When a 102-year-old person dies it shouldn’t come as a shock. But John Nerud was no ordinary person, and it is still difficult to believe he is gone. Although his body steadily deteriorated over the past couple of years, his mind refused to follow and he still was looking for ways to improve the sport, NYRA, and the Breeders’ Cup right up until his final breath.
Death tried very hard to take Nerud, but that Midwest toughness and indefatigable spirit enabled him to bounce back every time. Even up to the very end, Nerud clung to life with every ounce of fight left in him. He fought so hard he was able to literally return to life after being pronounced dead for three minutes. Even at 102 (or 102 and a half as Nerud would remind you) there was always a future to look forward to, and he was intent on proving to the higher ups of racing that he knew how to improve the sport and made sure they listened. His voice resonated, spiced with a good number of “Goddamns.” There was nothing 102 about Nerud. Nor was there was never any quit in him, even when he ran out of weapons with which to fight.
It was that same toughness that enabled him to survive two brain surgeries after being thrown from a horse back in the early 1960s. He carried on his life as normal, not realizing he was near death, and was eventually saved by Boston neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Fager, who would be immortalized when Nerud named a yearling son of Rough n’ Tumble after him, known to the world as Dr. Fager.
Now the beaming light that was John Nerud finally has gone out for good. And with it went more than a true racing genius. With it went a piece of Americana. Nerud was extremely proud two years ago when he received the official proclamation, following a long period of scrutiny, stating that his ancestor on his mother’s side did indeed arrive in this country on the Mayflower.
I’m not here to rehash Nerud’s amazing career as a Hall of Fame trainer, owner, breeder, jockey agent, buyer and seller of horses, co-founder of the Breeders’ Cup, head of the Breeders’ Cup marketing committee, mentor and discoverer of Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas, Carl Nafzger, and Scotty Scholhofer, an innovator who built the first artificial racing surface, crusader for the backstretch workers, and sole architect of the Tartan Farm empire, which he began from literally nothing and turned into a dynasty, headed by legends such as siblings Dr. Fager and Ta Wee and a Who’s Who of equine stars that raced for Tartan or for Nerud. They include several horses who have left a lasting impact on the breed, most notably Fappiano, Unbridled, and Cozzene.
He bred a mare named Minnetonka, who not only is the granddam of Preakness winner Codex (who raced for Tartan), but the dam of an unknown stallion named Ecliptical, who just happens to be the maternal great-grandsire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, whose paternal great-grandsire is Unbridled, a son of Fappiano, giving American Pharoah a triple dose of John Nerud on both sides of his pedigree.
Nerud’s influence can also be found in the pedigrees of two of the nation’s most popular sires, Tapit and Unbridled’s Song, as well as Kentucky Derby winners American Pharoah, Unbridled, Orb, Grindstone, and Real Quiet, Belmont Stakes winners Empire Maker and Tonalist, and multiple grade I winner Shared Belief.
Vince Varvaro, a groom for Nerud who eventually became a trainer, once said of his former boss, “John really is a genius. He’s a freak – he knows it all. He’ll not only tell you why a horse is good, but what part of his body makes him good. One time, I was showing Fappiano to a group of Japanese, and John is going through the horse’s bone structure, telling them why he’s going to be a great sire. He’s just phenomenal.”
Nerud picked up his conservative training philosophies from the great Ben Jones, who told the young Nerud, “Now, let me tell you something, son. You ain’t got enough sense to train these horses, so I’m gonna tell you what to do. You keep them fat, work them a half-mile, and they’ll win in spite of you.”
Nerud listened to Jones’ advice, and when he came to New York, the head clocker Frenchy Schwartz referred to him as that “half-mile sonofabitch.”
You can read about Nerud’s career in the many extensive obituaries that will appear. This is about the man, whose convictions and belief in himself enabled him to achieve great things and carve a special niche in the annals of the sport.
When it was time to assign the heads of the various Breeders’ Cup committees, Nerud told Breeders’ Cup president John Gaines he wanted the marketing committee and Gaines agreed. When the board sat down for lunch afterward, Nerud got up and said, “Gentlemen, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret; I own the Breeders’ Cup.” He then continued, “Don’t you know what the Breeders’ Cup is? It’s only marketing and I’m the chairman.”
