With less than three weeks remaining before the Kentucky Derby, what the first of the Triple Crown classics seems to lack in the way of an outstanding favorite it more than makes up for in numbers. Roughly half a dozen colts appear to have the qualifications to whip the others at a mile and a quarter on May 6. This became all the more apparent after two races last week in which the favorites, Mrs. Thomas Bancroft's Damascus (opposite) and Wheatley Stable's Successor, were both narrowly beaten.
The more important of the two Derby-testing races was the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct. Damascus, who had looked so impressive when winning the Bay Shore three weeks earlier, trailed Florida-bred Dr. Fager, owned by Tartan Stable's William L. McKnight, honorary chairman of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corporation. On the same afternoon, down in Kentucky, Lou Rowan's Santa Anita Derby winner Ruken won by a nose over Successor in the seven-furlong Spendthrift at Keeneland. The results of these two races were not half so startling as the revelation by Dr. Fager's trainer, Johnny Nerud, on the day of the Gotham that despite Dr. Fager's well-deserved and impressive victory over the Derby winter book favorite, the colt definitely would be held out of this week's Wood Memorial, and probably would not be entered in the Derby itself. Startling? Perhaps, not really.
Dr. Fager (named for a Boston neurosurgeon who operated on Nerud in 1965) has had the look and ways of a
sprinter. Last year in five starts he won his first four, including victories up to seven furlongs, by such astronomical margins as seven, eight and even 12 lengths. But in the one-mile Champagne, after leading Successor by three lengths at the eighth pole, he tired rapidly and wound up being beaten a length. After that he called it a season and, like Successor—who first went on to win the Garden State and the 2-year-old championship—was duly shipped south to Hialeah.
Dr. Fager's sire and dam, Rough'n Tumble and Aspidistra, are not the sort one would expect to produce a classic winner. And nobody knows this better than Johnny Nerud, who said as long ago as last December, "There's nothing in his pedigree that makes him out to be a stayer. Still, he does have beautiful action, and the smoothest, longest stride I've ever seen on any of my horses. That action may help him get a mile and an eighth, despite his pedigree."
At Hialeah, Dr. Fager developed a bothersome blood infection that kept him out of action all winter. By the time he got to New York last month all was fine with his blood count, but then there was another cause for alarm. "This colt is not the soundest horse around," Johnny explained the day of the Gotham. "More important than his blood infection is a bad right knee. It worries me a lot. Besides that, I've never believed Dr. Fager is a genuine Derby horse. He may not be tough enough."
Dr. Fager demonstrated at least some toughness—and a lot of gameness—in the Gotham. With Manuel Ycaza aboard, he ran practically head and head with Damascus for nearly five-eighths of a mile and then steadily pulled away from the slightly favored son of Sword Dancer.
Ycaza, for one, would like to change Nerud's mind about skipping the Derby, but in any case a definite decision probably will not be made until Johnny sees what develops in this week's Wood at a mile and an eighth. "Mr. McKnight has never told me how or when to run his horses or where to run them," Nerud says. "The Kentucky Derby may mean a lot to the man, and if he says he wants to go—and insists on running in it—obviously, we'll go to Churchill Downs. But if he leaves it up to me, Dr. Fager will stay in New York and point for the Withers on May 13 and then maybe the Preakness on May 20."
Nerud, who came so close to a Derby victory 10 years ago, only to have Willie Shoemaker stand up in the irons aboard Gallant Man, would like to try again at Churchill Downs. And if Dr. Fager won't get him there, he has another Florida-bred—a bay son of Intentionally (also the sire of In Reality)—who might. This one is named Brunch, and so far he has a three-for-three record. "I'm not much on racing 2-year-olds very often, anyway," says Nerud, "and that's why nobody saw anything of Brunch last year. He shin-bucked two or three times and had a few other small ailments. But he's all right now." Indeed he is. In his first start at Hialeah on March 1, Brunch broke his maiden by six lengths. A month later, again at six furlongs, he won by four. And last week, in his first try at a mile, he led all the way under Shoemaker to win again easily. Brunch will find out how good he is when he runs this week in the Wood Memorial, where he will have his first go at class horses.
Shoemaker thinks that Brunch has ability, and another jockey, a four-time Derby winner name of Hartack, is so impressed by Brunch's prospects that he phoned Nerud last week to ask if the mount was open. "I had to tell him that I ride Shoe, Ussery and Ycaza mostly," explained Nerud, "but that I'd keep him in mind if anything developed. I'd always consider Hartack, especially in the Derby. It's one race we know he's not going to get buck fever in, don't we?"
In view of Dr. Fager's known partiality for sprints, it was not really astonishing that he beat Damascus in the Gotham. Shoemaker was not happy about the race even at the start. Breaking on the outside of the nine-horse field over a track that had been muddy in the morning, then turned to good and finally to fast, Shoemaker wanted to move Damascus to the front and then make for the inside, where he would have the best running surface. In order to do so he had to make use of his colt sooner than he had planned. As it developed, a 55-to-1 shot named Royal Malabar had gotten the jump and opened up three lengths on the rest of the field, with Damascus and Dr. Fager not far off and already engaged in their own duel. Damascus gained an inside position up the backstretch, and, as Shoe observed later, "When Dr. Fager came up on my outside I simply had to go with him. In doing so I may have moved a little too soon, but actually it was the horse—and not me—who made up his mind to run. He got beat, but not by much, and as far as I'm concerned he's still as good a Derby horse as there is around. This race should help him, and we'll all know more when he goes an extra eighth of a mile next week in the Wood."