A True Legend of Horse Racing: John Nerud, the Maestro of Tartan Farms

Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud at his 100th birthday celebration in 2013. (Skip Dickstein photo)

In any sport, there are legends of varying degree. In Thoroughbred racing, there are legends like Gallant Fox, and then there are legends like Secretariat. There are legends like Susan’s Girl, and there are legends like Zenyatta.

In other words, there are legends, and then there are legends. John Nerud most definitely belongs in the latter category.

Nerud played just about every role there is to play in horse racing at one point or another, leaving an indelible mark on the sport in many areas. Many people think of him as a trainer, and rightfully so. During his training career, which lasted 44 years, he handled legendary five-time champion Dr. Fager, the amazing female sprinter Ta Wee, record-setting Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man as well as the tough-as-nails veteran sprinter Delegate and the versatile Dr. Patches.

Dr. Fager (Hawthorne/BloodHorse photo)

In 1972, in the home stretch of his long training career, Nerud was honored with induction into the Racing Hall of Fame.

But to label Nerud as simply a trainer is to overlook his many other contributions to the turf, which are quite possibly even greater than his achievements as a trainer.

In 1957, Nerud was hired as trainer for Tartan Farms, the racing stable of 3M Chairman William McKnight, one of the richest men in the United States. But Nerud’s role at Tartan Farms was quickly expanded, and he soon found himself in the position of building a racing and breeding empire out of nothing. The challenge was a large one, but Nerud thrived in his role as trainer/general manager, producing successful racehorses for Tartan within a few years and eventually breeding 103 stakes winners for the farm.

Nerud long had a passion for giving his horses clever and meaningful names, and the Tartan horses received some of his best choices. Dr. Fager was named in honor of Dr. Charles Fager, a brain surgeon who had saved Nerud’s life after he fell from his pony in 1965. Stakes winner Minnesota Mac was named for McKnight, who made his fortune building Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing into 3M.

One of the last horses Nerud bred for Tartan Farms was Unbridled, who went on to win the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic before achieving success as a sire. In fact, Unbridled continues to have a major influence on horse racing even today — his descendants include 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and he is the broodmare sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb’s sire, Malibu Moon.

Nerud in 1966. (NYRA photo)

But as busy as he was with Tartan Farms, Nerud still found time to breed and race a few horses of his own. Among the best were 1985 champion turf male Cozzene (later a very successful sire) and 1987 Breeders’ Cup Distaff runner-up Clabber Girl.

Given the breadth of his accomplishments in the sport, it would be understandable if Nerud was content to rest on his laurels. But he continued to be involved in the horse industry up until he died on Aug. 13, 2015, at the age of 102 – and his final contribution to the sport remained active until 2018.

In 2011, at the age of 98, John Nerud arranged to breed his mare Comedy of Errors to Thunder Gulch, and the resulting foal – which Nerud said was the last horse he would ever breed – won a pair of races at Aqueduct during winter 2015 prior to Nerud's passing. That horse went on to earn more than $240,000 racing in New York, and won two races in summer 2018 at Finger Lakes for trainer Charlton Baker.

And what name did Nerud choose for the horse that brought down the curtain on his racing legacy? Final Chapter.

Yes, indeed … Nerud definitely had a knack for naming horses.

Fun Facts

  • Although he never participated in the Breeders’ Cup as a trainer (he retired several years before the event was established), Nerud worked actively to promote the event in its early years, and won the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Mile as an owner with Cozzene.
  • During his long training career, Nerud started only one horse in the Kentucky Derby – Gallant Man in 1957. The colt looked like a winner until deep in the stretch, when jockey Bill Shoemaker briefly stood up in the saddle and misjudged the finish line, causing Gallant Man to lose momentum. He finished second by a nose to Iron Leige.
  • The best horse Nerud ever trained was Dr. Fager, who won four championships in 1968 – Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter, and champion turf horse – while carrying as much as 139 pounds to victory and setting track and world records at multiple distances. His time of 1:32 1/5 recorded in the Washington Park Handicap remains the world record for a mile on dirt. Dr. Fager was ranked sixth on the BloodHorse list of Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20thCentury.
  • Nerud’s son Jan was also a successful trainer, winning more than 450 races and conditioning such notable horses as Cozzene and the multiple Grade 1 winner Ogygian.

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