12/15/2006 12:00AM

Still in the game, with firm beliefs

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Legendary horseman and Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud will turn 94 on Feb. 9, 2007, but he doesn't plan to slow down. The former trainer and founding member of the Breeders' Cup continues to participate fully in the Thoroughbred business as a breeder, and buyer, and as chief advisor to Howard Kaskel, owner of Sugar Maple Farm in Poughquag, N.Y.

It's a job Nerud does for free.

"I don't need the money," Nerud said. "I'm not rich, but I've got enough money. I like the interest.'

In the 1960's, Nerud built William McKnight's Tartan Farms into one of Thoroughbred breeding and racing's great empires. He still has advice for breeders at all levels.

"You have to have a plan for at least five years and stay with the plan," he said. "You start by looking at the money you have and what you can reasonably do with it, and then you make your plan."

At Sugar Maple, Nerud first brought in boarders to help offset the cost of running the farm, a strategy that can help smaller breeding farms run more cost-effectively, too. He also culled the existing mare band and began buying mares who could produce commercial foals.

"You have to figure out how much you have to average for the foals in order to support the farm, and that tells you what kind of mare you need," Nerud said.

On the matter of cosmetic surgeries, Nerud advises openness.

"We tell the buyers the truth about yearlings," Nerud said. "If he had anything done to him, we tell 'em. Because you want the buyers to come back."

The market has changed dramatically since Nerud first began managing Tartan. Today, buyers often seem to prefer pedigrees with little history, and therefore little downside, instead of sires and dams with proven race or produce records.

"I don't know many breeders anymore, except maybe the Phippses, that breed to race anymore," he said. "They breed to sell. They don't breed what they think will be a good racehorse, they breed what they think will fit the market. At Tartan, I bred to race, and I bred some horses that will leave a mark on the breeding industry for many years.

"But here's the trouble with breeding to race in North America: The purses are are $1.2 billion. What do you think the expenses on those horses are? About $2.1 billion. That's why people don't breed to race anymore."

The market is golden right now, but Nerud calls it "a fool's paradise."

"Because what are we going to do with all these horses?" he said. "They won't be able to pay for themselves."

Still, Nerud is sympathetic with today's market breeders, who must breed to satisfy market fashion.

"We're trying to do what everybody else is right now," he acknowledged, "and that's sell our product. It's the way of the breeding business at this time. Until we get a raise in purses, it's not going to change. Slot machines are just a Band-Aid, not a cure for the industry. But it's a pretty good Band-Aid."

But he strongly recommends buying mares who have been hard-knocking runners and with as much pedigree as you can get on your budget.

"A lot of my best horses I bred from mares that had no black type but were solid, hard-hitting, good mares, mares with good temperaments that were easy to train," Nerud said. "That's where you get your stakes winners. But if she

didn't have that pedigree in her background, I wouldn't breed her.

"People in Kentucky used to say I was crazy," he added. "I'd give $5,000 for a mare and then pay $50,000 to breed her. They'd say, 'How are you going to make your money back?' But I'd say, 'I ain't trying to get my money back. I'm trying to get a winner.' "

Keeneland gives more than $1 million

The Keeneland Association has announced more than $1 million in charitable gifts to more than 80 organizations in 2006. Among the donations were more than $450,000 to health and human services projects and groups; $233,000 for arts, culture, and community programs; and $232,700 for educational organizations.

Keeneland's Thoroughbred-related gifts included a $210,000 donation to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation; $37,500 for the Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy; $15,000 for the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center; $10,000 each for the North American Racing Academy and Gluck Equine Research Foundation; and $7,500 for Old Friends.

* Ocala Breeders' Sales Company has cataloged 1,154 horses to its winter mixed sale, set for Jan. 17-20 in Ocala, Fla. Catalogs are available online at www.obssales.com, with hard copies to be mailed later this month.

* Thoroughbred Charities of America's 17th annual stallion season and art auction has so far raised more than $2 million, putting the organization on track to break its previous fund-raising auction totals, according to the group's executive director, Liz Harris. The top season price at the live auction was $280,000 for a season to multiple Grade 1 winner Bernardini that agent James Keogh purchased.