Every spring, as the Kentucky Derby madness nears fever pitch, my mind invariably wonders back to special three-year-olds of years gone by. There were horses so memorable that in general, they make today’s versions pale in comparison. Growing up in a horse racing mad family in the 1970’s gave me the opportunity to become immersed in a golden age of racing. Memories of the Kentucky Derby trail of the greats of that decade are cherished ones. Now it’s almost springtime again, and today I found myself thinking of a time, and a horse, and a race, that actually took place just before my birth. By Dr. Zipse, out of a Garrett Bennink mare, I was born to be a fan of Dr. Fager. I did not see the great horse with my own eyes, rather only from the womb of a racetrack mom. But the stories I heard, and the color, drama, and passion within, allowed me to live happily and vicariously through my Dad’s discerning eyes. Dr. Fager was alive and running in our household long after he left the racetrack in New York for the greener pastures of Ocala. One story of The Good Doctor in particular has pushed its way into my brain today, and I better put it down on virtual paper before the feeling is lost. I’ll let you decide how to feel about it all, but in my mind, it is a racing travesty, pure and simple. Dr. Fager and team ventured down the Jersey Turnpike to the now defunct Garden State Park as a budding legend. He had the look of a future superstar as a juvenile, but now at three, those hopes were becoming reality. What the John Nerud trained young colt had done in his first month of racing as a sophomore was quite remarkable. First there was the Gotham, where he faced off with another soon to be legend named Damascus for the first time. Having not run for six months, you would have thought that his formidable adversary, already 2-for-2 as a three-year-old, held all the cards. Not so, as the young doctor looked the future Hall of Famer in the eye, and edged away by a half-length. Eschewing the Kentucky Derby, something Nerud insisted on, the Tartan homebred blitzed the speedy Tumiga by a pole in the Withers next out, polishing off that mile in 1:33 4/5. Like I said … a budding legend. Joining the son of Rough 'n Tumble in the starting gate for the Jersey Derby on May 30, 1967 were only three other horses. Among them was the very classy, and the Doc’s old friend from the early days back at Tartan, In Reality. Despite already being a multiple stakes winner, and having recently finished second in the Preakness to Damascus, In Reality was not expected to derail the Dr. Fager express. And so it was written, and so it was done. Dr. Fager, with Manny Ycaza in the stirrups, bound out to the early lead and was never threatened. He finished a full 6 ½ lengths ahead of In Reality, who was even further ahead of the rest. It was further evidence that this young colt was something very special. End of Story.
The chapter on Dr. Fager’s only trip to Garden State Park should have been over that simply, but alas, it was not. The Jersey Derby, at nine furlongs, was his longest race to date, and Nerud did not want any trouble in the short field. He instructed his rider to go right to the lead. As instructed Ycaza, who had a reputation as an aggressive rider, pushed his mount right to the front, and once clear, steered the 3-10 shot towards the rail in advance of the clubhouse turn. The bumping behind him was believed to have very little to do with what Dr. Fager had done, but the stewards saw it differently. Despite proving his complete superiority over the field every step around, the runaway winner of the Jersey Derby was taken down for 'herding' and placed last.
Rumors of a particular steward being out to get Ycaza swirled, and Nerud, never a shrinking violet, was less than diplomatic over the affair, calling it “prejudiced.”
No matter the reason behind the disqualification, I have yet to meet a person who believed the decision to be a fair one. Finding people who say taking down Dr. Fager that day was a travesty, however, proved much easier to come by. To this day, I cannot think of a more universally disliked disqualification in a big race. There weren’t many blemishes on the record of the great Dr. Fager, but unfortunately, the 1967 Jersey Derby was one of them.