01/28/2015 4:29PM

Hovdey: A 102-year-old with a nice 3-year-old


Okay, that’s it. We’ve been had. I want to see a birth certificate, some DNA, a lip tattoo – anything that will back the claim of John A. Nerud that he is about to turn 102 years old.

All it takes is a brief conversation with Nerud and you know it’s a lie. He comes off a razor-sharp 74, maybe. At most, a fiesty 85. But on the brink of 102? Pull the other one.

For starters, what’s a guy who is almost 102 – Nerud’s exact birth date, according to legend, is Feb. 9, 1913 – doing with a 3-year-old Thoroughbred who just cruised home to win a maiden race at Aqueduct last Friday?

“What are you doing in California?” Nerud demanded after answering the phone at his home in Old Brookville on Long Island. “It nice and warm here this morning, about 16 above. The paper said we got 10 and a half inches of snow. I thought about 12. But the roads are all open, and business is going on.”

A foot of the white stuff and anything north of zero is hardly impressive to someone raised on the bare, wintry plains of western Nebraska. Nerud missed the great Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 in his home state and was in New York when the harrowing blizzard of 1949 swept across Nebraska. But growing up on a hardscrabble ranch with eight brothers and sisters, he lived through plenty of harsh times, and not all of it had to do with the weather.

But we were talking about his racehorse, Final Chapter, who looks like he could have a future.

“Oh yes, he’s a nice horse,” Nerud said. “He run a good race, and he won easy.”

Mike Hushion trains Final Chapter, who was ridden by Manuel Franco wearing the white Nerud silks with the red hoops that have adorned such runners as Cozzene, Fappiano, and Clabber Girl. Final Chapter is a chestnut ridgling by Thunder Gulch out of the Colonial Affair mare Comedy of Errors.

“I bought the mare a long time ago, and she’s had me five or six foals,” Nerud said. “All of them could run a little, but none of them was real good.”

There is always an historic touch to everything Nerud does. That’s what happens when you’ve got so much history. Thunder Gulch, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, was trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who impressed Nerud early and ended up with a lot of good horses as a result. Colonial Affair was trained by Scotty Schulhofer, who benefited from Nerud’s blessing as well during the early part of a Hall of Fame career.

Nerud gives a nod to Frankie O’Connor, the owner of Kildare Stud in Kentucky, for a piece of the Final Chapter story. It was Nerud who helped get O’Connor the job managing Sugar Maple Farm in New York, where Nerud was keeping his mares and acting as a consultant.

“He came to me one day out of the blue and said he wanted to manage a farm, but he couldn’t unless I taught him how to do it,” Nerud said. “I liked his honesty. So, he managed Sugar Maple for about six years before moving on to Kentucky. When I called and asked about Thunder Gulch, he made a call and told them he had a new man in the game. They said the price was $15,000, and what was the new man’s name?”

Thunder Gulch was standing at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, and still is.

“When he told them it was John Nerud, they said the price was $5,000,” Nerud added with a laugh.

Clearly, seniority has its advantages. Nerud has been in the Hall of Fame since 1972, longer than any living member, thanks to training horses like Dr. Fager, Gallant Man, Intentionally, Dr. Patches, and Delegate. He officially retired as a trainer in 1978, but the game has never been without his influence, most notably as one of the founders of the Breeders’ Cup. That influence was recognized in 2006 with the Eclipse Award of Merit.

Nerud was accused of being deceptive in naming his horse Final Chapter, as if the curtain is about to be drawn on a lifetime in the horse business.

“That’s the last of the horse business for me,” he insisted. “What the hell, I’m a hundred and two in a few days.”

But doesn’t that attitude give lie to the cliché that hope can be defined as someone with a promising young Thoroughbred?

“Yes, what the hell, I got nothing to kick about,” he said. “I might as well enjoy life ’cause there’s not much of it left.”

Two years ago, a large group of friends and family gathered at Nerud’s country club to celebrate his centenary. There have been a few health scares since then, though nothing that has kept Nerud from his gin games. Flushed with the victory of Final Chapter, there must be a special party planned for Feb. 9. But Nerud said it would be low key.

“I’ll get together with the family and have dinner, that’s all,” he said. “I told them to buy a cake and put one big candle and two little ones on it. Saves on energy that way.”