Legendary Trainer John Nerud was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 based on his exceptional record and reputation as a horseman. According to Equibase statistics, Nerud enjoyed an extraordinary lifetime win percentage as a trainer of over 30%. As a conditioner, he learned early on that keeping horses happy was a formula for winning races. Overall, he believes that many of our horses today are over-trained. He would say, ‘feed ‘em right and keep ‘em happy.’ He confounded the clockers who would try and get a bead on his horses, because he was notorious for breezing his horses no more than a half mile, something he learned from a fellow Hall of Famer.
He entered the spotlight as a trainer with the horse Switch On who won the Palm Beach and the McLennan Handicaps. While Switch On was his first horse of prominence, Delegate was his first Champion. Interestingly, Nerud’s first good horse as a trainer, prior to Switch On, was named Dr. Coogle. His best horse however, named for the neurosurgeon who operated on him and saved his life when he was thrown from a horse, was Dr. Fager. Dr. Fager was a product of the famed Tartan program which Nerud authored, along with William L. McKnight who was CEO of the 3M Company. In 1961, Nerud established the famed Tartan Farm in Ocala, FL, which became home to over 100 Stakes Winners including Hall of Fame inductee Ta Wee, as well as Champions Intentionally and Dr. Patches, to name a few. Dr. Fager’s 1968 campaign is considered by many to be perhaps the best of any horse in racing history. The Nerud-trained Dr. Fager accomplished what no other horse ever has which was to be named Horse of the Year, Champion Sprinter, Champion Turf Horse and Champion Older Male, all in the same year.
Additional Stakes Winners conditioned by Nerud include the likes of Fappiano, Cozzene, Clabber Girl, In Reality and record-breaking Belmont Stakes Winner Gallant Man, whose narrow defeat in the 1957 Kentucky Derby set the backdrop for the Classic Nerud tale. After the freakish defeat of Gallant Man in the Kentucky Derby, owner Ralph Lowe, in an effort to console his trainer, went with Nerud to a nearby watering hole. Nerud said to the bartender, ‘Gimme the biggest glass you have and fill it full with vodka.’ Responding to his demand, the bartender filled a 12oz glass with vodka and topped off the drink with a twist of lemon to which Nerud responded, ‘if I wanted lemonade, I would have ordered one.’
Below is an LA Times article recounting the calamity of the 1957 Kentucky Derby where Nerud was denied victory, because of Jockey Bill Shoemaker’s misjudgment of the wire which led him to stand up before the race was over leading to Gallant Man’s narrow defeat.
On Champion Gallant Man –
The Kentucky Derby begins with 20 horses stampeding three-eighths of a mile before squeezing through the first turn. No matter how crazy Saturday’s race starts, there’s little chance the finish will be as wild as it was 50 years ago. “I don’t think there was ever that good a race,” 94-year-old trainer John Nerud recalled Thursday. “I’ve never seen that in my lifetime.”
The 1957 Kentucky Derby is remembered as horse racing’s version of baseball’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the dramatics triggered by the late Bill Shoemaker, considered the sport’s greatest jockey. He was aboard Gallant Man and gaining on rival Bill Hartack and Iron Liege as the two horses dueled down the stretch.
Upstairs in a clubhouse box, Nerud slapped owner Ralph Lowe on the back and said, “Go down to the winner’s circle and get your roses and take them back to Texas.”
Then, something incredible happened.
As the horses passed the sixteenth pole, Shoemaker inexplicably stood up in the irons on Gallant Man, misjudging the finish line. It happened so quickly, hardly anyone noticed at first. In a flash, Shoemaker bounced back into the saddle and began riding hard again.
But Gallant Man couldn’t overhaul Hartack and Iron Liege, who won by a nose.
“I never figured out why he pulled up. He was one of the greatest riders ever,” Nerud said from his home in Long Island, N.Y. “I didn’t know what happened at the time until it was over.”
Come Saturday, he’ll be watching the 133rd Derby and cheering on Street Sense, trained by 65-year-old Carl Nafzger.
“Carl is one of my proteges,” Nerud said. “Every one of them is my friend, but Carl, I kind of put him on the right track. I gave him some horses that could run about 25 years ago.”
Nafzger won the 1990 Derby with Unbridled and credits Nerud for much of his success. Besides sending him good horses, Nafzger said Nerud gave him the confidence to stick to his own training theories and helped even more by keeping demanding owners off his back.
“He taught me so much,” Nafzger said. “You can never fail, you can only learn. That’s the way I live.”
Street Sense is the early 4-1 second choice in a full field of 3-year-olds entered for Saturday’s race. Curlin, the 7-2 favorite, is unbeaten in three starts, but with a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms forecast, things could get interesting. Street Sense finished third in his only race on a sloppy track; Curlin has never raced in mud.
The Churchill Downs track was rated “fast” on May 4, 1957. The night before, Lowe told Shoemaker that he dreamed a jockey on one of his horses misjudged the finish line and lost the race.
“Not me,” Shoemaker replied.
But the very next day, race day, he did just that.
“I knew,” Shoemaker would write in his 1988 biography, “I had made a big boo-boo.”
The blunder earned him a 15-day suspension, not just because Shoemaker pulled up the horse but, according to Nerud, because he lied about it afterward. Shoemaker originally claimed the horse took a bad step, but relented after being confronted by the stewards. The strange thing is he wasn’t even supposed to be aboard Gallant Man in the Derby.
Nerud insisted that John Choquette should ride the horse, at one point telling Lowe, “You want another jockey, you can get another trainer, too.”
In that year’s pre-Derby Wood Memorial race, Choquette rode Gallant Man and lost by a nose to Bold Ruler and Eddie Arcaro. Shoemaker was in that race, too, but his horse hit the gate and was injured, leaving him without a Derby mount.
But after the Wood, Choquette was suspended for rough riding and in those days there were no appeals. So Nerud called Shoemaker and asked him to ride Gallant Man in the Derby. The jockey arrived at Churchill Downs wanting to get a feel for the track, but his agent couldn’t book him a ride on the Derby Day undercard.
“The finish line at Churchill Downs was a sixteenth of a mile farther toward the first turn than it was at other tracks in the country,” Shoemaker wrote. “And I hadn’t had a ride over a track like that in a year. The year before, my Derby horse had been Terrang and he finished 12th.
“When your horse finishes 12th,” he continued, “you hardly notice where the wire is.”
Shoemaker, who won in 1955 with Swaps, went on to three more Derby victories in his career. He died in 2003.
Today, Hartack works as a track steward in Louisiana. He declined an interview request.
Gallant Man turned out to be Nerud’s lone Derby horse in a Hall of Fame career. Furious at first, he quickly forgave Shoemaker.
“I forgot about it the next day,” he said. “If there’s something you could do about it, you would. When you can’t, you’ll only aggravate yourself. You can’t turn the clock back.”
Lowe didn’t fault Shoemaker, either, giving him $5,000 and a new car. Shoemaker proved himself to be worth every penny five weeks later by winning the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Nerud, too, went on to score some big wins, most notably with 1967 Horse of the Year, Dr. Fager.
And he’s still part of the racket, training horses in New York.
Just don’t expect him to chase the Derby victory he was narrowly denied 50 years ago.
Chuckling, Nerud said, “I’m trying to stay alive.”