Updated on 08/18/2015 8:24AM

Hovdey: John Nerud, American legend, dead at 102

Barbara D. Livingston
John Nerud in 2004 at his home in Long Island.

John A. Nerud, the oldest living member of the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame and a peerless leader of the sport, died Thursday morning at his home in Old Brookville, N.Y. He was 102.

That is how all of Nerud’s obituaries probably will begin. But like a stone tossed into the middle of a shimmering pond, the ripples flowing from such a simple statement are abundant, reaching every possible shore.

At one time or another, Nerud could rightfully answer to being a jockey’s agent, an owner, a breeder, a racing manager, and a farm manager. He was a veteran of World War II, a miracle survivor of a traumatic head injury, a husband, father and grandfather, and an advocate for backstretch welfare at a time when Thoroughbred racing was run by a handful of powerful oligarchs.

Perhaps Nerud’s most lasting influence will be as one of the founders of the Breeders’ Cup, racing’s championship event, although as a breeder his mark continues to be made through powerful sire lines that have produced any number of outstanding runners, including 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

But primarily John Nerud will be remembered as one of the finest trainers of great Thoroughbreds. Maybe even the greatest Thoroughbred of them all.

Photo Slideshow: John Nerud

An argument could be made – and has been for the past 47 years – that the 1968 season crafted by 4-year-old Dr. Fager and his 55-year-old trainer surpasses any championship campaign in the history of the sport.

Beginning with the Roseben Handicap in May and ending with the Vosburgh Handicap in November, Dr. Fager ran eight times in six months while racing in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and California. The fiery colt won seven of those starts and was second in the other while carrying between 130 and 139 pounds, setting or equaling three time records along the way, including a North American record 1:32.20 for a one-turn mile on dirt in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. Nearly a half a century later, the record still stands.

“Dr. Fager was the fastest horse I ever saw,” said Nerud, who was also responsible for the colt’s breeding. “There was never a horse in the world who could run with him and win. He just kept that long stride going, and just kept laying on you, and could go the first three-quarters in [1:07]. He didn’t want to be hit or abused. He just wanted to be left alone to do his own thing. And he’d do the best he could.”

Dr. Fager’s best earned an unprecedented four championship titles at the end of the 1968 season as Horse of the Year, Handicap Male, Sprint, and Turf Horse for his lone appearance on grass in the United Nations Handicap. No horse since has won more than three titles in a single campaign.

Nerud also trained Gallant Man, the winner of the 1957 Belmont Stakes, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup who is remembered more for the race he lost than the eight stakes he won. When Bill Shoemaker stood early in the irons and cost Gallant Man the 1957 Kentucky Derby, Nerud found himself at the center of the sport’s hottest controversy.

“The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race we have, and there’s no use saying it ain’t,” Nerud said years later. “And Shoemaker was the greatest rider who ever lived. He did things on horses nobody else could do. I still don’t know what happened. All I asked was for him to admit he pulled up the horse, and he did. I rode him right back on the horse, and he won the Belmont. You can’t hold grudges, because it will kill you.”

Dr. Fager was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Nerud himself followed in 1972, and Gallant Man was inducted in 1987. They were joined in 1994 by Ta Wee, Dr. Fager’s sister, a two-time sprint champion who was trained by Nerud for the first half of her career.

Ta Wee translates roughly to “beautiful girl” in a native Sioux dialect, a tribute by Nerud to his Midwestern roots. He was born on Feb. 9, 1913, on the Nerud family farm near the western Nebraska town of Minatare. Nerud’s grandfather had come to America from Czechoslovakia, by way of Germany, where he was a young man training to be a blacksmith.

“He was in Nebraska with a small ranch during the last real Indian uprising,” Nerud once said, recalling a piece of family lore. “He’d dig a hole by the house and put his two kids in the hole and cover them with tumbleweeds. Then he’d go meet the Indians – warriors in full paint. They took his best horses, left the old ones, and never shot him.”

