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Hovdey: Nerud made his greatest mark in New York
Reprinted from “Belmont Park: A century of championship racing,” fall, 2005.
John Nerud stood on the back patio of his classically simple Long Island home, its two roomy stories sitting serenely upon 10 well-minded acres in the gentle hills above the village of Glen Cove. Nerud’s thick shock of white hair collected a spritz of the light morning mist as his gaze moved from the distant field that doubled as a practice golf hole, past the tall stand of windbreak trees, to the expansive lawn beyond the deck, where his son was married and the Nerud clan would gather. The only thing missing was the horses.
“Horses?” Nerud exclaimed. “Nope, no horses. If I had horses here I’d have to take care of them, wouldn’t I? But I do wake up every morning and wonder, how the hell did I put all this together?”
The answer, at least in part, was inside on the walls of the bright, airy rooms. Photographs and paintings of horses hang everywhere, leaving no doubts about their speed, their class, or the identity of the man who helped them realize their fullest potential. And while their exploits took place far and wide, at racetracks all over North America, it was clear from the small print that Nerud made his greatest and everlasting mark on the Thoroughbred world in New York.
New York is where Nerud won his classic, the 1957 Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man. New York is where Nerud’s finest horse, the incomparable Dr. Fager, burned brightest. And New York is where Nerud has been enshrined in Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame for the past 35 years. Not bad for a farm boy from a dusty corner of western Nebraska.
Nerud’s ascent began more than half a century ago, marked by a courteous word from the trainer to his good friend Louis Smith, the impresario of New Hampshire’s Rockingham Park. Nerud had been a regular on the New England circuit since his prewar days as a jockey agent, then his postwar emergence as a trainer of increasing visibility. His reputation in Chicago and Florida was growing as well, and by the end of 1955 he was becoming known as someone who could win races with any kind of horse. The time, figured Nerud, was ripe for the biggest jump of all, since New York was where the serious money lived.
“I won’t be back next year,” Nerud told Smith. “I’m gonna try and get me some of the Big Apple.”
And what a bite it was. Nerud’s everlasting mark on the last half of horse racing’s 20th century was accomplished from his headquarters at Belmont Park, from which issued the talented runners of such patrons as Ralph Lowe (Texas oil), Joe Roebling (New York construction), and William McKnight (Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing). No celebration of Belmont’s 100th birthday would be complete without a nod toward Nerud’s influence over the Belmont scene, which commenced roughly with Gallant Man’s Belmont and continues to this day, in his so-called retirement, as an important adviser to the breeding operation of Sugar Maple Farm in Poughquag, N.Y.
It is only mildly ironic that Dr. Fager, the champion so readily identified with the training and breeding careers of Nerud, never actually raced at Belmont Park, his home track and main training ground. But it was no one’s fault. When the grand Doctor was ripping through the racing landscape, from 1966 through 1968, Belmont Park’s grandstand was in its rebuilding phase and the major New York City racing took place down the road at Aqueduct. Of Dr. Fager’s 17 stakes victories, no fewer than eight occurred at either Aqueduct or Saratoga.
A visit with Nerud always begins and ends with Dr. Fager. In between, however, lies a saga of bedrock Americana. One of nine children, Nerud was raised dirt poor by modern standards, but he was richly endowed with ambition and rarely let circumstance get in the way. From his earliest, scuffling days as a cagey horse trader and all-around hand, he eventually escaped the Great Plains of the Depression to dine with industry’s giants and drive to work in a chauffeured Lincoln Continental.
“If you were smart, you never tried to be something you’re not,” Nerud likes to say. “I’m just an old groom, an old country boy come from the ranch. I can’t be anything different and be myself. If you’re big, somebody will recognize it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m 92 and I still remember my name.”
