Pilgrimage With The Past

By Sue Sefscik
The Central Florida day dawned clear, bright, and slightly windy with low humidity. It was the perfect day to take a 90-minute drive from my home on Florida's east coast to Ocala, located nearly halfway across the state.

After reading Steve Haskin's book about Dr. Fager, I sensed a special connection with Dr. Fager, an unnamed bond I had not felt when I read about Man o' War or Secretariat. A kind, loving temperament in an animal is important to me, and the description of Dr. Fager's personality was of a sensitive, caring equine. He was smart, responded quickly to training, and was well liked at Tartan Farms, where he was born. During his breeding years, there was a cat that had a litter of kittens in "the Doc's" stall. He kept watch over those kittens, nuzzling them before heading off for his morning oats. It was said that when Mama Cat removed her children, the Doc was very upset.

After substantial Internet research, I discovered that Dr. Fager was buried on Tartan Farms' property. I learned that the current Winding Oaks had previously been Mockingbird Farm and, before that, Tartan Farms. William McKnight, founder of the "Scotch tape" giant 3M corporation, had purchased hundreds of acres west of Ocala and started his Thoroughbred dream. Thanks to the mating of Tartan Farms foundation broodmare Aspidistra to the stallion Rough'n Tumble, a bay colt was foaled April 6, 1964, and given the name Dr. Fager. The Doc started 22 times, posting 18 wins, two seconds, and one third.

After checking in with Mary in the Winding Oaks office, I was escorted by her up the rolling hills on Graeme Hill Road to the patch of land used to inter a number of well-known champions. As she pointed me toward the graves, I thanked her for her kindness and courtesy. I was alone.

The graves were marked by gray, medium-sized tombstones, clean and legible, despite some being erected more than 35 years ago. The graves were laid in a semicircle around a freshly painted gazebo. A jade-green, well-kept hedge surrounded all the graves.

Feeling an urgency to locate Dr. Fager's resting place, I found him nearly in the middle of the 14-horse plot. I turned to gaze out across the green, rolling hills. The seemingly unlimited view from the hilltop was fantastic, one a horse would relish in life. I could almost see the Doc at the crest of this hill, wind blowing his mane, tail whipping and flowing behind him. Surveying the valley below, his mind's eye would calculate how fast he could fly without wings through the lowlands, his equine instincts reverting to their untamed, glorious past, when his ancestors roamed free.

I read the plaque on his grave: "Racing's Grand Slam: 1968--Horse of the Year, Handicap Champion, Sprint Champion, Grass Champion. World record of one mile, 1:32 1/5 in 1968." Many consider his earning those four major championships the greatest single-season feat in racing history. The plaque doesn't say that his world record stood for 29 years, and he carried 134 pounds.

Gifted with lightning speed and indomitable spirit, Dr. Fager was weighted with 139 pounds, nearly unheard of today, for the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap. His final time of 1:20 1/5 broke the previous track record by a full second, and was only one fifth off the world record. Retiring with more than $1 million in earnings, he is still the only horse to ever win all four of these honors in one year. In 1999, The Blood-Horse selected the top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th century; Dr. Fager ranked sixth. Tragically, he died at 12 from what has variously been called a "colon obstruction," "ruptured stomach," or "torsion to the large colon."

Breathing deeply, I felt a lump in my throat as I paused at each horse's grave: Dr. Patches, 1978 co-champion sprinter; Ta Wee, 1969-70 sprint champion; and 1980 Preakness winner Codex.

Let's not forget these great, and not-so-great, horses--it is through our memories that they live on in our hearts and souls. As the tears burned my eyes, I hoped they were at least loved by someone. Their grace, athleticism, and beauty deserve to be cherished and respected. Their individual struggles and victories form a tiny part of Thoroughbred history. Through love and remembrance, these heroes of yesterday can thus be honored.