02/19/2009 12:00AM

Fitting home for Nerud's treasures


ARCADIA, Calif. - Imagine this. Someday, in a special display room at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., there will be available for public enjoyment no less than nine trophies won by Dr. Fager, two by Gallant Man, Richard Stone Reeves portraits of both champions, the Eclipse Award and Breeders' Cup trophy won by Cozzene, a bronze of Met Mile winner Fappiano, and the Anthony Alonso portrait of the man who either bred, owned, or trained them all.

But hopefully not too soon.

John Nerud, the man in the Alonso painting, has promised the most treasured pieces from his personal collection of racing trophies and artwork to the Hall of Fame, of which he has been a member since 1972. No one alive has been in the Hall of Fame longer.

"I just think they belong there," Nerud said, when reached Thursday morning at his Long Island home.

Nerud turned 96 on Feb. 9, so let's just call this bequest kind of a birthday present to himself, or at least to his own legacy, which seemed pretty secure even without such a gesture. There is one catch, though.

"I haven't made up my mind completely, but I kinda thought I'd like to keep this stuff until I die," Nerud said. "I hate to give it up until I'm gone, and no one's asking me to. It's something I see every day, and it reminds me where I've been and where I'm going."

Few horsemen can say they've been on a journey that even remotely resembles the path blazed by Nerud. Descended from Czechoslovakian pioneers, he escaped the drought-ridden Nebraska prairie as a young man and headed for the racetrack, did his share during the war in the Pacific, then came home to take New York racing piece by piece until his name was synonymous with the highest levels of Thoroughbred competition.

The collection will include the personal Hall of Fame plaques of both Nerud and Dr. Fager, the Eclipse Award of Merit given to Nerud in 2006, and a special Breeders' Cup trophy acknowledging Nerud's role as one of the founding fathers of the event.

For now, Nerud's Hall of Fame plaque hangs in his spartan downstairs office at home, alongside a collection of photos that begin and end with Dr. Fager. Nerud engineered Dr. Fager's breeding, owned a quarter share, and trained him to an unprecedented 1968 sweep as champion sprinter, turf horse, older male, and Horse of the Year.

"There's a big, beautiful Dr. Fager trophy that will be going to the Hall of Fame, solid silver, given to me by the Racing Form," Nerud said. "It's a reproduction of a front page of the paper that shows him winning the four championships that year - still the only horse ever to do it - and it shows me holding up his front leg with a boxing glove on it. Of course, the picture is by Peb."

The Dr. Fager racing trophies featured in the collection include those representing the Cowdin, the Gotham, the Whitney, the Suburban, the Vosburghs of 1967 and '68, and two well-endowed stakes at Rockingham Park, including the 1967 New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic.

There is also the trophy from Dr. Fager's Hawthorne Gold Cup, which should rightfully be displayed alongside the one earned by stablemate Ruffled Feathers for winning the Man o' War Stakes at Aqueduct. Both horses were sons of Rough'n Tumble, bred and owned by William McKnight's Tartan Stable, and the date on both cups reads Oct. 21, 1967.

"We were told that was the first time an owner and breeder won two hundred-thousand dollar races on the same day," Nerud recalled. "At least, that's the way they reported it in the Times. I was in Chicago, and George Marchant handled things for me that day in New York. I'd hired him when I took over the Woolford Farm horses. George made the difference until I got my feet on the ground."

Dr. Fager was 30 cents on the dollar that day and won by 2 1/2 lengths, in hand. Ruffled Feathers, by contrast, went off at 40-1 and beat future Hall of Famer Fort Marcy by a nose.

Nerud liked them both going in and would have told you had you been there. He has never been a man to harbor delusions. That is why he was moved to nail down the future of these precious artifacts now, while the mind is still willing and able to make such decisions. As far as his health is concerned, he went through a bad stretch around Christmas, rallied, and then got nailed by the winter flu.

"My cook got the flu, so I got the flu," he said, laughing at the inevitability. "That's automatic."

"But there's not many people 97," he added. "Not many people 98. I talked to my son and grandson about what to do with the trophies and things. One said he'd build a room for them. My oldest son, Jan - he trained Fappiano and Cozzene - said, 'You're right, Pop. The place for them is the Hall of Fame. Then my kids and their kids can go up there and see what you done.'"

And my kids and their kids, too.