Age was just a number to John Nerud, a giant in thoroughbred racing who remained active in the sport after celebrating his 100th birthday. This past winter, a few weeks before Nerud turned 102, a horse he owned and bred won a race Jan. 23 at Aqueduct. Nerud's sharp sense of humor extended to himself. The horse's name: Final Chapter.
"I won with the first horse I ever owned and bred, and I've won with the last horse I owned and bred," Nerud told bloodhorse.com's Steve Haskin. "And I've had a few good ones in between."
Nerud was being modest, because among them were 1968 Horse of the Year Dr. Fager, 1957 Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man and top sprinters Ta Wee and Dr. Patches. Dr. Fager "was certainly my favorite," Nerud said. "He did something no horse ever did before or ever will again -- four championships in one year: sprinter, turf, handicap and Horse of the Year."
Nerud died early Thursday morning of heart failure at his home in Old Brookville, his daughter-in-law, Debra Nerud, told bloodhorse.com.
The longtime president of Tartan Farms in Ocala, Florida, John Nerud was a founding member of the Breeders' Cup. Nerud's son, Jan, trained Cozzene, winner of the 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile at Aqueduct. John Nerud bred and owned the big gray colt, who earned the 1985 Eclipse Award as best grass horse. Cozzene became a top stallion, siring Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup and Breeders' Cup Turf champion Tikkanen.
Nerud retired from training in 1978 to run Tartan, which bred Unbridled, who in 1990 won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic and was voted Horse of the Year.
Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup, saluted Nerud in a statement: "Over the long history of thoroughbred racing in America, few individuals made as indelible an impact as John Nerud did over many decades. In addition to the great horses he trained, owned and bred, he made an enormous contribution to the Breeders' Cup."
Born Feb. 9, 1913, on a ranch in Minatare, Nebraska, Nerud was the son of a man who left Czechoslovakia in 1862. He was a groom, horse trader, rodeo cowboy and a jockey's agent before becoming involved in training after serving in the Navy during World War II. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs in 1982, and 25 years later he received the Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime achievement.
Nerud reflected on his career in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. "I'd like to be remembered as just plain John Nerud," he said. "I never got high on myself. I never looked for recognition and I was very outspoken. . . . I'm just John Nerud, a country boy. And I still am."
In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, Nerud is survived by four grandchildren. His wife of 69 years, Charlotte, died in 2009. The New York Racing Association said funeral arrangements had not been announced.