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John Nerud dies at 102; thoroughbred trainer helped start the Breeders' Cup

John Nerud dies at 102; thoroughbred trainer helped start the Breeders' Cup
Trainer John Nerud with his champion horse Dr. Fager. Nerud, a thoroughbred racing pioneer who helped create the Breeders' Cup, has died at the age of 102. (Associated Press)

John Nerud, a thoroughbred racing pioneer who trained the great Dr. Fager and helped create the Breeders' Cup, died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Old Brookville, N.Y. He was 102.

His death was announced by the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1972.

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Nerud won more than 1,000 races during his 44-year training career, mostly for Tartan Farms, the Ocala, Fla., stable where he served as trainer, president and general manager.

His top horse at Tartan was Dr. Fager, named after a Boston neurosurgeon who saved Nerud's life.

Dr. Charles Fager operated on Nerud after the horseman was thrown from a pony he was training at Belmont Park and developed a brain clot.

"Doc, I appreciate what you done, and one of these days I'm going to name a horse after you," Nerud, in an interview several years ago with the Los Angeles Times, recalled telling the doctor. "It won't just be another horse, either. It'll be a good one."

That horse went on to win 18 of 22 races and was the first to win four championships in one year. In 1968, Dr. Fager was champion top sprinter, turf horse and handicap horse and was named Horse of the Year.

Among other champions Nerud trained were Delegate (1949), Intentionally (1950), Ta Wee (1969-70), and Dr. Patches (1978).

In 1957, Nerud was on the short end of one of the strangest finishes in Kentucky Derby history. Gallant Man, with Bill Shoemaker aboard, lost by a nose to Iron Liege after the Hall of Fame rider misjudged the finish line. A few weeks later, Gallant Man came back to win the Belmont Stakes.

Always thinking of ways to improve the sport, Nerud helped Kentucky breeder John R. Gaines overcome much resistance and bickering to sell the concept of the Breeders' Cup, a day of championship races that has grown into a two-day event. The first Breeders' Cup was in 1984.

Nerud "leaves a remarkable legacy," Breeders' Cup President Craig Favel said in a statement. "In addition to the many great horses that he trained, owned and bred, and the advice and counsel he provided to grow the sport, Mr. Nerud ... combined acute judgment, incredible boldness and powers of persuasion to help create a unique international championship event for horse racing."

After he retired as a trainer, Nerud stayed on as racing manager at Tartan and turned the farm into one of the nation's top breeding operations. Among those who stood at Tartan besides Dr. Fager were Intentionally, In Reality, Hold Your Peace, Codex and Smile.

The last champion bred by Nerud for Tartan was Unbridled, 1990 Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby winner.

Born on a ranch in Minatare, Neb., on Feb. 9, 1913, Nerud received his first horse from his father when he was 5. Later he worked as a groom and a rodeo cowboy on the Wyoming-Montana circuit.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to the track and trained his first champion, Delegate, in 1949.

Nerud won the 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile with Cozzene, a horse he bred. His son, Jan, trained him.

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"I bred the horse, and I bred the trainer," Nerud told The Times in 2003.

Nerud, who was married to his wife, Charlotte, for 69 years before her death in 2009, is survived by his son Jan and grandchildren.

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