Nerud signed a couple of young, ambitious marketing people named Mike Letis and Mike Trager and the Breeders’ Cup was off and running, never to look back.
If you want to know about Nerud’s outlook on life and his constant focus on the future, all you have to know is that he purchased a yearling at age 98 and won two races at Aqueduct this year at 102 with a colt he owned and bred. The colt appropriately was named Final Chapter.
When Nerud turned 100, Dr. Charles Fager said, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 45 years since Dr. Fager ran. And that John is 100. When I stop and think he how he wasn’t going to make it through the night. I had very little time to operate on him. He sure made the most out of that surgery and second life.”
Lukas, who is about to turn 80, has continued to worship Nerud and all that he did for him and his career.
Here is how he addressed Nerud on his 100th birthday: “John, you are the greatest and have always been one of my favorite people in the world. You know how instrumental you were in my career. Throughout your career, you went from the shedrow, from the hotwalkers and the grooms, to the board room and everything in between. You had such a feel for the backstretch help, the jockeys, all the way to the ushers and ticket sellers. In the board room at Belmont Park, you made more sense than 95% of the people in there. You were a true visionary.
“When you look throughout history and a person's legacy, you had a marvelous feel for what good horses needed, You always thought less was better and you took that to an art form.
“I'll never forget that day at Santa Anita. I had just come to Thoroughbred racing from Quarter Horses and I had four horses in the barn. I saw this guy at the barn and I didn't have a clue who he was. As I was going to track riding my Quarter Horse, you stopped me and told me you were going to send me some horses, and you just kept right on going. You didn’t say who you were or where you were from. All you said was, 'Cowboy, I'm gonna send you some horses.' I turned to (trainer) Jerry Fanning and asked, ‘Who is that old guy?’ He told me. 'That's John Nerud; he runs Tartan Stable. If he says he's gonna send you some horses, then he damn sure will.' I had just set up shop and hardly had run any horses. I'll never forget you saying to me, 'I'm not so sure you know the best horse in your barn.' I said, "I hope I do; I only have four.' You told me, 'Well, I'll tell you who your best horse is, it's the one you're sitting on.' Sure enough, you were right. He was a Quarter Horse of mine who held five track records when I retired him and he was a very special horse.
“You never pitched me any slack and I was the better for it. But you always made me feel like I was doing a good job. There aren't enough superlatives to describe you and to tell you how special you are to me.”
And there aren’t enough superlatives to describe how special John Nerud was – to every aspect of Thoroughbred racing and to all those fortunate enough to get to know him closely and be fortunate enough to absorb some of that genius and wisdom.
When Carl Nafzger won the 2007 Kentucky Derby with Street Sense, he couldn’t wait to call Nerud. “Nerud, you should be here,” he said. “I just had to give you a quick call. It’s been a great relationship just knowing you and all the things you taught me about a horse and about breeding. I want to tell you something. Thank you, and I mean that. Thank you for everything. Now I’m going in the Derby Museum and tell everybody how smart I am.”
What made John Nerud so special? What were his roots that toughened him to not only accept life, but command it the way only he knew how? When Nerud spoke, people listened. The reason why is simple – he was always right.
Born in the small town of Minatare, Nebraska, just two miles from the North Platte River, Nerud grew up in a log cabin, one of nine children. Instead of floors he walked on dirt. The winters were hard and cold, as he had to endure the bone-chilling wind that howled down from the Rocky Mountains.
Growing up with no electricity, toilet or running water, young Nerud was a rogue who learned to live by his wits. “I was full of hell all the time,” he said. He wouldn’t change much in the next 95 years, still living by his wits. He began riding in rodeos to make some money and then started to buy cheap horses at local auctions that had something wrong with them and then fix them up.
When Nerud began training horses on his own, he knew how to deal with owners, which is why he was able to handle wealthy owners in later years such as Ralph Lowe, owner of Gallant Man, and William McKnight, the founder of 3-M, which soared when one of their scientists invented adhesive tape, later to be known as Scotch Tape.
