02/07/2013 2:59PM

Nerud's 100th birthday: Looking back on a proud career

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
John Nerud at Belmont Park in the 1950's. The Hall of Fame owner and trainer died at the age of 102 on Aug. 13, 2015.

It’s John Nerud’s 100th birthday Saturday, but Nerud isn’t going overboard with his celebrations.

“Not all that much,” he said when asked about plans for his birthday. “I’ve had a lot of ’em.”

That he has, and Nerud has packed more into a century than most people could achieve in two. He is most famous for training the great Dr. Fager, 1968’s Horse of the Year and champion sprinter, turf horse, and handicap horse. But, in fact, he trained champion sprinters in every decade of his post-World War II career. Along with Dr. Fager, who also was sprint champion in 1967, Nerud conditioned Delegate (1949), Intentionally (1959), Ta Wee (1969 and 1970), and Dr. Patches (1978). He trained classic winner Gallant Man. Infamous for losing the 1957 Kentucky Derby by a nose to Iron Liege when jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish, Gallant Man came back to defeat favored Bold Ruler by eight lengths in the Belmont Stakes in record time of 2:26 3/5.

Nerud also developed the great Tartan Farms home-breeding program, helped transform Ocala, Fla., into a major Thoroughbred center, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1972. After his retirement from training, he helped to found the Breeders’ Cup in the early 1980s and campaigned one of its early champions, 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Cozzene, whom Nerud’s son, Jan, trained; the gray homebred went on to be leading sire in 1996.

Nerud still isn’t resting on his laurels. He is a director emeritus of the Breeders’ Cup and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, and he still holds an owner’s license.

Nerud says he will actually mark his century the day after his birthday, on Sunday, with a party at the Sands Point Golf Club not too far from his home in Old Brookville, N.Y. That’s a long way in time and geography from the place Nerud entered the world − and the horse business − on his family’s cattle ranch in Minatare, Neb.

“There was no lights, no telephone, no toilets, no central heat,” Nerud said recently. “We worked hard. It was Depression days, and we owed more than the ranch was worth, but we got by with it and paid it off.”
One of nine children born to Frank and Alice Nerud, John was never far from a horse.

“I was always in the horse business,” he said. “I had a horse when I was 5 years old. And horses seemed to be where I knew what I was doing.”

So when 18-year-old John traded a ranch mare he’d trained for a Thoroughbred colt named Dr. Coogle and decided to head for the racetrack in Harrison, Neb., his parents didn’t try to dissuade him, as Nerud remembers. But they were realistic about his chances.

“As I left, my father said, ‘Well, you’ll be back before the snow flies,’ ” Nerud said. “I made it, but it was a tough time. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was a green country boy who’d never been anywhere, and I trusted people. When I left to go on the racetrack, I got a big, big lesson. I had a racehorse, a car, and a trailer, and I was in good shape. And when they got done with me, I was broke. That’s the way it was. I trusted people and believed what they told me, and that didn’t work.

“When I came to New York, I was working for $2 a day grooming horses,” he said. “You had a cot in a horse stall to sleep in, and that was it.”

It was a hard start. But after a stint as jockey Ted Atkinson’s agent, Nerud found his feet as a trainer, and his career in racing flourished, interrupted only by World War II and Navy service.
Along the way, Nerud made a particularly wise choice, as he sees it, when he got married.

“I had a wonderful wife, and the credit for my success has to go to her,” Nerud said of his wife, Charlotte, who died in 2009. The couple met when Nerud rented a room in her house near Suffolk Downs.

“She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Nerud said. “I treated her with great respect. Then one time I was sitting on the couch, and there was about a foot between me and the arm of the couch. She came over and sat down there. And that was it.”

She stuck by him for the next 69 years, until her death.

“She had class, and she knew how to sell me,” Nerud said. “And she sold me.”

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The best training advice he ever got, he said, came from Ben Jones when Nerud took over a string of horses for Herbert Woolf’s Woolford Farm. Jones had once trained for Woolf.

“I took over 32 or 33 horses, and Ben didn’t know I’d ever trained horses,” Nerud said. “He came down to the barn where I was, and he said, ‘John, you don’t have enough sense to train these horses, so I’ll tell you what to do. Keep ’em happy, keep ’em fat, feed ’em good, and work ’em a half a mile, and they’ll win in spite of you.’ I come to New York, and everybody worked their horses a mile and three-quarters, and I worked my horses a half a mile and run right past them. I was known as ‘that half-a-mile son of a bitch.’ ”

Nerud was never a fan of training a horse up to a race.

“I didn’t work my horses much, and I ran ’em,” he said. “Trainers do too much training. They should work them a little bit, then put them in a race and run them.”

But he said he understands why current trainers prefer to train up to a race: “Of course, they’re training for people who don’t want to get beat, and [the trainers] don’t want to get beat; they might lose their stable. When I was training, I always owned about a third of the horses in my barn. When you own the horses, you take a different approach.”