One of the children in the hole was Nerud’s father. But if the John Nerud story could have ended there, before it ever began, it definitely was in trouble in the autumn of 1965 when he fell from his pony, Nebraska, one morning at Belmont Park. He struck his head, shook it off, and went back to work, but within weeks he began showing symptoms of lethargy and inattentiveness that alarmed his wife, Charlotte.

“She saved my life,” Nerud said. “She found out who the best neurosurgeon was and got me to him right away, even if he was in Boston.”

His name was Dr. Charles Fager, who went to work immediately to relieve the pressure on Nerud’s brain from a subdural hematoma that had been brewing since his fall. The procedure was described by Fager as “brisk and simple,” although had Nerud come to him a day later it would have been a day too late. Later, Nerud asked Fager if he could name a horse for him in gratitude. Fager gave his permission.

Even if the worst had happened, and the story had ended at age 52, John Nerud already had lived a full and colorful life, besides winning the Belmont with Gallant Man.

As a kid in Nebraska he hustled money riding in match races at county fairs. He cobbled together enough to buy and train a few horses, sought his fortune, and went bust in places like Mexico and Cuba before ending up sleeping rough in Congress Park, not far from Saratoga Race Course.

Soon, though, he found a job rubbing the steeplechase horses owned by John Hay Whitney, then picked up the book of jockey Ted Atkinson, a future Hall of Famer and the man who introduced him to Charlotte Fitzgerald. They were married in 1941, although not long after that Nerud was in the U.S. Navy, spending his war on the crew of a troop transport ship in the Pacific.

Once mustered out, Nerud wasted no time in picking up his career in racing. By 1948 he was hired as head trainer for the horses of Herb Woolf, who had won a Kentucky Derby with Lawrin and Ben Jones. It was the legendary Jones who gave Nerud the advice he applied for the rest of his life.

“Ben told me, ‘Feed ‘em good, keep ’em fat, and work ’em half a mile. They’re gonna win in spite of you,’ ” Nerud said. “And he was right.”

Nerud began beating old-school New York trainers at their own game, which eventually attracted the attention of monied patrons like Texas oil man Ralph Lowe and William McKnight of 3M Corp. For McKnight he established Tartan Farm in Florida, carried to its greatest heights by Dr. Fager and the base from which Nerud would make his impression on the breed, initially through stallions like Intentionally and Rough’n Tumble and later through Fappiano and Unbridled.

Nerud wound down his training career in the late 1970s, handing much of the responsibility to his son Jan. In the early 1980s he was at the center of the creation of the Breeders’ Cup, along with John Gaines, as head of the marketing committee whose job it was to put the unique event on the sports map. Nerud also won the second running of the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Aqueduct with 5-year-old Cozzene, a son of Caro he owned and bred.

The cause of Nerud’s death, according to family members, was heart failure, but anyone who brushed close to Nerud soon discovered that he never lacked an abundance of heart. He was, however, aware that his advancing age put a target on his back.

“There’s not too many people 94 years old, and even fewer 95,” Nerud said in 2007, after learning he’d won the Eclipse Award of Merit. Then he went and lived another eight years.

Physically, they were challenging years, and most of them spent without Charlotte, who died in 2009.

“I’m not going to be here very long, I’ll tell you that,” he said during a phone conversation when he turned 100. “This is about the end of the road. You get tired. You can’t walk good. And you depend on everybody.

“But I’ll tell you,” he added, “I’ve had a helluva run. And I still know my name.”

A name impossible to forget.

Horsemen reflect on the death of John Nerud


Hovdey: Nerud’s fingerprints all over American Pharoah (June 11, 2015)

Hovdey: A 102-year-old with a nice 3-year-old (Jan. 28, 2015)

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby prospects have Nerud's fingerprints (Feb. 7, 2014)

Nerud's 100th birthday: Looking back on a proud career (Feb. 7, 2013)

Dr. Fager: The horse, the name, the stuff of legend (Feb. 7, 2013)

Jay Hovdey: John Nerud - 100 years, lived substantively (Feb. 8, 2013)

Hovdey: Nearly 99, Nerud still looks ahead (Feb. 3, 2012)

Hovdey: Nerud made his greatest mark in New York (Sept. 18, 2006)