01/12/2007 1:00AM

Nerud still has eye on game


ARCADIA, Calif. - Everybody and his fat, lazy brother-in-law has been stepping up to take a shot at the new format announced this week for the Breeders' Cup World Championships. So why should we (actually, there's just me and my dachshund) be any different?

Adding a second day to the Breeders' Cup festivities was always a good idea. The trick was finding a television partner to go along for the ride, and racing found it in ESPN.

Sadly, because of the Great God Football, the two days had to be Friday and Saturday, instead of Saturday and Sunday. But if Friday is to be anointed as a fully vested Breeders' Cup Day, then why didn't the Breeders' Cup decision makers have the courage to commit at least one of the established Breeders' Cup races to the first day of the festival? Instead, with its three piddling Breeders' Cuppish events, Breeders' Cup Friday will be no more than Saturday Lite.

The ideal model, of course, is the Cheltenham Festival in England every March, where fans are enriched one day with the Queen Mother Champion Chase, another day with the Champion Hurdle, and finally with the climactic Cheltenham Gold Cup - each a destination race for a division of the game.

But hey, don't take my word for it. If anyone deserves to be heard when it comes to all things Breeders' Cup, it is a man who was there at the beginning, when the Breeders' Cup was born.

John Nerud, a member of the Hall of Fame since 1972, led the marketing committee of the first Breeders' Cup board of directors when the plan was hatched, in 1982. He was almost 70 at the time, retired from active training but still brimming with the energy required to meet such a revolutionary challenge.

Nerud lobbied hard for marketing dollars to promote the Breeders' Cup concept far beyond the normal audiences to which racing had grown accustomed. He even managed to win a Breeders' Cup race with his homegrown Cozzene, who defeated the brilliant Europeans Shadeed, Rousillon, and Palace Music in the 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile at Aqueduct. Nerud, never shy, was asked what he thought of the three new Breeders' Cup events.

"I don't know if they will take something away from the Breeders' Cup, or give it more prestige," Nerud replied when reached Thursday afternoon at his Long Island home. "You hate to see anything diluted, if that's what happens. As for the extra day, they'll have a lot of people - they always seem to on that day before the Breeders' Cup. But I'm not sure I would have called this part of the Breeders' Cup. It sounds like more of a preview to the big day."

At 93, Nerud remains plugged into every twist and turn the modern sport is taking. On this particular day, however, he had a shocking confession.

"This is the first year I felt a little old," Nerud said. "I've had a little vertigo, but it comes and goes. Guess that's what happens when you bang your head."

It is nothing short of a miracle that Nerud lived to be 53, let alone 93. The scrappy Nebraskan appeared to be down for the count after falling from his stable pony one morning at Belmont Park, in October of 1965, suffering a subdural hematoma that went unattended for weeks. His wife, Charlotte, rushed him to a brain specialist just in time for surgery to drain blood and fluid and relieve potentially fatal pressure. The name of the surgeon was Dr. Charles Fager.

Grateful beyond words, Nerud named a promising yearling owned by patron William McKnight in Dr. Fager's honor. A statue in Central Park would have been no less a tribute. As a manifestation of pure speed, Dr. Fager was a peerless, weight-packing monster who proved during his 1968 Horse of the Year campaign to be the most versatile champion in the history of the American sport.

Much like Dr. Fager, with his 19 first-place finishes in 22 starts, Nerud has spent a lifetime in the Thoroughbred business getting there first. In 1957 he was instrumental in creating the first program to provide health insurance to all backstretch workers. In 1962 he established a bloodstock beachhead in Florida that eventually offered a quality alternative to Kentucky. In 1969 Nerud became the chief proponent of Tartan track, an artificial racing surface manufactured by McKnight's 3M Co. that was a precursor of today's synthetics.

"I didn't do enough research, and I didn't have the answer," Nerud said of the short-lived Tartan track. "What they've got now is a good track, but it looks like horses are going to run just the same on synthetic tracks as they do on turf tracks."

To his delight, Nerud found out just this week that he is going to receive the Eclipse Award of Merit. He hopes he feels good enough to attend the ceremonies in Los Angeles, where his name will be first among many to be celebrated at the Eclipse Awards dinner on the evening of Jan. 22. Nerud's name fits well among such past winners as Paul Mellon, Joe Hirsch, Alfred Vanderbilt, and Jimmy Kilroe - imagine the game without them - and racing is lucky to have him around, a half-century after winning the Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man.

"It's a great honor," Nerud said, and then laughed. "But they just about missed me."