His name, and then some. Just ask him a question and listen to Nerud roll. Always outspoken, frank to a fault, possessed of a memory that refuses to fade, Nerud has been described through the years by some of racing’s most respected journalists as “that fresh little cowboy” (Jack Mann, The Washington Star), a “feisty little maverick” (Red Smith, The New York Times), and “a cattle baron whose haberdashery has an eclat as yet undreamed on Carnaby Street” (Charles Hatton, the dean of Daily Racing Form).
According to family history, Nerud’s paternal grandfather migrated from Prague to Germany, then sailed for New York City in 1862 upon the ascension of the warlike German foreign minister Otto von Bismarck.
“He was learning to be an ironsmith, which is a blacksmith, but Bismarck ordered every student to serve time in the army,” Nerud said, sitting behind the utilitarian desk of his no-frills office. “How he got from New York to Nebraska, I don’t know, but there were a lot of Czechs and Poles farming out there at that time.
“He was there with a small ranch at the last real Indian uprising,” Nerud went on. “Everybody ran but him. Neighbors would come by with their wagons – in the summer the wooden wheels shrank because of the heat and the rims would get loose – and he knew how to tighten them. They’d say, ‘You can have anything you want, just tighten our rims so we can get out of here.’
“He’d dig a hole by the house, and when the Indians come he’d put his wife and two kids in the hole and cover them with tumbleweeds. Then he’d go meet the Indians – warriors in full paint – and they wanted fresh horses. So they took his best horses, left the old ones, and never shot him. That took a lot of guts.”
By his late teens in the 1930’s, Nerud was training horses at far-flung fairs in Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, rarely running for more than eating money. But even then, the young horseman knew how to court a patron of influence. His primary owner was Sid Williams, sheriff of neighboring Sioux County.
From there, the adventurous Nerud made his way to New Orleans, went bust, tried Mexico and Cuba, then headed back to Florida, always following the scent of racehorses. He eventually wound up in Saratoga Springs – it was 1937 – flat broke and sleeping in Congress Park. The same Congress Park just down Union Avenue from the modern-day Racing Hall of Fame.
That lasted only as long as it took for Nerud to learn that they paid a dollar a head to lead a horse from the local railway yard to the Saratoga sales barn. He rubbed jumpers for the Jock Whitney stable and groomed runners for a series of owners and trainers before someone suggested he take a jockey’s book as agent. One of his first clients was the young Ted Atkinson, a future Hall of Famer.
He also met a Boston girl named Charlotte Fitzgerald – Atkinson married her best friend, Martha Shank – but before they could even knock the dust off the dowry, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, in Nerud’s words, “I went to work for my uncle.”
Nerud spent his three-year tour with the Navy on transport ships hauling troops, munitions, and equipment around the Pacific Theater, as the American forces hopped from one bloody island encounter to the next.
“People can’t believe the depravity those soldiers went through on those islands,” Nerud recalled. “After moving troops from island to island, every nine months or so we’d load up with wounded and come back.”
Mustered out and reunited with Charlotte, Nerud dove right back into horse racing. He made his first headlines between 1948 and 1950 while training the Woolford Farm runners of Herbert Woolf, the owner who put trainer Ben A. Jones on the map with Kentucky Derby winner Lawrin. The stable campaigned in Florida, Chicago, and New England, and was led by Delegate, who earned a share of the national sprint championship in 1949.
“They trained hard then, and horses were lean as a hound,” Nerud said. “We bred them sound and flinty, but the horses didn’t run as fast, or exert themselves as much as they do today. But they ran. They took the pressure and they ran.
“When I took over Woolford Farm, Ben Jones came down and said, ‘Son, you ain’t got enough sense to train these horses, so I’m going to tell you what to do. You feed ’em good, keep ’em fat, and work ’em a half a mile. They’re gonna win in spite of you.’ “He was right, and I never changed,” Nerud went on. “Later on, when I came to New York with a public stable, I watched John Gaver work Tom Fool a mile and a half faster than he won the race. All the old-line trainers did it that way. There I was working my horses half a mile – and starting to beat ’em! That’s when they started calling me ‘that half-a-mile son-ofabitch.’ ”
The iconoclast was in his element, winning races and running his Belmont stable with nothing like the somber decorum of The Jockey Club trainers around him. Chances are, you could hear a Nerud set coming from half a pole away.