Nerud was able to dictate his own terms with his owners, and never held back if he had something to say. One of the reasons was his early association with owner Sid Williams of Harrison, Nebraska. After Williams, all owners must have seemed tame to Nerud. Williams had been the sheriff of Sioux County and was known as “Bring ‘Em Back Alive Sid.” Williams had known many of the West’s old gunslingers, and was the perfect owner for Nerud. As sheriff, Williams had to deal mostly with horse and cattle rustlers and bootleggers. Even at age 70, Williams wore a pair of pearl-handled pistols hung low on his hips with the holster straps tied around his leg.
Whenever Williams had to chase down a rustler or bootlegger, he gave them the opportunity to come in quietly. If they refused, he shot them dead. So they always came back, hence his nickname “Bring ‘Em Back Alive Sid.” After Williams, William McKnight was a piece of cake.
In his later years, whenever Nerud thought of his parents and his childhood and all the hardships he faced, his voice would crack and he would start to tear up.
“I’m blessed with a good, strong body, which I inherited from my mother,” he said recently. “She was a wonderful woman. When we went through the The Depression, if there was a few dollars around she wouldn’t buy herself anything. She would buy clothes for the children. She always thought of us before herself. When we had the flu or smallpox or whooping cough she never caught it. Everybody in the family came down smallpox but her. For some reason she always avoided sickness and took care of us. She was a strong woman and a wonderful person. And there were nine of us, so she had her hands full. She devoted her entire life to us.
“When I became successful, I carried out my father’s wishes before he died that she never have a care in the world. She never got into any trouble or had any arguments, because if anyone gave her trouble I’d get in the middle of it and they’d have to answer to me. My father was like me. He was pretty tough. Whatever you wanted in life you had to earn it. If you needed any extra money, he’d tell you to go out and trap a muskrat or a coyote and sell the hide. I trapped many of them.
“It was rough. We had a farm to feed the cattle and a big ranch that was about 13,000 acres. My father bought all the land and all the cattle with borrowed money. One time I took 100 cows up to the ranch. It was getting late and we didn’t have enough feed on the farm. When I was 13 years old a horse fell on me and broke my foot. I had a cast on it for a month and my father said, ‘You’re going to miss a year of school, so take these 100 cows up to the ranch and foal them. I had to cook my own meals and watch these cows every day to make sure they foaled. If I saw one that was ready to foal and she didn’t I had to rope her and see what was wrong with her. I was only 13 and I’d get so Goddamn lonely I’d cry. My father came up every seven or eight days and would bring up some food and talk to me for a while. But most of the time I was up there all by myself and I tell you, it was too much for a kid. It was tough, but it was The Depression. When it hit, my father owed more than the land was worth, but they didn’t foreclose on him because we kept paying the interest. We didn’t know we were poor because everyone else was poor. We finally grew out of it and when my father died he was free of any debt.”
Nerud would go to the local fairs and ride races and broncs. At first he was riding bulls for $3, but his friends the Johnson boys were riding horses for $5, so he stopped riding bulls and buckin’ horses and went to race riding, eventually becoming a jockey at age 13.
“When I was 18 I’d go around and buy some cows or horses from the farmers and take them up to the sales ring to make a buck and I made a little money that way,” Nerud recalled. “My father was 63 when he died. My mother lived to be in her 80s and I get my longevity from her. Her father was with (General) Sherman when he marched through Georgia. My father’s father came here from Prague in 1862. Both families settled in Nebraska, so we we’re all pioneers. My mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. She was half Dutch, a quarter English and a quarter Irish. She got her toughness from the Dutch.”
When World War II broke out, Nerud and two of his brothers went overseas. One went to Germany, but came down with pneumonia and was sent home. Nerud spent three years carrying troops, equipment, and ammunition back and forth in the South Pacific, and never had an escort. If his ship got hit with a torpedo there’d be nothing left, because the first two holds were filled with ammunition. His other brother was in combat for four years. He was sent to the desert in North Africa to fight Rommel and then to Anzio and Salerno, up through Italy and on to Normandy. For the rest of their lives, Nerud and his brother never said a word to each other about the war. Nerud knew nothing of his brother’s escapades, but when he passed away Nerud found out he had been issued the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, which was right below the Medal of Honor. But he never once mentioned it.
