"There's a guy out in California," somebody said to John Nerud a couple of months ago, "who's a bigger fan of Dr. Fager's than you are."
Nerud found this hard to believe. He had bred Dr. Fager, named him after a Boston neurosurgeon who saved his life by removing a blood clot on the brain and then trained him for three marvelous seasons in which the horse won 18 out of 22 races. Dr. Fager ran like an antelope and carried more weight than a maharajah's elephant, and when he died in 1976, Nerud said: "A horse never lived that could beat him up to a mile. He never did anything but run as fast as he could."
So the 73-year-old horseman had to find this California guy who could say more about Dr. Fager than that, and when he made the phone call from New York, Richard Aller was on the other end of the connection, waiting with statistics and theories that flabbergasted even Nerud. Nerud's pedestal for Dr. Fager, the horse of the year in 1968 and winner of four other championships, has always been high, but Aller has a place for the horse somewhere in the ionosphere.
To say that Aller's passion for Dr. Fager is deep would be an understatement. There have been five or six subsequent phone calls between New York and California, during which Aller has told Nerud how he might have won the four races Dr. Fager lost. During Breeders' Cup week, while racing's hierarchy didn't make a move without putting on a cummerbund, Aller showed up in a jogging suit at a delicatessen on Melrose, holding a gaggle of turf writers hostage for a three-hour Dr. Fager testimonial and brainwash. Nerud and Bill Shoemaker, who rode Dr. Fager a couple of times early in his career, were invited, but they pleaded prior commitments.
Then this week, instead of finishing his Christmas shopping, Aller was holed up in the library, filling in holes in a hagiology that experts such as Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post and William Nack of Sports Illustrated had had the audacity to point out.
"I hadn't done all of my homework when I talked to them, but now I have," Aller said. If he had only one New Year's wish, Aller would use it to bring Charlie Hatton back from the dust, to brusquely tell the late Daily Racing Form sage how he had erred when he anointed Secretariat as the best horse that ever lived.
Until he launches into his filibusters on behalf of Dr. Fager, Aller does nothing to contradict normalcy. A 44-year-old teacher and assistant basketball coach at Compton High School, he also supplies the ice cream for the concessions at the Coliseum and Sports Arena.
What, then, makes him tick? "I just wanted to see this horse get his due," he said, explaining the reason for the Dr. Fager party.
Wrong or right, Aller's hard sell is somewhat timely, as the 20th anniversary of Dr. Fager's clarion year approaches. It was in 1968 when Dr. Fager, never carrying less than 130 pounds and once with as much as 139, won seven out of eight starts, usually by substantial margins, and ran his world-record 1:32 1/5 mile under 134 pounds at Arlington Park.
Aller maintains that there has never been a superior exhibition of handicap racing than what Dr. Fager produced that year. He even has an explanation for the lone defeat, by 2 1/2 lengths at the hands of Damascus, when the winner's pace-making rabbit, Hedevar, and 135 pounds proved too much for Dr. Fager in the Brooklyn Handicap at Aqueduct.
The chart of that race--and Aller has the charts of most of Dr. Fager's races--indicates that Braulio Baeza, the jockey, tried to rate Dr. Fager in the 1-mile race instead of letting him run to the lead like he was wont to do.
"What would have happened if you had gunned him, instead of holding him back?" Aller asked Nerud.
Nerud would like to rewrite the result of that race as much as anybody. But he told Aller: "Hedevar had held the record for the mile, so we grabbed hold of Dr. Fager. I would do the same thing if they ran the race today."
It was in 1968 when Aller's love affair with Dr. Fager began. The horse had never raced anywhere but on the East Coast, but Nerud brought him to Hollywood Park to run in the Californian and Aller was there.
Weights in the Californian were determined by purses won, and Nerud was told that Dr. Fager qualified for 127 pounds, a feather compared to what he had been facing.
When Nerud and Dr. Fager deboarded the plane in Los Angeles a couple of days before the race, Bob Benoit of Hollywood Park greeted them.
"I had to tell Johnny that the weight was really 130 pounds," Benoit said.
"The racing office had made a miscalculation. I might as well have been telling him that it was 230, because the difference between 127 and 130 in those days was like night and day.
"It spun his hat for a minute, no doubt about that. But they stayed and ran, and how that horse ran."