It was a celebration of love and life and a tribute to a true legend, as 50-60 close friends and family members gathered at the Sands Point Golf Club in Sands Point, N.Y., to celebrate John Nerud’s 100th birthday.
Nerud, who had been in the hospital just a week earlier, showed no ill effects from his ordeal and was as sharp and alert as ever as he greeted guests, watched slide and video presentations of his life and career, and addressed the group with the usual eloquence, wit, and straightforwardness that has always defined him.
One by one, people took the microphone and shared anecdotes and remembrances of the man who changed their lives for the better, whether by his generosity or the simple privilege of being considered his friend. In attendance were influential people from all walks of life who just wanted to share in the moment and let Nerud know how special he was to them.
Lance Bell, head of the public relations firm LGB and a longtime friend of Nerud, set up a website highlighting Nerud’s career as a Hall of Fame trainer, owner, breeder, Breeders’ Cup founder, and trainer of trainers (he mentored Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas, Carl Nafzger, and Scotty Schulhofer, as well as his son Jan, a successful trainer of major stars such as Cozzene and Fappiano). Nerud also is recognized for his help in assisting backstretch workers and for improving numerous other facets of the industry. In the Sport of Kings, he is a true genius.
“I want to thank all you people for coming,” Nerud said. “Some of you came great distances and I appreciate it and I’m happy you’re here. And I want to thank my three friends (Joe Saggese, John Confort, and Al Weiss) for putting on this party. You did a wonderful job.”
Weiss was the first to speak after Nerud. “About 10 years ago, we had a very nice party at Aqueduct to celebrate John’s 90th birthday,” he said. “The last thing John said to everyone was, ‘Make sure you take good care of yourself; you’re all invited to my 100th.’ I don’t know what he’s going to say now.”
One person who has fond memories of Nerud from when he was a child is Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of “60 Minutes,” and the son of Dr. Charles Fager, who saved Nerud’s life and for whom the immortal Dr. Fager is named. Charles Fager, 89, was scheduled to come from his home in Boston, but took ill at the last minute and left his son to share the memories.
“My dad could not make it today, but he really wanted to come for this special occasion,” Jeff Fager said. “I’m in the storytelling business and I’d like to tell a story on behalf of my dad. It was just about 50 years ago when John Nerud fell off a horse and hit his head very badly, and it was several weeks later that (John’s wife) Charlotte decided he was in really bad shape and she had to get him to the Leahy Clinic in Boston. They wouldn’t even let him on the plane at first because they thought he was drunk; that’s how out of it he was. It was a Saturday and my dad saw him and said, ‘We got to get this guy in the operating room right away.’ I know for a fact that when he opened him up he said it was one of the biggest subdural hematomas he’s ever seen in his entire career as a neurosurgeon.”
Turning his attention to Nerud, he continued, “Obviously, it had a great ending and here we are 50 years later celebrating your 100th birthday, which is incredible. From all the people my father operated on, and he saved a lot of people, he got a lot of fruitcakes and chocolates, but he never got a champion racehorse named after him. I tell you, nobody knows how to show gratitude better than John Nerud. He’s always been a very gracious man, and my father and John have been close ever since.”
But Jeff wasn’t finished. “My dad actually asked me to tell another story he was planning on telling here today. And it involves me. John came to our house when I was 14 or 15 years old, right around the time of Dr. Fager, and my dad asked John if I could work at the farm. He thought about it and said. ‘Sure, why not?’ I was about to head to the farm when my mother and father got cold feet and called John, and my father said to him. ‘John, I don’t know, my son is 15 and he’s going to be living on his own in Ocala, working around the people with the horses, and I don’t know what kind of people they are. I’m not sure this is the best thing for him, and John said to him. ‘Doc, it won’t hurt him none.’ ”
Then again addressing Nerud, he said, “Well, John, I have to say, those summers I worked on the farm and then at the racetrack were some of the most important moments in helping form me into an adult. And I can’t thank you enough. I know so many people are grateful to you for what you’ve done for them, but, as a kid, what I learned from you and what I learned from Tartan is to always surround yourself with the smartest and classiest people and the very best horsemen. I learned a ton from all of them…and it didn’t hurt me none.”
Several days before the party, Charles Fager, who at the time was eagerly looking forward to coming, said, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 45 years since Dr. Fager ran and John is 100. When I stop and think how he wasn’t going to make it through the night. I had very little time to operate on him. He made the most of that surgery and his second life.”
Jan loves to tell the story of a talk he and his father had many years ago. “I remember when I was about 20 years old, and my father sat me down and was very serious. He said. ‘Jan, you know, the Nerud men never live much past 55, and I just want to let you know that I could die at any time and I just wanted to make you aware of it.’ We’ll, he’s been dying for 45 years.”
Offering his own tribute from his current base at Oaklawn Park was Wayne Lukas. It was Nerud who gave Lukas his first classic winner in Codex, winner of the 1980 Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
"Throughout John’s career, he went from the shedrow, from the hotwalkers and the grooms, to the board room and everything in between," Lukas said. "He 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, he made more sense than 95% of the people in there. He was a true visionary.
"He was the one person most instrumental in my career as a Thoroughbred trainer. 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 the track riding my Quarter Horse, he stopped me and told me he was going to send me some horses, and he just kept right on going. He didn’t say who he was or where he was from. All he said was, 'Cowboy, I'm gonna send you some horses.' I turned to (trainer) Jerry Fanning and asked him who this old guy was and 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 John 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.' He told me, 'Well, I'll tell you who your best horse is, it's the one you're sitting on.' Sure enough, he was right. He was a Quarter Horse of mine who held five track records when I retired him and he was a very special horse.
"John never pitched me any slack and I was the better for it. But he always made me feel like I was doing a good job. There aren't enough superlatives to describe John Nerud."
As everyone took their turn speaking, Nerud realized there was something important he needed to say about his late wife and soulmate of 69 years, Charlotte. As Jan recalled, it was Charlotte who always made it a point to throw a party for the media in Florida every year, which certainly never hurt in getting her husband to be media-friendly.
“I had a great amount of ability as an owner and a trainer and a founder of the Breeders’ Cup, but I had a wonderful wife,” Nerud said. “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 just want to say I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without her.
“I’m old and I’ve traveled a long ways and have seen a hundred years. And the way I’d like to be remembered is, ‘I did it my way.’
“Finally, I’d like to tell you a story that best describes who I am now. 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.’ ”
John Nerud celebrates his brithday.
John Nerud thanks everyone for coming to his party.