John Nerud, attired in a plaid sport jacket and tie, settled into his chair at La Pace restaurant in Glen Cove, N.Y. for his 98th birthday lunch with several friends. Nerud may have slowed down in recent years, battling an assortment of physical issues, but that didn’t stop him from polishing off a plate of fusilli pasta and veal sauce and a hefty slice of three-layer birthday cake.
Nerud was 98 in numbers only. His mind remarkably retained its sharpness, and he still could tell a story like it happened yesterday and discuss all of Thoroughbred racing’s problems and how to fix them. And his solutions and knowledge of the sport still bordered on genius.
While most people his age would trudge through each day, Nerud kept constantly busy, going about his daily routine just as he has for the past several decades. And he has been able to do so, despite the huge void in his life left by the death of his wife of 69 years, Charlotte, who he always credited for a great deal of his success. Charlotte held the family together, and he often seemed lost as he talked about her with great pride and admiration.
“She’s cleaned up more dirty apartments over the years,” Nerud said. “We’d be following those Chicago races and they would never rent horsemen anything decent. But Charlotte could smell real estate a mile away. She bought us four houses and we didn’t lose money on any of them. She was a great hostess and for $37 would entertain the entire the whole Goddamn press. She knew you just put out a lot of booze. It didn’t matter what the hell you fed them.
““She was beautiful, she was smart, and she was classy. She carried me, because I was a little rough around the edges. But she taught me to be a gentleman. She always pushed me and sold me and was marketing me in the late ’50s when my big horse was Switch On. I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without her.”
For the 98-year-old Nerud, his day began early, getting up at 7 o’clock and having breakfast at 8:30, then coming down to his office and reading the mail and go through the newspapers. But the first things he’d look at while having his coffee are the results and the handle at the racetracks in the Thoroughbred Daily News. He would compare the handle at Santa Anita, Gulfstream, and Aqueduct and also compare the number of claiming and allowances races they have at those three tracks. He wanted to see how New York in the winter compared to Santa Anita and Gulfstream. He also would check on the stewards rulings that had been handed out.
“After breakfast I take care of anything that needs to be taken care of with the estate,” he said. “It’s a big estate and it takes a lot of management. I’m still in charge of my money. I have an accountant and two organizations – Bessemer and Merrill Lynch – and nothing happens that I don’t OK. I stay pretty busy in racing. I have two horses in training and I breed a couple of mares a year. I have one mare in foal and I’ll be 100 when the foal runs if I’m lucky, so that’s not too smart.”
Nerud doesn’t believe in sitting home and remaining stagnant. When he’s not taking care of his affairs he finds time for leisure.
“Three afternoons a week I go to the club and play gin and I still drive myself there,” he said. “If the weather is very bad or it gets dark early, I’ll have a driver, but when the weather is nice I’ll drive myself.”
In front of Nerud’s house, closer to the road, his son Jan (a former trainer) and his wife and children live in a miniature version of the main house.
“I give money out to people now and I’ve taken care of my family;” he said. “All my grandchildren are taken care of and I bought my son two airplanes and he runs an air taxi business.”
Nerud admits he wouldn’t be able to function as well as he does without his live-in help, Selso and his wife Britez, natives of Paraguay who have been working for the Neruds for the past 25 years.
“Selso does everything in the house and some of the outside work like cutting the grass and clearing out the snow,” Nerud said. “Britez was a Spanish cook but Charlotte taught her to cook American. She’s a great cook.”
Nerud has become more sentimental in recent years as he reflects on his childhood and his life with Charlotte. And as he did during lunch, he often will become emotional, his eyes welling up with tears.
So, how do you sum up the life of a man so unique there surely will never be anyone like him, and whose accomplishments will live on for as long as horses race and breed?
