02/03/2010 12:00AM

Knowing what the doctor orders

Email

A male child born in the United States in 1913 - for the sake of argument let's say it was in a ranch house near the western Nebraska town of Minatare and his name was John Nerud - was not expected to live more than 50 years.

Among the watershed events of the year of Nerud's birth were the Kentucky Derby upset of Donerail, who paid $184.90 on a $2 bet, and the U.S. Open victory of teenage amateur Frances Ouimet, who beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an epic playoff at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. The income tax also began in 1913, but no one really celebrates that anymore.

Had Nerud met actuarial expectations and lasted only until his 50th year, he still would have made it through the war in the Pacific on the crew of troop and munitions transports - better known as floating targets. He would have met and married a great gal named Charlotte. And he would have been known as the guy who trained Gallant Man to win the 1957 Belmont Stakes in American-record time, as well as a passel of other stakes winners for clients like William McKnight, Ralph Lowe, and Herbert Woolf of Woolford Farm.

After turning 50, he also might have lasted into that spring of 1963, when a son of Rough'n Tumble out of the mare Aspidistra was foaled at the breeding farm Nerud was building in Florida for McKnight. That turned out pretty good, although Nerud almost missed the fun after suffering a potentially fatal head injury in the spring of 1965 when he was thrown from his pony at Belmont Park. The man who fixed his head was named Dr. Fager. In gratitude, so was the horse.

Nerud, with a plate in his head and Hall of Fame plaque on the wall, has nearly doubled the odds of his birth. He turns 97 next Tuesday, still acknowledged as racing's conscience, its eminence grise, with the full shock of patrician white hair to go along. On Wednesday, a caller asked after his health and well-being and was not the least bit surprised when the answer came back like a Federer volley.

"Good, good, you know. Old," Nerud said from his Long Island home in Glen Cove. "In the wintertime here, racing's a little tough. If you go to Aqueduct and sit up in the Director's Room, you're about three blocks from the finish line. You might just as well watch it at home on TV."

Just because Nerud isn't out among them as much these days does not mean he is out of touch. He vastly prefers the present to the past, and enjoyed every minute of the 2009 season that featured the rags-to-Derby story of Mine That Bird, as well as the twin towers of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, played out on separate stages.

"I'm not sure they'll ever run against each other," Nerud said, ever the skeptic. "I'd love to see them match up at Saratoga. That's the place you establish your championships. And I'd want to see them in a field of other horses. That's the only way you'll get a true horse race."

Nerud was on record in the immediate wake of Rachel Alexandra's victory in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga last summer, insisting he'd never seen a 3-year-old filly run such a race in his lifetime, or compile such a record. As frames of reference go, this takes the breath away, embracing not only Kentucky Derby winners Winning Colors and Genuine Risk, as well as the work of Ruffian, but also such fillies as Gamely, Silver Spoon, Next Move, Two Lea, Busher and Twilight Tear.

"After the Woodward, I told Jess Jackson I'd never seen a performance like that in my life," Nerud said. "Not only did she overcome all the horses, she overcome a jock who set her up to have to put two sprinters away, then another horse, then hold off another older horse who couldn't get by. And he was whipping her from the sixteenth pole to the wire. Good horses don't need a whip!"

Dr. Fager didn't need a whip, Nerud insisted, nor Gallant Man, nor Ta Wee, nor Cozzene, the horse he bred and owned who won the second running of the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Admiring Zenyatta from afar, Nerud said that her turning 6 this year is not a disadvantage when competing with younger legs, like Rachel Alexandra's.

"It works for her," Nerud said. "A horse is still growing and maturing until 5 years old. And her trainer, John Shirreffs, is a true horse trainer. He handled that mare very well. So did Mike Smith. Mike only took out of her what he had to in order to win a race. When he got left at the gate in the Breeders' Cup, I watched the mare closely. She was sitting against the rear of the gate when they pulled it, and got off bad. Mike didn't panic. He got her to the rail, saved ground, and found room."

And did what only the great ones do. Dr. Fager, who won 18 of 22 starts, including seven of eight during his 1968 Horse of the Year campaign, was machinelike in his athletic precision, just as Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are today. But even the good Doctor had to overcome the occasional mistake.

"Dr. Fager got left once, from the one hole," Nerud said, harking back to the 1966 Cowdin Stakes. "Shoemaker reached down and hit him, and that was a big mistake. He ran up through those horses, knocking them this way and that, and won anyway."