08/28/2015 3:17PM

Sparkman: Nerud was a modern Wizard of the Turf

Barbara D. Livingston
Legendary trainer and horseman John Nerud died in mid-August at the age of 102.

The first racehorse I ever fell in love with was Gallant Man. His trainer was John Nerud.

Although I had no way of knowing as a 10-year-old farm boy in rural Tennessee, Gallant Man was not Nerud’s first top racehorse, and he was certainly not his last. Born in 1913 on a ranch near Minatare, a small hamlet in western Nebraska, Nerud was one of nine children of pioneer stock and grew up in the classic pioneer setting of a dirt-floor log cabin.

John Nerud came of age during the Great Depression and began riding in rodeos and trading horses in the local market to help earn a few dollars for his family. That experience led to riding and training horses of various breeds for local unsanctioned racing that proliferated at county fairs and other venues in the American Midwest and West. His talents and trading acumen eventually enabled him to graduate to the legitimate tracks in the Midwest and New England in the late 1930s, where he became jockey agent for teenaged future Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson.

Nerud served in the United States Navy during World War II and returned to the racetrack after his discharge. He found a job with Frank Kearns, who had succeeded the immortal Ben A. Jones as trainer for Herbert M. Woolf’s Kansas-based Woolford Farms. Jones became a mentor for Nerud and counseled him to “Keep them fat, work them a half-mile, and they’ll win in spite of you,” which was a fair description of Jones’s own training regimen.

Nerud first acquired national recognition through the achievements of the durable sprinter Delegate, by Maeda, who was voted champion sprinter of 1949. The gelded Delegate raced for nine seasons and won 31 of 134 starts, earning $277,530.

Nerud developed a public stable in the mid-1950s that included another durable gelding in Switch On, by Condiment, who won 27 of 100 starts all along the East Coast, including two editions of the Palm Beach Handicap, and was runner-up in the 1956 Metropolitan Handicap.

Nerud trained Gallant Man, an Irish-bred son of Migoli out of Majideh, by Mahmoud, for Texas oilman Ralph W. Lowe, who had purchased Gallant Man along with six other yearlings from the Aga Khan and Aly Khan. Gallant Man famously lost the 1957 Kentucky Derby when jockey Willie Shoemaker very briefly, almost imperceptibly, stood in the saddle at the sixteenth pole as Gallant Man closed on the leader Iron Liege.

The rivalry between Gallant Man, Bold Ruler, and, somewhat peripherally, Round Table, enlivened the 1957 and 1958 racing seasons. Round Table finished third and Bold Ruler fourth in that Kentucky Derby, but Bold Ruler romped in the Preakness when Gallant Man stayed in the barn and Round Table shipped back to California.

Wary of Bold Ruler’s ability to control the pace in the Belmont, Nerud started Lowe’s Bold Nero, another Irish import, as a pacemaker (a tactic that would a decade later work against Nerud), and Bold Nero pushed Bold Ruler through fractions of 46 4/5 seconds and 1:10 3/5 before folding. Bold Ruler might not have lasted the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles in any case, but that first six furlongs and Bold Ruler’s mile in 1:35 3/5 enabled Gallant Man to breeze past on the final turn and set a Belmont and American record of 2:26 3/5 that lasted until Bold Ruler’s son Secretariat came along.

Gallant Man and Bold Ruler met eight times over two seasons, each winning four times, but Gallant Man remains one of the best horses in American racing history never to earn a championship. Round Table finished ahead of Bold Ruler in the Derby but could not beat Gallant Man in two meetings. Gallant Man was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1987.

At about the same time John Nerud trained his first and only classic winner though – he never ran another horse in the Kentucky Derby after Gallant Man – the trainer also began the association that would change his life and the history of Thoroughbred racing. In the late 1950s, Nerud agreed to manage the racing interests of William L. McKnight, the chairman of 3M Corporation, an agreement that included an equity interest in McKnight’s racing and breeding operation.

McKnight’s office staff had given the businessman and philanthropist a filly they had claimed for $6,500 as a birthday present. Named Aspidistra, the King Ranch-bred daughter of Better Self proved an incredibly lucky start to his career as a breeder.

Nerud and McKnight bought property just south of Ocala, Fla., that McKnight named Tartan Farms, after the trademark symbol of 3M’s most famous product, Scotch tape. One of Nerud’s first purchases for McKnight was Harry Isaacs’s 1958 Futurity Stakes winner, Intentionally, by Intent, and he developed the big, black horse into the champion sprinter of 1959 before retiring him to stand at Tartan. And after 1951 Santa Anita Derby winner Rough’n Tumble sired 1959 champion 2-year-old filly My Dear Girl in his first crop sired after his move to Ocala Stud, Nerud began buying up all available shares of the crippled stallion.

Aspidistra’s 1964 foal by Rough’n Tumble established Tartan Farms as one of the world’s leading breeders of racehorses and confirmed Nerud’s qualifications as a Hall of Fame-quality trainer. Named Dr. Fager after the Boston neurosurgeon who saved Nerud’s life in brain surgery after the trainer had been thrown from a horse, Nerud’s greatest creation is still considered by many to be the fastest racehorse ever bred in America, or perhaps anywhere else.

