Think about this: John Nerud was around for every single Triple Crown winner, from Sir Barton in 1919 to American Pharoah.
The thoroughbred racing pioneer, who trained the great Dr. Fager and co-founded the Breeders’ Cup, died on Thursday at the age of 102 at his home in Old Brookville, N.Y.
Few, if any, horsemen did as much for the sport as Nerud, a one-time rodeo cowboy born on a ranch in Minatare, Nebraska, on Feb. 9, 1913. Along the road, he also was agent for a Hall of Fame jockey, he won the Belmont Stakes with Gallant Man, he oversaw famed Tartan Farms; he was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame; and he even owned a horse — trained by his son — that won a race six months ago at Aqueduct.
“Mr. Nerud leaves a remarkable legacy, and all of us who love racing mourn his passing,” Breeders’ Cup President Craig Favel said in a statement.
Here’s a look at some racing moments involving Nerud:
The bay colt trained by Nerud for Tartan Farms in Ocala, Florida, was named for a Boston neurosurgeon. Dr. Charles Fager operated on Nerud after the trainer was thrown from a horse he was training at Belmont Park and developed a blood clot.
“Doc, I appreciate what you done, and one of these days I’m going to name a horse after you,” Nerud recalled in an interview several years ago published in the Los Angeles Times. “It won’t just be another horse, either. It’ll be a good one.”
Dr. Fager was a champion. He was the first horse to win four championships in one season. In 1968, he was chosen top sprinter, turf horse, handicap horse and Horse of the Year. He won 18 of 22 career races.
Nerud came up on the short end after one of the biggest blunders in Kentucky Derby history. Nerud’s Gallant Man lost the 1957 Derby by a nose to Iron Liege after the great Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line and stood up in the irons too early. Gallant Man sat out the Preakness, but came back and defeated Bold Ruler in the Belmont Stakes. Gallant Man was Nerud’s only Derby starter in his 44-year career as a trainer.
In the 1980s, Nerud was all in with the Breeders’ Cup idea. He was instrumental in helping John R. Gaines sell the idea to horsemen around the country. The first Breeders’ Cup was held in 1984, and has developed into a two-day event of million-dollar plus races that often determine annual champions in many racing division. Nerud was chairman of the marketing committee in its first few years. In ’85, Nerud won the Breeders’ Cup Mile with his homebred Cozzene, who was trained by his son Jan.
“Mr. Nerud made an enormous contribution to the formation of the Breeders’ Cup,” Favel said. “… Mr. Nerud combined acute judgment, incredible boldness and powers of persuasion to help create a unique international championship event for horse racing.”
Nerud bred and raced Metropolitan Handicap winner Fappiano, who became the sire of Unbridled, bred by Tartan Farms, where Nerud became racing manager after he stopped training. Unbridled would then become the great-grandsire of American Pharoah, the first horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years and 12th overall. The Fappiano connection to American Pharoah runs through Unbridled, Empire Maker and Pioneerof the Nile.
D. WAYNE LUKAS
No one has won more Triple Crown races than Lukas. The Hall of Fame trainer had to start somewhere. Of course, Nerud was involved. He liked Lukas as soon as he met the former quarter-horse trainer, and sent him a Tartan Farms horse named Codex.
He was not nominated for the 1980 Derby, but Codex went on to win the Preakness by defeating the Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk in a finish that is still debated. With Codex leading, Genuine Risk began closing in. Coming off the final turn, Codex drifted wide and Genuine Risk lost her momentum. Codex went on to win by 4 3/4 lengths.
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