Understanding the motivation behind Richard Aller’s relentless and unceasing PR campaign for Dr. Fager, a marvelously gifted racehorse who last circled a track competitively nearly 40 years ago, is not easy.
Is it only to reveal “the truth,” as Aller insists?
Not even John Nerud knows the answer and Nerud, 95, bred Dr. Fager, named the bay colt after a Boston neurosurgeon who saved the horseman’s life and then trained him for three seasons in which Dr. Fager won 18 of 22 races and set records that stood for decades during his horse-of-the-year campaign in 1968.
Nerud had never heard of Aller, a longtime Compton High history and government teacher, until about 10 years after Dr. Fager was buried in 1976.
By then, Dr. Fager had mostly faded from public consciousness.
But not entirely.
“Dr. Fager was a great horse, probably the fastest horse that ever raced on the North American continent,” Nerud says from his home in Old Brookville, N.Y. “But due to circumstances beyond our control, he never got the recognition he should have received and Richard Aller looked at his race record and what he had done and decided to do something about it.
“I don’t know why, necessarily -- I never asked him to do it -- but he did. And he made people recognize what Dr. Fager had done.”
In Aller’s estimation, what Dr. Fager did was string together the greatest season in horse racing history. But Aller, 64, does not stop there.
Aller, who retired last fall after 48 years as a vendor at Dodger Stadium, says that, “If you consider a horse an athlete -- some do, some don’t, I won’t argue -- it was the greatest single season in 20th-century sport.”
A former sportswriter and self-described “compulsive analyst,” Aller said he reached his conclusion 10 years ago after interviewing former University of Houston track coach Tom Tellez. Tellez, who trained Carl Lewis, told Aller that what Dr. Fager did -- run faster as he carried more weight -- “defies the laws of physics.”
Aller by that time needed little convincing that Dr. Fager’s accomplishments were extraordinary. He had studied and dissected Dr. Fager’s records for more than 20 years. He had befriended Nerud, lobbied turf writers nationwide on behalf of the horse, written articles and collected videotapes of Dr. Fager’s races.
He told Tellez about Dr. Fager’s stellar 1968 season, when the 4-year-old won an unprecedented four championships -- horse of the year, handicap horse, sprinter and turf horse. He told Tellez that Dr. Fager, despite being weighted down by as many as 139 pounds, had won seven of eight starts in 1968, usually by wide margins, and ran his world-record 1:32 1/5 mile under 134 pounds, the only world record set under that much weight and a mark that has not been bettered on a dirt track.
He told Tellez that in the only race Dr. Fager lost in 1968, the horse strained to run faster but was held back by jockey Braulio Baeza, under Nerud’s orders.
Dr. Fager, he had concluded, was a freak of nature.
Aller, stumping for the horse, is nothing less than a force of nature, his crusade growing out of his belief that outside events conspired to mythologize the merits of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat while diminishing Dr. Fager’s.
Dr. Fager did not run in the Triple Crown races, Nerud believing that the colt was not ready to unleash his power as a 3-year-old, and none of his races in 1968 was televised. Also, Aller notes, Dr. Fager’s accomplishments were overshadowed by the tumultuous political and social events that rocked the U.S. in 1968, foremost among them the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations.
“Because Dr. Fager was not on the tube,” Aller says, “his image was not burned into the psyche of the American public the way Secretariat’s was in 1973, when America was hungry for heroes after Watergate and Vietnam.”
So, Aller felt compelled to do something about it.
By way of explanation, the Fairfax High and UCLA graduate says simply, “I was taught that the first allegiance of a journalist is to honor the truth.”
His crusade only intensified when the media ignored or mocked his single-mindedness, Aller says.
Then, he notes, “I went ballistic. I became a maniac.”
Mark Simon, president of Thoroughbred Times, won’t go that far. But Simon, who published an article based on Aller’s criteria for ranking Dr. Fager’s record-setting season the best in horse racing history, says of the compulsive analyst, “When he sinks his teeth into a topic, Katy bar the door.
“He’s very passionate about this thing, and I think what drives him is that he feels like this is the most underappreciated performance in the history of athletics.”
In Simon’s opinion, “Dr. Fager is one of the greatest racehorses of all time and probably his season of 1968 is unequaled, but it’s all subjective.”
Not to Aller, whose Dr. Fager campaign knows no end, even though others have written a book and, more recently, a screenplay about the horse. He is quick to note that he does not believe Dr. Fager was history’s greatest racehorse.
But no other horse, he says, had a greater season.
“Not one person in the United States can refute what I say,” Aller insists. “I’ll argue that with anybody.”
Don’t doubt it.