You can still hear his booming voice bombarding listeners with a vast repertoire of profound, witty, and insightful comments on every aspect of the Thoroughbred industry and just about any other subject one wishes to discuss. Right up until the end he was able to utilize his razor-sharp tongue that, for so many years, has lashed out at ignorance and inertia. There has been no one more qualified to expound on the virtues and pitfalls of Thoroughbred racing than Nerud.
His accomplishments are beyond compare, and he did it with savvy, brains, tenacity, and a gift for seeing into the future. He spoke from the gut, whether it was to grooms and hotwalkers or the nation’s most powerful tycoons. He didn’t care who you were. He looked you in the eye and said what he felt without any thoughts of repercussions.
When Nerud first met with William McKnight about building him a successful operation, McKnight’s staff members told Nerud he could have 15 minutes. They wound up talking for four hours.
McKnight asked Nerud if the game could be beaten and Nerud told him, “Yes it can. You’re a factory man, so you have to start a factory. You buy a farm, buy broodmares, and breed and raise your own horses.”
When asked how much it would cost, Nerud said, “Well, you give me a million dollars, and if it don’t work, you give me two million. If that don’t work, you give me three million.” It didn’t take long for Tartan to take off and be successful, thanks in part to Nerud buying up all the shares of Rough n’ Tumble, a stallion no one wanted to breed to, for rock bottom prices. In his first crop for Tartan, Rough n’ Tumble sired the legendary Dr. Fager, considered by many as the fastest horse ever to step foot on a racetrack; a horse who ran with reckless abandon and who set new standards of speed and weight carrying ability. The foundation of Tartan Farm had been built in only a few years.
Just before his 98th birthday, Nerud visited the National Museum of Racing to see the collection of trophies and paintings he had recently donated to the museum. On a plaque he had written the inscription: To be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame is a horseman’s ultimate dream! It is a statement of your ability and your integrity. Charlotte, my beautiful wife of 69 years, was by my side every step of my career. Without her class and encouragement I could not have accomplished what I did.”
Nerud then recalled the day he was at Charlotte’s house, where he had rented a room, and was sitting on the couch when Charlotte came over and squeezed in between him and the arm of the couch. “That was the happiest day of my life,” he said. When she married me I had $450 to my name and no job except being a lone jock’s agent. We went to Florida and she stood by me and has been with me all these years.
“To be here and see all these trophies and see my Hall of Fame plaque in a great honor. It travels with you the rest of your life. This is not just a Hall of Fame, it’s a keeper of history and the holder of the torch. All of us in the Thoroughbred business have an obligation to make sure the Hall of Fame survives and prospers. Without it we have no history.”
A true visionary, Nerud said after purchasing a yearling just short of his 99th birthday, “Racing is all about dreams, and you always have to keep dreaming. At my age you have to have something to look forward to, and I even have a broodmare in foal. You can’t worry about when you’re going to die. It’s going to come, so you just go ahead and live for today and think about tomorrow and not worry about the day after tomorrow.”
At his 100th birthday party, Nerud told a story he felt best described who he was at that stage of his life: “There was an old avid golfer who used to come to church Sundays when it was raining and he couldn’t play. On this day he happened to be in church, and the minister said to the congregation, ‘I’m going to make you all feel good and have you forgive your enemies. All you people who will forgive your enemies raise your hand.’ Everybody raised their hand except the old golfer. The minister said to him, ‘You don’t want to forgive your enemies?’ The old golfer said to him, ‘I don’t have any enemies. I’ve outlived all the bastards.’”
Nerud wrote his own epitaph at that same party. “I’m old and I’ve traveled a long ways and have seen a hundred years,” he said. “And the way I’d like to be remembered is, ‘I did it my way.’”
One thing is for certain; we will never see the likes of John Nerud again. When he was pronounced dead several days ago, his son Jan called Nerud’s longtime publicist Lance Bell and said simply said, “He’s gone.” A few minutes later, Jan called back and said, “You’re not going to believe this…he’s back.”
In many ways John Nerud will always be back, and that high-pitched resounding voice will always be heard, telling us and teaching us just how it’s supposed to be done.