It was 2003.
Mike Hushion suggested we write a story on John Nerud, the man who trained Dr. Fager, Gallant Man, Delegate, Intentionally, Ta Wee and countless others.
“Oh, the stories,” Hushion said. “The other day he was talking about Ben Jones, Pancho Villa, Dr. Fager…you just want to listen. Getting to know him over the last few years is one of the best things that’s happened to me in this sport.”
Hushion set up a meeting and I met Nerud in his front-row clubhouse box. I pulled up a chair.
“I hope you have your questions ready,” Nerud said.
For hours, I asked and he answered.
The Hall of Fame trainer died Thursday morning. He was 102.
When Jimmy Jerkens texted me to tell me he had died, I thought about the afternoon Nerud and I spent together at Saratoga 12 years ago.
Nerud watched races and talked…
He talked about the horse he considered the best of all time.
“When Dr. Fager was a baby, I knew he was a good horse. I didn’t know how good, but I knew he was a good horse. Dr. Fager wouldn’t have brought $7,000 in a sale. He was very straight in his front ankles and he had two club feet but he was an absolute, magnificent machine. No horse has ever lived in the world that could beat him at a mile,” Nerud said. “The last time I run him, he did something that will never be done again. He ran seven-eighths in (1) 20 and a fifth with 139 pounds. I tried to get the racing secretary to put 42 on him but he wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Nerud knew his horse’s ability, he also knew his personality.
“He was a marvelous, marvelous horse. Great, big, strong, masculine horse. He didn’t even want you to raise your voice to him. He didn’t want you to holler at him and he didn’t want to be hit,” Nerud said. “He could do anything. Start him, stop him, start him, stop him. He could go an eight in 11, an eighth in 14, an eighth in 10, an eighth in 14 – whatever you wanted to do with him.”
Nerud was born on a ranch in Minatare, Nebraska. He started riding in rodeos when he was 13 and wound up at the racetrack, as agent for jockey Ted Atkinson in New England. He served in World War II and returned to the track to serve as assistant trainer for Frank Kearns. He trained his first champion in 1949 when Delegate earned top sprinter honors. Nerud credited Hall of Fame trainer Ben Jones for his education.
“Ben Jones told me how to train horses. I took over 40 head of horses one time and I was green,” Nerud said. “He came down to the barn – he trained for the same people. He said, ‘Now son, you ain’t got enough sense to train these horses and I’m going to tell you what you do. Keep ’em fat and work them a half-mile and they’re going to win in spite of you.’ I made the Hall of Fame doing that.”
Nerud kept training simple.
“I never changed. That’s all I did. I’d run them. You don’t get paid to train them, I’d run them. I’d be getting a horse ready for a race, I’d put him in one of these races,” Nerud said. “I didn’t care if he got beat, I’d get a race in him. Now today, all these guys with good horses get touchy. ‘You can’t run him in there, he might get beat.’ Sure, he’s going to get beat.”
Intelligent, seasoned and outspoken, Nerud watched the game and offered insight into today’s breed.
“People say this reason and that reason on why horses don’t stay sound. We breed differently now. We used to breed to race and now we breed to sell,” Nerud said. “If you look at the human race, how much has it changed in the last 50 years? Just think about it for a minute. How about the kids that are fat now? People have gotten bigger and they’ve gotten dumber. Nobody’s got any common sense, you have a machine to do that for you. Horses are growing on land that we’re pressuring. We’re putting more horses on less land. We’re putting fertilizer and chemicals on that land. We’re doing the same thing with food we raise for people.”
Nerud worked as trainer, president and general manager for William McKnight’s Tartan Farms in Ocala. Tartan stood the likes of Dr. Fager, Intentionally, In Reality, Hold Your Peace, Codex, Smile and Fappiano.
“Trainers don’t have that weight any more,” Nerud said when telling me he wouldn’t have run Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes. “I could do anything I wanted with Mr. McKnight. He never knew how many horses he owned or how much I gave for them. He trusted me. I made him about $60 million. I bought him two racetracks, a stable, a farm.”
At the end of the conversation, Nerud tapped me on the arm and said, “Well, I’ve given you enough for one day.”
Enough for a lifetime.