“I let my people talk, have some fun,” Nerud said. “You had to let them have a good time. People don’t realize the horse has to be happy. They like a little B.S., too. And I didn’t mind hiring drunks, if they can control themselves in the morning. But did you ever see one of my horses that wasn’t on a loose rein, or somebody snatching on a horse? No, you didn’t.”
It is safe to say that Nerud never made a move without a plan, which is why his story of success can be traced to an almost unbroken chain of good horses, patrons, and smart deals.
His work with the solid handicap horse Switch On in 1955 and early 1956 attracted the attention of Ralph Lowe, who sent Nerud a draft of runners that included an underachieving maiden 2-year-old that had been purchased from the Aga Khan. His name was Gallant Man.
Gentle as a puppy but precociously fast, Gallant Man soon revealed to Nerud that he was a distance horse in disguise. Nerud began to train the colt with the 1957 classics in mind.
“The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race we have, and there’s no use saying it ain’t,” Nerud said. “I thought Gallant Man could win it.”
He was, in fact, on his way to winning the Derby when his rider, Bill Shoemaker, mistook the sixteenth pole at Churchill Downs for the winning post. Shoemaker stopped riding Gallant Man just long enough to give Bill Hartack and Iron Liege the break they needed to win by a nose. Shoemaker’s uncharacteristic miscue became the racing story of the year.
“He was the greatest rider who ever lived,” Nerud said. “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.”
The 1957 exploits of Gallant Man – which also featured wins in the Travers and the Peter Pan in New York – prompted industrialist William McKnight to contact Nerud about training some horses. They came to terms, but before long Nerud began to think big. The trainer proposed an operating strategy that would put McKnight on firm ground in both breeding and racing. Nerud even vowed to invest his own money. McKnight agreed, and Nerud rolled the dice, buying a Florida farm and spending $650,000 on the potential stallion Intentionally, a son of Intent with proven distance limitations.
Nerud proved those limitations wrong by winning the nine-furlong Seminole Handicap of 1962 at Hialeah with Intentionally, beating 1961 Derby winner Carry Back by eight lengths in the bargain. Intentionally was immediately retired to stud in Ocala, where Nerud was building McKnight’s bloodstock empire on ground once owned by Bonnie Heath, the man behind Derby winner Needles. Besides Intentionally, there would be the 14-year-old stallion Rough’n Tumble and a collection of mares known more for their racing credentials than their pedigrees. One of them was named Aspidistra.
“I took solid racemares – they didn’t have to be stakes winners – and bred them to a horse worth three times what they were worth,” Nerud said. “The people in Kentucky went crazy, seeing me do that. They said, ‘John, you’ll never get out on that foal.’ But I wasn’t looking to get out. I was looking for a racehorse. And I was giving the mare a chance.
“Today we’re not breeding with any intelligence,” Nerud continued. “We’re breeding with only one thing in mind – the sales ring sign at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland. The only thing we look at is the flash on the board – $200,000, $300,000.
“When I came around, the breeding was controlled by the families of The Jockey Club. They culled with a sharp knife, and they only bred to the tops. They never sent a horse to stud unless they thought he was some sort of a champion. When Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons would run a Phipps family mare in a claiming race, everyone would think, ‘There’s a helluva broodmare prospect.’ She wasn’t. Old man Fitz recognized a broodmare, and so did I.”
By now the record is crystal clear. A legion of quality animals can be traced to the Nerud master plan, including such major stakes winners and champions as Ta Wee, Dr. Patches, Cozzene, Fappiano, Codex, Ruffled Feathers, Western Warrior, Who’s for Dinner, and Clabber Girl. The list must also feature Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner who was a son of Fappiano and a great-grandson of Intentionally, bred by McKnight’s Tartan Farm and raced by Frances Genter.
