John Nerud, Hall of Fame trainer and one of the most influential horsemen ever to grace Thoroughbred racing, died Thursday morning in New York at the age of 102.
Nerud’s impact on the sport has proven as enduring and far reaching as any individual in modern times. Born in Minatare, Neb., Nerud rose from the ranks of ranch hand to rodeo cowboy, to jockey, to jockey’s agent, to Hall of Fame trainer, to co-founder of the Breeders’ Cup, to influential breeder who built a breeding and racing dynasty with William McKnight of the 3M company, who at the time was one of the richest men in America.
Inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1972, Nerud is credited with saddling more than 1,000 winners, including 27 stakes winners before retiring from training in 1978. Nerud’s list of champions include Delegate, Intentionally, Ta Wee, and Dr. Patches but by far his greatest conditioning success was in the development of champion and Hall of Famer Dr. Fager, whom Red Smith of the New York Times described as “the fasted horse in the world."
Nerud had sustained a near-fatal head injury after being thrown from his lead pony on the racetrack. Famed neurosurgeon Charles Fager of the Lahey Clinic in Boston saved his life and became forever immortalized by the horse who bore his name. In 1968, Dr. Fager did what no horse had ever done nor will likely ever do again, which was to win four championship titles, including Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and champion grass horse.
The first and only time Nerud ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby was for Texas oilman, Ralph Lowe. In one of the most memorable Derbys in history, his charge, Gallant Man, was en route to clear victory when Iron Liege surpassed him in the final strides because Gallant Man’s jockey, Willie Shoemaker stood up in his irons before the wire. Ironically, Shoemaker had told Lowe at dinner the night before the Derby that he had a dream where he stood up in the irons and lost the race.
Gallant Man went on to win the 1957 Belmont Stakes by 8lengths establishing an American record that stood until the mighty Secretariat bested it in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
In 1957, Nerud and McKnight founded what would become a lasting and influential legacy to breeding and racing for Tartan. Though he did not breed his first horse until after the age of 50, Nerud established his own branch in the stud book, which includes the likes of Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled, Metropolitan Handicap winner Fappiano, Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Cozzene, and In Reality, among many others.
Nerud’s post-training achievements also included working closely with Breeders’ Cup founder John Gaines in developing a World Championship day for racing and serving as chairman of the Breeders’ Cup marketing committee for the first 10 years of its existence. Following his career at Tartan Farms, Nerud went on to breed 1985 Champion Turf Horse Cozzene, winner of the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile, who was trained by his son, Jan.
“Over the long history of Thoroughbred racing in America, few individuals made as indelible an impact on our sport as John Nerud did over many decades,” Breeders’ Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel said in a statement. “In addition to the many great horses that he trained, owned and bred, and the advice and counsel he provided to grow the sport, Mr. Nerud made an enormous contribution to the formation of the Breeders’ Cup. Working closely with John Gaines and the initial founders, Mr. Nerud combined acute judgment, incredible boldness and powers of persuasion to help create a unique international championship event for horse racing. His interest and participation as a member of the Breeders’ Cup continued to the end. Mr. Nerud leaves a remarkable legacy, and all of us who love racing mourn his passing.”
Despite his many successes in the Thoroughbred business, he deemed his greatest accomplishment to be his 69-year marriage to his wife, Charlotte, who died in 2009. He is survived by his son Jan, daughter-in-law Debra, and grandkids.