nations Handicap, beating the best grass runners in the U.S.
Merely winning the two races is one thing, but the way he did it is quite another. Buckpasser set the record as a 3-year-old, carrying 125 pounds in 1:32[3/5]. The 4-year-old Doc went to the post with 134 pounds and won by 10 lengths in 1:32[1/5]. Two weeks later Nerud accepted an invitation to the mile-and-[3/16] United Nations in which top-weighted Dr. Fager would again carry 134 pounds. Last year's winner, Flit-To, was in at 115, while Fort Marcy, despite having beaten Damascus at equal weights in the mile-and-a-half Washington, D.C. International, got in at only 118. Damascus was invited to run at Atlantic City, too, at 134 pounds, but he was sent to Detroit, where, carrying 133, he was second to Nodouble (111) in the Michigan Mile and One-Eighth.
At the weights, the United Nations was anything but a pushover for Dr. Fager. Last season both Buckpasser and Damascus had faltered in major turf efforts, but Nerud wanted to prove conclusively that a champion could beat the best on any kind of surface, even if he had never raced on it before. Rain at Atlantic City the night before the U.N. Handicap dampened the turf somewhat, and although it was labeled firm by post time, it was deeper and softer than Nerud preferred, and he had some misgivings. "Shucks, they built this race around Dr. Fager, and I couldn't scratch," he said. "When they build publicity around you, you have to run. I'll put on some sort of turf stickers to keep my horse from sliding sideways. Still, a big horse like he is is going to take the worst of it in this going. And 134 pounds is hard to pull out of there."
September 22, 1968
At the break, the United Nations instantly became a duel between Dr. Fager and Advocator (112 pounds) who, like most sons of former grass champion Round Table, seems to handle turf with singular ease. The Australian Tobin Bronze (118 pounds) took up third place, while reigning grass champ Fort Marcy was not far behind. Going by the stands the first time, Dr. Fager lacked some of his flawlessly smooth action, and both Nerud and Jockey Braulio Baeza knew immediately that he was not taking well to the grass. Since he wasn't as quick as he normally is, Baeza had no trouble rating him, for a change. Almost in tandem, he and Advocator went through the first half mile in 48⅘ the six furlongs in 1:12[3/5] and the mile in 1:36[4/5]. Turning for home, still head and head with Advocator, Dr. Fager might have been expected to take off and leave his foes behind. But the weight was telling, the surface was unfamiliar, Advocator wasn't giving up, and suddenly here came Fort Marcy to challenge. Fort Marcy's trainer, Elliott Burch, had told Jockey Jorge Velasquez to wait as long as possible and then go to the outside in the stretch run. Velasquez did everything right until the stretch turn. Then he drove for the inside, hoping to get through because he expected Advocator to drift out. But Laffitt Pincay Jr. on Advocator did not let Fort Marcy through on the hedge, and that killed off any chance for victory by Burch's hard-luck gelding. It was the second year in a row he would finish third after questionable riding tactics had been employed by Velasquez.
In the stretch, Dr. Fager and Advocator continued to battle. Once Dr. Fager gave up the lead, but then, calling on an apparently limitless source of courage, he came back to win by a neck in the very good time of 1:55[1/5]. "He must have run as good as he ever ran in his life," said a relieved Johnny Nerud afterward. "You just don't go around giving the grass horse of the year 16 pounds and then beating him your first time on turf."
Dr. Fager will probably have a few more races before his retirement this fall, but another run on grass is unlikely. This means there will be no meeting with Damascus in the Man o' War or the Washington, D.C. International, and also that the only likelihood of a meeting is in the September 28 Woodward at Belmont. They have split four victories in the last two years, and with the aid of his stablemate Hedevar, Damascus beat both Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in last year's Woodward.
"I don't want to talk about Damascus," said Nerud, "because everyone knows his trainer, Frank Whiteley, has never beat me except with two horses. There's no one horse in the world that can beat Dr. Fager. Now they talk about a match race. I don't consider a match race fair because nobody has any chance against Dr. Fager. I say if you want a championship race, let some track pick the three or four best horses in the country, regardless of age or sex, put up a big purse and let the winner take all. That's how you'll find your champion—the best horse beating all the next best."
Nerud grinned at the thought of such a race. There was obviously no question at all in his mind about its outcome.