The jewel in the crown of the Nerud legacy is Dr. Fager, the most comprehensive champion in the history of the sport. He was an animal of pure Nerud breeding, a son of the Tartan Farm sire Rough’n Tumble and the salvaged mare Aspidistra. In 1968, as a 4-year-old colt, Dr. Fager was acclaimed North America’s best sprinter, best handicap horse, best grass horse, and Horse of the Year. He carried weight, torched track records, and established a one-mile standard for the dirt – 1:32 1/5 – that still stands after 37 years. And he did it carrying an unthinkable 134 pounds.
Nerud speaks of Dr. Fager as he would a brother, a son, or the deepest lifelong friend.
“Dr. Fager was the fastest horse I ever saw,” Nerud said. “He just kept that long stride going, and just kept laying on you, and could go the first three-quarters in seven. 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 lost only three of his 22 races: once on a knee that was beginning to bother him at the end of his 2-year-old season, and twice when the opposition used pacemaking “rabbits” to hound him out of the gate and then retreat to the back of the field. He was disqualified from a lopsided victory in the 1967 Jersey Derby for a gross jockey error right after the start.
“There never was a horse in the world who could run with him and win,” Nerud said. “They didn’t enter those rabbits with the intention of winning, but you just couldn’t take him off them. That was just him.”
In April 1967, Dr. Fager came off a six-month break to beat Derby favorite Damascus in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Coming off a bout of colic, he beat Damascus again in the 1968 Suburban Handicap at Aqueduct while carrying 132 pounds. In the 1968 United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City, Dr. Fager slipped and skidded through his only grass race to beat Advocator by a neck. And then there was the 1968 Californian at Hollywood Park, which seemed worth the travel trouble, since the purse was ripe and the weight assignment was a merciful 126 pounds – or so Nerud was told.
“John, I’ve got some bad news,” said Bob Benoit, Hollywood Park’s top publicist, when Dr. Fager arrived two days before the race. “They calculated wrong in the racing office. Your horse carries 130.”
Nerud took a deep breath and bit his tongue.
“That’s OK, Bob, we came to run,” Nerud replied. “Besides, I’m just as much to blame for not checking the weight myself.”
In the Californian, before a grateful West Coast crowd, Dr. Fager beat champion mare Gamely by three lengths.
“You could see that day, going down the backstretch, the other horses were taking a stride and a half to his one,” Nerud recalled. “It hardly seemed fair.”
There is more to the Dr. Fager tale, however. They were linked by Nerud’s own mortality.
On an early morning at Belmont Park, in October of 1965, Nerud fell from his pony, Nebraska, during one of those tangled moments when someone’s loose horse disrupts the normal decorum of training hours. Nerud struck his head hard on the ground, but true to the tough-guy code, he soon went on about his business.
Within weeks, however, Charlotte Nerud became worried over her husband’s health. He was becoming lethargic, inattentive, and withdrawn – all the things the real John Nerud definitely was not. When the symptoms became worse, Charlotte took action, contacted friends back home in Boston to get the name of a specialist, and loaded John on a plane from New York.
In short order, Nerud was hospitalized and had surgery to relieve the pressure of a blot clot on his brain, known as a subdural hematoma. In reporting on the procedure, this is what the surgeon found:
“The skull was penetrated and the opening expanded widely enough to gain a good exposure of the dura, tense and overly dark, distended by the pressure of blood accumulated between it and the brain beneath. A small incision in the dural surface yielded the expected rush of chocolaty fluid spurting over the drape covered scalp. After a second skull opening, the full extent of the liquefied hematoma could be seen and aspirated, exposing the right side of the brain indented, depressed deeply within the cranial cavity, and obscured in places by patches of more solid clot with its currant jelly appearance.”
