02/08/2013 3:31PM

Jay Hovdey: John Nerud - 100 years, lived substantively

Bert Morgan
John Nerud with his Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Gallant Man.

It’s no big deal to live a hundred years. Hundreds have done it. Okay, thousands. In fact, the best estimates put the world’s current population of centenarians at around 300,000, with upward of 70,000 living in the United States, including that guy in Old Brookville, N.Y., who joined the club this weekend.

John Nerud’s attitude about living to be 100 was etched in stone a few years ago when, during an interview, he declared, “There’s damn few people 97, and even fewer 98.”

Such clear-eyed actuarial honesty is typical of the pragmatic Nerud. The life expectancy for an American male born in 1913 was 50, maybe even less if you were one of nine children born to bedrock farmers near the western Nebraska town of Minatere. He knows how thoroughly he has bucked the odds.

Bob Hope made it to 100, so did George Burns, and their pal Hal Roach, who gave us Laurel and Hardy, “Topper,” and helped build Santa Anita Park. Irving Berlin spent most of his 101 years writing songs like “What’ll I Do?” and “Blue Skies.” Rose Kennedy hit the mark, as did her British counterpart Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, an inveterate horseplayer better known as the Queen Mother.

Had Nerud done his 100 in Japan, he would be receiving a sterling silver cup and a certificate of commendation from the Prime Minister. Irish citizens who reach the landmark age become eligible for a Centenarian Bounty of about $3,400, while in the U.S. the tradition includes a letter from the President, as long as the White House is alerted.

[DRF WEEKEND: Nerud turns 100 - looking back on a proud career]

Don’t look for Nerud to be hanging around his mail box waiting for a note from Mr. Obama. It’s been a long time since he voted for a Democrat. Anyway, Nerud will have his hands full on Sunday afternoon – the day after his actual birth date – with the many encomiums showered upon him by friends and family at his beloved Sands Point Country Club, where many a man has paid dearly for a genuine John A. Nerud gin rummy lesson.

There is a great temptation to lionize Nerud, and not only because he was able to reach his milestone age. What he did with his 100 years is amazing by any standards, and not just in terms of the horses he trained, the horses he bred, or the races he won.

In his own words, Nerud hit New York as nothing more than “a gyp from the sticks.”

“They never called me a cowboy,” he said over the phone last week. “Wouldn’t give me that much credit.”

With his success he punctured a sport he found filled with the hot air of privilege and social segregation. He lobbied hard to set up safety nets for backstretch workers in the face of management opposition. He shoved the idea of modern, hard-boiled marketing down the throats of those trying to pioneer the concept of the Breeders’ Cup. He thinks Lasix ought to be banned – and said so in a recent commentary in The Blood-Horse – for the simple reason that it would silence the critics who mistrust the sport because medication is allowed on race day.

“When you’re right you can stand up and argue,” Nerud said.

Being 100, he forgets an occasional name, a date now and then and maybe a place, but the horses he recalls with vivid affection, as well as the lessons they taught him along the way.

“There was a time at Hialeah I win three stakes in a week,” Nerud recalled. “I win a race with Gallant Man, I win a race with Switch On, and I win a race with a horse called First Served.”

For those keeping score at home, the year was 1957 and the races were the Hibiscus, the Palm Beach, and the Royal Palm.

“First Served was just a handicap horse, nothing special, but he win and he beat Ben Jones,” Nerud went on. “Ben walks up to me the next day and says, ‘John, why did you run that horse?’ I said, ‘Don’t you remember? You told me to – when a horse is ready to run, put him in.’ A blank look come over his face and he just walked away.”

Later that year Gallant Man won the Belmont, the Travers, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. John Nerud was off and running, but not without the help of the person he’ll miss more than anyone come Sunday when the party starts. John and Charlotte Nerud were married for 69 years.

“She was a helluva part of my success,” he said. “For one thing she knew how to treat the press, like when I came out to California and won the Hollywood Gold Cup with Gallant Man, then came back to run him again.”

That was in the Sunset Handicap of 1958, run 10 days after the Gold Cup.

“Charlotte came with me for the second race and said, ‘John, there’s that Cockatoo Lounge near the track where everybody goes. Let’s us go down there and entertain the press. So we give them a party, the 10 or 12 of them covering the races. In my life I’d never heard of any trainer doing that. We did the same thing at our house in Miami. I would cook the steaks and she’d get a little something else to feed them, along with the booze.”

Just as Charlotte had John’s back at every turn, Nerud cared for his wife through her struggles with Alzheimer’s, doting on her every need until her death in 2009. It’s been lonely in that Old Brookville house ever since, and hitting 100 has the no-nonsense Nerud confronting his own closing act.

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

Just once, the caller thought, Nerud didn’t need to be so honest.

“But I’ll tell you,” he added, his voice strong and true, “I’ve had a helluva run.”

And lucky us for being along for the ride.