02/07/2014 1:16PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby prospects have Nerud's fingerprints


John Nerud turns 101 on Sunday, but before you load the car with balloons and birthday cake and head for his home on Long Island, better check with the man himself.

“They gave me a real nice party last year at a local club,” Nerud said earlier this week. “Nothing doing this year, though. Too much snow and more on the way Sunday night. I wouldn’t ask anybody to go out in this.”

Not even his gin-playing buddies from the club, who did venture forth not long ago to visit Nerud upon his return from a two-day hospital stay.

“I’m all right, but you know it’s day to day,” Nerud said. “Until three months ago I felt like my body worked just like it did when I was young. But now it’s different. Things are breaking down.”

There’s not much more to add to all that was written a year ago when Nerud hit the century mark. Dirt poor Nebraska farm boy makes good in the big city, gives the Establishment trainers all they can handle, rises to the heights of the Hall of Fame. Nerud trained three Hall of Famers, helped establish the Breeders’ Cup, and had the privilege of 69 years as husband to a bright and shining Boston girl named Charlotte Fitzgerald.

So what’s new?

“Did you see where Fappiano is really all over the Derby this year?” Nerud said, right out of the gate. “I left some great breeding, didn’t I?”

Asked and answered. As manager and trainer of William McKnight’s Tartan Farm operation, Nerud was responsible for the mixing and matching that produced Horse of the Year Dr. Fager and his champion sister Ta Wee, along with a host of notables that included Codex, Great Above, Muttering, and Minnesota Mac. Dr. Fager, the greatest all-around champion in the history of the game, later become a champion sire and top broodmare sire.

In 1976 Nerud sent his own mare Killaloe, a daughter of Dr. Fager, to Mr. Prospector, a son of Raise a Native whose first foals were just hitting the ground. Guess Nerud got that one right.

Killaloe’s son Fappiano turned out to be a crackerjack racehorse. Trained by Nerud’s son Jan, Fappiano won 10 of 17 starts, including the 1981 Metropolitan Handicap. And while Fappiano’s stallion career came to an abrupt end in 1990 with a irreparably broken leg, his sons have gone on to establish a male-line beachhead that figures to last.

As evidence, Nerud would direct the reader to consult the pedigrees of four stakes-tested 3-year-olds in the thick of the conversation around this year’s Kentucky Derby. Cairo Prince, Havana, Shared Belief, and Midnight Hawk are all great-grandsons of one of three Fappiano stallions – Unbridled, Cryptoclearance, or Quiet American.

“I didn’t know how to breed, or at least how everybody else did it at the time,” Nerud said. “So how did I do it? I owned a piece of the farm, and I bred them and trained them, so if they couldn’t run who’s fault was it? I bred like a trainer, and it worked.”

Nerud trained for 44 years and retired at the end of 1978, but not before one last flourish with his homebred gelding Dr. Patches, a son of Dr. Fager out of a mare by Intentionally, the first stallion he bought for Tartan Farm.

In the $160,500 Paterson Handicap under the lights at The Meadowlands all eyes were on Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown, reigning Horse of the Year and bona fide matinee idol. The 4-year-old version of Seattle Slew was back in action after a serious illness earlier in ’78, with a race under his belt and the rich series of New York races on the horizon.

Despite having only one stakes placing to his name, Dr. Patches was in peak form and getting 14 pounds from Seattle Slew, 114 to 128, not to mention considerable love in the tote from those who smelled a Nerud coup. Seattle Slew was 2-5, Dr. Patches 9-2.

“They had a box for us in the clubhouse, so Charlotte and I went up there for something to eat,” Nerud recalled. “After that I said I was going back to the barn to see if the horse was all right. Harry Stevens the caterer and Sonny Werblin, the guy who owned the Jets, were sitting there, both friends of mine. Werblin turns and says, ‘God dammit John, are you really trying to beat that horse?’ I said I tried to win every race. And they all bet on him.”

Dr. Patches and Angel Cordero dogged Seattle Slew nearly every step of the 9 furlongs and finally wore him down to win by a neck.

“After the race they were pouring champagne and saying, ‘Here, John, have a glass,’ ” Nerud said, laughing at the memory.

“It was already past 11 o’clock. I said I was a horse trainer. All I wanted to do was get to bed. So I grabbed a bottle – ‘This’ll do,’ I said – and we headed for the door. Charlotte and I drank champagne in the back of the limousine all the way home.”