In conjunction with Tom Hall's Throwback Thursday features in BloodHorse Daily, BloodHorse.com each Thursday will present corresponding race stories from the pages of the magazine.
This week is the race recap of the 1968 United Nations Handicap won by Dr. Fager written by Dave Hooper titled "Dr. Fager Proving His Class; Rivals among those convinced after great duel with Advocator." The story ran in the Sept. 21, 1968 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine.
He never had raced on turf, never had won under as much as 134 pounds while racing around two turns, and "he definitely did not like the grass," commented trainer and part-owner Johnny Nerud as the clubhouse elevator carried him to a champagne celebration party.
But there he was, on the Atlantic City stretch moments earlier, fighting back as he had never fought before, regaining a lost lead, and going on to win the 16th United Nations Handicap by a neck with 1967 grass champion Fort Marcy, Australian champion Tobin Bronze, and 1967 U.N. victor Flit-to in his wake.
It was a victory for class, and on Sept. 11 at Atlantic City, class was spelled D-R. F-A-G-E-R.
Before the running of the grassy $100,000 invitational at 1 3/16 miles, the "knock-down-the-favorite club" enjoyed an overflow membership, including several trainers with U.N. starters.
Elliott Burch, denied a 1967 U.N. win with Rokeby Stable's Fort Marcy because of a lack of running room in the stretch, said: "I thought we had everyone, including Dr. Fager, over a barrel at the weights."
Aussie trainer Graham Heagney, reunited with American-owned Tobin Bronze six weeks prior to the U.N., commented: "If anyone told me last year there was a horse anywhere in the world that could give *Tobin Bronze 16 pounds and beat him, I would have laughed at them."
Jim Conway, who had saddled Robert Lehman's Flit-to for last year's U.N. upset, said: "I thought it was just a question of Dr. Fager's ability to handle turf. If he liked the grass, then no one was going to beat him. If he didn't like grass, then I felt we had as good a chance as anyone."
Burch was afraid of his confidence. "When you have that feeling of certainty, then you just know something is going to go wrong. I looked for some reason not to be confident, but I couldn't find it."
Burch not only thought Fort Marcy was favored by the weights, but also doubted Dr. Fager would be able to handle the grass. "It's been my experience that speed horses on the dirt are usually not turf horses. They can't handle the turns. They tend to run out, and I think 'Fager' is going to have his problems keeping from racing wide."
Dr. Fager did not bear out badly on either turn, but he did not take them with that tremendous reaching stride that has become familiar to television viewers and fans at the tracks where Dr. Fager has run on dirt. Around the grassy Atlantic City turns, the brilliant 4-year-old Rough'n Tumble colt looked as if he was in harness, going at a canter as jockey Braulio Baeza eased him around each bend. Even in the straightaway Dr. Fager failed to level out as only he can do among the current generation of horses.
Unlike almost all of his main-track wins, in which he broke on top or close to the lead and ran away from his foes, Dr. Fager accomplished the "impossible" in the U.N. by playing cat and mouse with Mrs. Ada L. Rice's spoil-sport Advocator. The latter broke from the advantageous rail position, and he and Dr. Fager went to the first turn in company with *Tobin Bronze, the Australian being on the outside at their flanks.
Tobin Bronze was four lengths clear of Fort Marcy, with Shooting Chant, Irish rebellion, Ruth's Rullah, Flit-to, and New Song II trailing in that order.
Except for Shooting Chant, which made a short-lived move at the beginning of the stretch turn before retiring to finish eighth, only the four leaders going to the initial turn were going to be concerned with the up-front running and finish. The race fractions of :24 1/5, :48 4/5, 1:12 2/5, and 1:36 4/5 compromised the chances of the late runners which had every right to expect Dr. Fager to run three-quarters much faster. Dr. Fager was fresh from lowering the world mile mark to 1:32 1/5 at Arlington Park, where he sped the first six furlongs in 1:07 3/5. No time so fast was expected on the firm Atlantic City turf, dampened by .13 of an inch of rain the night before, but nothing like the slow 1:12 2/5 was anticipated.
Midway around the last turn, Advocator was urged to the fore by a head by jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Dr. Fager looked beaten. Tobin Bronze had dropped two lengths behind, with Fort Marcy rallying on the outside. Passing the quarter pole, both Advocator and Dr. Fager drifted slightly wide, forcing Walter Blum on Tobin Bronze to go even wider. Seeing a hole on the hedge, Jorge Velasquez shot Fort Marcy toward it, trying to take the short way home.
Straightening into the home lane, Dr. Fager came back at Advocator, regaining the lead as Fort Marcy, moving fastest of all, loomed the winner in upper stretch. Tobin Bronze fought on without gaining ground.
Dr. Fager and Advocator, heads apart passing the eighth pole, drifted back toward the hedge, and Fort Marcy, not yet bodily up in the beckoning hole, hesitated rather than trying to bull his way through. The race was over for Fort Marcy. He had no place to go and no time to change course and go outside the embattled leaders.
Inside the eighth pole, Advocator, described by trainer Clyde Troutt as a horse which "has you on the ropes, but never knocks you out," regained the advantage by a head. Again he could not deliver the KO punch, and Dr. Fager fought back for a second time to regain the lead in the nick of time, reaching the wire in 1:55 1/5, that being 1 1/5 seconds slower than Flit-to's year-old track standard.
Dr. Fager, bet on hesitantly by the public at first because he was to run on unfamiliar footing, paid $3.60 as the choice.
Advocator finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Fort Marcy, which had an equal margin over Tobin Bronze.
Burch tipped his cap toward Dr. Fager, saying: "He proved to me he's a top horse." Heagney, who knew age had taken just enough from 6-year-old (by our standards) Tobin Bronze to sap his knockout punch, tossed accolades in the same direction: "He's a great horse." Conway, hesitantly reaching for the proper tribute, was almost convinced of Dr. Fager's ranking with Turf immortals: "Possibly. ... he's a great horse."
Troutt wondered "if my horse has any heart left, though he still has four legs," and subsequently added a tribute: "I think that winner is one of the best horses I ever saw."
Troutt has seen them all except Man o' War.