Nerud trained all of his champions except Delegate for 3M Corporation Chairman William L. McKnight’s Florida-based Tartan Farms, and the strength of the breeding program Nerud developed for McKnight is evident from those champions’ pedigrees. Tartan’s nondescript runner Aspidistra proved a golden goose when she bore both Dr. Fager and Ta Wee. The latter was by Intentionally, who also was the broodmare sire of Dr. Patches, himself a son of Dr. Fager.

“When I was breeding horses in Florida, I bred like a trainer, not like a breeder,” Nerud said. “I bred a runner to a runner. I was the breeder and the trainer, and I had no place for an alibi, did I?

“Mr. McKnight and I were born about 100 miles apart,” he said. “He was born in the southern part of South Dakota, and I was bred in the northern part of Nebraska. And we were raised like each other. He was a poor boy, a minister’s son. That’s why we got along so good. He was absolutely a first-class man.”

DRF ARCHIVES: Hovdey: Nerud made his greatest mark in New York (2005)

Their first meeting in Miami, shoehorned into a 15-minute gap in McKnight’s schedule, lasted 3 1/2 hours.

“He asked me, ‘Can this game get beat?’ ” Nerud said. “I said, ‘Sure, Mr. McKnight.’ I didn’t know when I was talking to him that he had a billion dollars. I knew he was rich, but I didn’t know he had a billion. So I said, ‘Sure, we can do it, but we have to set up a factory. We’ll buy up some land and start raising horses. No one in the world is smart enough to buy yearlings.’ The hangers-on sitting around him, the most money they’d ever asked him for was $35,000 to buy a horse. I told him, ‘We’ll start out, you give me a million, and if that don’t work, you give me $2 million, and we’ll make it work.’ They about fell off their goddamned chairs. But I’m talking to a rich man, and you talk to them like that.”

Among the many horses Nerud has touched, Dr. Fager still owns his heart. Dr. Fager won 18 of his 22 starts, 16 of them stakes, and he remains the only runner to win four titles in a season. He also became North America’s leading sire in 1977, but by then he was gone, felled the year before by a twisted intestine.

“I’m not saying he was the best, mind you,” Nerud once said of the horse. “But, God, he was a big, beautiful, thundering ball of fire. . . . Some days he was bay, some days he was bronze, some days he was gold. It all depended on his mood and how the sunlight hit him.”

Nerud retired from training horses in 1978, the year McKnight died. But he continued to manage Tartan for McKnight’s son-in-law, James Binger, until 1987. That year, Binger and Nerud both dispersed their bloodstock. The horses that went through Fasig-Tipton’s Kentucky auction ring included a weanling by Fappiano, a Grade 1 winner that Nerud bred and raced. In 1990, that Tartan-bred weanling, named Unbridled, would win the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the 3-year-old divisional title before starting a successful stud career.

Nerud never left the game entirely as an owner and breeder. He had about a dozen horses in training in New York several years ago, but today he’s down to two horses. He owns half of three-time winner Verbosity, now in training with Mike Hushion, and he has a yearling Thunder Gulch colt that he bred from his Colonial Affair mare Comedy of Errors. He’s named the colt Final Chapter.

“That’s the last horse I’ll ever breed,” Nerud said. “I gave the mare away last week.”

Owning a yearling at age 100? That’s typical Nerud.

“I have no plans to go anywhere,” he said. “I never expected to go this far, or I’d have took better care of myself.”


Four veteran horsemen salute John Nerud on his 100th birthday.

“John Nerud had a 100 years of experience at age 50, which enabled him to excel at every level of our racing and breeding industry. Special note should be made of his wise counsel and broad experience contributing to the formation and success of the Breeders’ Cup.”
- James E. “Ted” Bassett III, former Breeders’ Cup president

“He played many key roles behind the scenes, none more important than his role with the Breeders’ Cup television and marketing program. He assured that the Breeders’ Cup was launched with professional marketing and television expertise that gave the Breeders’ Cup a launch with sound footing and was a key to its early success.”
- Nick Nicholson, former Keeneland president

“He always won a lot of races. He was good, there’s no question about him being good. He always tells that story, ‘get a horse half fit and run him.’ He might have said that, but I don’t ever remember him doing it. Didn’t Dr. Fager win his first start? He said he learned it from Ben Jones, but Ben Jones didn’t do it either. They used to win their first start all the time, too. They were big and fat, but they were so good they’d win anyway, even if he was giving them a race.”
- Allen Jerkens, Hall of Fame trainer

"I was around him as a kid when he was training horses, and basically, the one thing that always kept coming back was, all trainers and coaches, regardless of the sport, overtrain their horses or players. It's hard for a horse trainer to get up early in the morning, go to the barn, look at the horse, and say, 'We should do nothing with this horse.' It's very difficult for a trainer to accept that. And there are a lot of days where that's really the right answer. . . . My father and I both agreed that the greatest workout in the world was a race."
- Jan Nerud, son of John Nerud