Troubled throughout his career by slightly clubby front feet and frequent bouts of colic, Dr. Fager required expert management both on and off the racetrack. Dr. Fager won his first four starts at 2, including the Cowdin Stakes, but was beaten by champion 2-year-old Successor in the Champagne Stakes when rider Bill Shoemaker could not control the headstrong colt’s early speed. Great rider that he was, Shoemaker weighed only 95 pounds, and simply was not strong enough to control Dr. Fager.

Over the next two seasons, Dr. Fager engaged in one of the great rivalries in the history of American racing with his temperamental and racing character opposite Damascus. While Dr. Fager was fiery and headstrong, Damascus was phlegmatic and lazy. Dr. Fager always wanted to be on the lead even on those occasions when he permitted his rider to rate him briefly, while Damascus’s natural style was to drop back early, and he often needed to be urged to get emotionally engaged in the race before his powerful turn of foot would kick in.

Oddly, in their first meeting, the 1967 Gotham Stakes, Dr. Fager rated fourth early, with Damascus just ahead and inside of him. The pair moved to the lead as a team on the run, and Dr. Fager wore down Damascus to win by a half-length. In the Woodward Stakes that fall, though, both Frank Whiteley, trainer of Damascus, and Eddie Neloy, trainer of 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser, started rabbits, and they were drawn on either side of Dr. Fager in the gate. Both riders came out whipping and screaming and rider Bill Boland could do nothing to keep Dr. Fager from going with them through suicidal fractions, leaving him nothing left when Damascus attacked on the final turn. Dr. Fager finished third, as Damascus won by 10, with Buckpasser, who was past his best, just catching Dr. Fager for second.

In 1968, Dr. Fager recorded possibly the greatest single season in American racing history, earning four championships (Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter, and champion grass horse), a feat that still stands unequaled. In the Washington Park Handicap, Dr. Fager carried 134 pounds to a world-record clocking of 1:32 1/5 that still stands as the record for a mile on dirt, winning unextended by 10 lengths. In his final career start, the Vosburgh Handicap, he carried 139 pounds seven furlongs in a track-record 1:20 1/5, winning virtually pulled up by six lengths. Dr. Fager again split his two meetings with Damascus, winning comfortably in track-record time when his rival’s pacemaker Hedevar was unable to run in the Suburban Handicap, but succumbing again to Hedevar’s early provocations in the Brooklyn Handicap, finishing second, beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Damascus while giving him five pounds.

Retired to Tartan as the winner of 18 of 22 starts and just over $1 million, Dr. Fager led the American sire list in 1977, but by then he was already dead, having succumbed to one of his frequent colic attacks the previous year. Dr. Fager sired the gelded champion sprinter Dr. Patches, and two juvenile champion fillies in Dearly Precious and L’Alezane, but failed to get a stallion son to carry on his male line.

Aspidistra’s next noteworthy foal after Dr. Fager was Ta Wee, by Intentionally, who was almost as good in her own sphere as her big brother. A short-legged, blocky mare, she was a sprinter, pure and simple. Winner of 15 of her 21 starts, Ta Wee twice beat males while giving them weight in both the Vosburgh and the Fall Highweight handicaps. She succeeded her older brother as champion sprinter, earning the title in both 1969 and 1970.

Midway through Ta Wee’s 3-year-old season, Nerud retired as a trainer, turning over those duties to former assistant Flint S. “Scotty” Schulhofer. He returned to training briefly in the mid-1970s, training future champion sprinter Dr. Patches before turning over the reins for good to his son Jan Nerud in 1978.

Nerud devoted the rest of his life to Tartan and his own bloodstock breeding operation, and to improving the sport and business of Thoroughbred racing, making significant contributions in both areas. As a breeder, Tartan and/or Nerud produced 1978 champion sprinter Dr. Patches; 1980 Preakness Stakes winner Codex; 1981 Metropolitan Handicap winner and great sire Fappiano; 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner, champion grass horse, and 1996 leading sire Cozzene; and 1990 Kentucky Derby winner, champion 3-year-old male, and classic sire Unbridled.

Nerud was also a founding board member of the Breeders’ Cup, and chairman of the Breeders’ Cup marketing committee, the key to the organization’s early success. Nerud’s negotiating skills were instrumental in winning over several notable breeders who did not exactly trust Breeders’ Cup founder John R. Gaines, and in persuading Gaines to step aside as its leader in order for the concept to gain traction.

Nerud also served as mentor to Hall of Fame trainers Schulhofer, D. Wayne Lukas, and Carl Nafzger, sending them horses early in their careers that helped them be successful.

In the early 20th century, John E. Madden was deemed “The Wizard of the Turf” because he had excelled at the highest level as a trainer, owner, and breeder of racehorses as well as mentor to numerous subsequently famous breeders, owners, and trainers. Nerud went Madden one better. Madden was too tall to be a jockey, but Nerud began his racing career in that capacity, however briefly and not especially successfully.

Truly a modern Wizard of the Turf, Nerud died, full of honor and glory, on Aug. 13, 2015.