02/03/2012 2:53PM

Hovdey: Nearly 99, Nerud still looks ahead


As this is being written, there are only six more shopping days until John Nerud’s 99th birthday, on Feb. 9. But what do you get for the man who has done everything? – at least in Thoroughbred racing.

“I’m starting to walk like an old man, and my blood pressure gets a little high,” Nerud confessed Friday morning from his Long Island, N.Y., home. “But I can still talk.”

Thank goodness. The fact that Nerud is still among us is a blessing never to be taken for granted. Whether walking or not, he is the living, breathing manifestation of the sport’s history through the last half of the 20th century and – if Nerud has it his way – part of the 21st as well.

“Got asked not long ago about racing records that will never be broken,” Nerud said. “Of course, there’ll never be another horse voted champion sprinter, older horse, grass horse, and Horse of the Year, like Dr. Fager was in 1968. But another record won’t be broke is a man 98 years old buying a yearling.”

Which is exactly what Nerud did last September, in partnership with a couple of gin-playing buddies. For $40,000 they got a son of Bernstein, named him Maple Stars, and now the colt is wintering in South Carolina learning the ropes as a young 2-year-old.

Anything Maple Stars accomplishes as a racehorse will have a long climb before making a “Best of Nerud” list, in his equally successful roles as owner, trainer, and breeder. Besides Dr. Fager – named for the neurosurgeon who saved Nerud’s life after a fall from a horse in the autumn of 1965 – there has been Intentionally, Gallant Man, Ta Wee, Fappiano, Dr. Patches, and Cozzene, every one of them deserving a chapter in the tale.

“Ta Wee was a sweetheart, and the same as Dr. Fager,” said Nerud. That makes sense, since Ta Wee was Dr. Fager’s younger half-sister, a winner of 15 of 21 and a sprint champ in her own right.

“She didn’t want to be hit, or for you to do anything with her but let her run,” Nerud went on. “She would give her best every time, and she knew exactly where the wire was. I watched her one day go seven-eighths against colts. She was right there to just win at the wire, then she was sixth in three jumps.”

Gallant Man, owned by Ralph Lowe, was a star of the 3-year-old class of 1957 along with Bold Ruler and Round Table. He won the New York races Nerud coveted most – the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, the Jockey Club Gold Cup – but in the mid-1950s the Nebraska native was still proving himself to a tough establishment crowd. Nerud recalled the sight of Lowe and his Texas pals – Robert Kleberg and trainer Max Hirsch of King Ranch – consorting in the paddock that spring prior to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

“They all shut up when I walked up so I knew they were talking about me,” Nerud recalled. “The colt was walking by so I asked Max how he looked. ‘Hrumph-hrumph,’ goes Max. ‘He’s too damn fat. He’s not ready to run.’ ”

If this bothered Nerud he didn’t let it show.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s too late to train him. Let’s go watch him.” Added Nerud: “He set an American record.”

Even so, Nerud was aware he was up against a closed club in those days, with most of the headline trainers privately employed by many of the nation’s wealthiest patrons.

“I was training with my spurs and boots and chaps, riding with the horses,” Nerud said. “I’d even break my pony out of the gate with the babies, telling the boy what to do. One of them private trainers came to me and said, ‘John, we see you’re a good horseman. But you’re never going to be accepted by us until you get yourself some desert boots and khaki pants and stand up there with us.’ I said it didn’t mean a thing to me.”

Nerud did know enough, though, to keep his ears open in the right direction.

“I was a listener to old people,” he said. “Ben Jones taught me how to train horses in just one day. John Gaver became a good friend. And Hirsch Jacobs was the smartest man I ever met in my life.”

Nerud chose his mentors well. Jones, born in 1882, ran the table for two decades as the trainer of Twilight Tear, Whirlaway, and the rest of the Calumet dynasty. Gaver, born in 1900, handled the horses of Greentree Farm, among them Tom Fool. Jacobs, born in 1904, turned the claimer Stymie into the world’s leading money-winner and dominated racing in New York. All of them, Nerud included, have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame for decades.

“I come to New York as a bushwacker, out of the bush tracks,” Nerud said. “I’d work my horses half a mile in the morning and run by Jacobs’s horses in the afternoon. They were calling me ‘That Half-Mile Sonofabitch.’ Jacobs was the first man I claimed a horse off of in New York. Guys looked at me and shook their heads: ‘You must be nuts!” And then he took one off me.”

Because that’s the way it was done.

“We took three horses off each other,” Nerud went on. “Then one day he came into the racing secretary’s office: ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘I ain’t having very good luck claiming off you.’ I said, ‘I haven’t got anything off you either.’ He said, ‘I believe I’ll leave you alone,’ and we never claimed off each other again.”