The surgeon went on to affix a small drain that continued to remove the fluid and relieve pressure on Nerud’s brain. The procedure was described as “brisk and simple – as familiar and routine to neurosurgeons as any operation could be.” It also saved Nerud’s life.
Weeks later, when he was discharged from the hospital, Nerud promised the surgeon that, in gratitude, he would name a horse in his honor. The surgeon knew little about the world of horse racing, but he appreciated the gesture and bade his patient farewell.
“I’ve still got five holes in my skull where they did the surgery,” Nerud said. “Got one hole when I talk you can feel my brain vibrate.”
The man who drilled those holes heard that and smiled.
“Well, actually there was only two pretty good sized holes, but if we hadn’t got to John at that point, he would not have made it through the night without slipping into a coma,” Dr. Charles A. Fager recalled recently from his Boston-area home. “If that had happened, there could have been permanent damage, or worse. Fortunately, we got it soon enough.”
Nerud made good on his promise, and one year later Charles Fager read the news about the 2-year-old colt Dr. Fager winning the important Cowdin Stakes in New York.
“The medical profession in those days was quite different from what it is today,” said Dr. Fager, now 81. “In those days, you just didn’t advertise. Once the horse gained a measure of fame, I had many offers to come see him race, but I turned them down. I tried to keep it as quiet as I could.”
His family, on the other hand, was having a ball. Fager’s children collected newspaper clippings by the bushel as their father’s famous namesake raced through his remarkable career. Fager himself enjoyed a sterling reputation, with a Supreme Court justice, a Boston mayor, and baseball great Ted Williams among his high-profile patients.
None of them, however, named a champion racehorse after their neurosurgeon. Fager remained a friend of the Nerud family and eventually watched Dr. Fager run on several occasions. In retirement, Charles Fager gave the story everlasting life in a memoir he called, “A Hole in the Wind – The Story of a Man and His Horse,” published in 2004.
“John has thanked me many times through the years,” Fager noted. “He’s made contributions to an endowment that bears my name, established for research. One thing I’ll never forget, though, was what John said when my son, Jeff, wanted to go to work for him at Belmont. It bothered me that he would be exposed to a mix of people who might be taking drugs, doing a lot of gambling. John said simply, ‘It ain't gonna hurt him none, doc.’ So Jeff worked at the track, and he’s now executive producer of ‘60 Minutes.’ ”
Dr. Fager, the horse, retired at the end of 1968 while Nerud kept at the training grind for another 10 years. At the end of 1978, he turned over the day-to-day reins of the stable to his son, Jan Nerud, and focused his attention on the breeding end of the operation. Before long, he became involved in a project that became known as the Breeders’ Cup, serving as a founding member of the board of directors.
“It was all about marketing,” Nerud said. “That’s why I wanted to head the marketing committee. The Breeders’ Cup, you see, was never meant to be just a bunch of good races. It had to be a real event if it was going to be a success.”
The debut of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984 was a success, thanks in large part to the marketing of the event as a World Series or Super Bowl of Thoroughbred racing. As a midwife to the process, Nerud was rightfully proud. Of course, that didn’t stop him from playing the game.
“I insisted they have a mile race in the program,” Nerud said. “It only made sense. All the greatest stallions have shown themselves superior at a mile, if nothing else. If it was going to be called the Breeders’ Cup, you had to have a race at a mile. Of course, they said I wanted the mile just so I could win it.”
And he did. In 1985, the Breeders’ Cup made its first appearance in New York when it came to Aqueduct. The $1 million Breeders’ Cup Mile attracted an all-star field, stocked with champions from Europe and accomplished Americans. In the end, though, the race belonged to Cozzene, a 5-year-old streak of gray who carried the blood of a treasured Tartan Farm family, along with the red and white colors of his owner, a Nebraska farm boy named John A. Nerud.
A real honor working for you Boss!!!! The Professor