John Nerud visits the National Museum of Racing to see the collection of trophies and paintings he recently donated.

John Nerud visits the National Museum of Racing to see the collection of trophies and paintings he recently donated.

Steve Haskin

Nerud Visits Racing Museum to View Exhibit

Oldest living member of Hall of Fame views his collection of trophies and paintings.

A major part of racing history came alive at the National Museum of Racing Oct. 22 when the legendary John Nerud visited the museum to see the collection of trophies and paintings he recently donated.


Nerud, who will turn 98 in February, is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame. He was seeing his collection for the first time.


The collection included many of Nerud’s trophies, as well as paintings of Nerud and his greatest horse, Dr. Fager, who like his trainer is in the Hall of Fame.


But the most poignant moment came when an emotional Nerud read the inscription he had written this past August for a plaque, on which he mentioned his late wife Charlotte, who passed away last year. The plaque hung just below a photo of Nerud and Charlotte.


The inscription read: “To be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame is a horseman’s ultimate dream! It is the statement of your ability and integrity. Charlotte, my beautiful wife of sixty nine years, was by my side every step of my career. Without her class and encouragement I could not have accomplished what I did.”


Nerud, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, flew to Saratoga from his Long Island home with his son Jan, who trained a number of top-class horses owned and bred by his father, such as Cozzene and Fappiano.


Nerud, who singlehandedly built the Tartan Stable empire for William McKnight, also toured the Hall of Fame. As he read the names on the plaques of the inductees, he had stories to tell about many of them.


After seeing a video on his career, put together by longtime friend Lance Bell, who was instrumental in getting Nerud's collection on display at the museum, and addressing the media, Nerud attended a luncheon at the museum during which he continued to entertain everyone with his stories.


In discussing some of today’s topics, Nerud said of the horses being bred today, “They’re breeding horses for the market; cosmetic horses,” he said. “When I bred horses in Ocala, I thought I had good yearlings. When I went to the yearling sales in Kentucky, those horses were bigger and rosier, and better looking. I said, ‘I must be missing something.’ But when we got to Belmont and Saratoga, I’d wind up beating those horses, so I knew something was wrong. They were giving growth hormones and anabolic steroids to those horses, which made them big, muscular, fancy-looking horses, but they didn’t improve their bone; there was too much muscle for the bone. And that’s why we’re having trouble today.


“And we retire horses now that started five times. You breed them to a mare that started three times and you’re going to get a horse that starts four times. It’s as simple as that.”


The best horse Nerud has ever seen? “Dr. Fager, naturally,” he said. “I never saw Man o’War, but he was from a crop of 1,700 foals. By the 1970s, you had foal crops of over 30,000 foals, so it’s hard to compare these horses.”


But in the end, this was about Nerud and the amazing legacy he has left.


“Being here and seeing all this is very nostalgic,” he said. “It takes you right back and refreshes your memory. You look at all the names of the people who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame and you remember what wonderful people they were and what good horse people they were. I could tell you stories about every one of them.”


When the subject returned to Charlotte, Nerud said, “I met her when I rented a room in her house when I was at Suffolk Downs. She was a beautiful girl and very intelligent. I was captivated by her because I thought she was way above me. When I came back the next summer, I rented a room in her house again, and one evening, we were sitting on the couch talking. There was hardly any room between me and the arm of the couch, and she came over and sat down in between. That was the happiest day of my life. When she married me I had about $450 to my name and no job except being a lone jock’s agent. We went to Florida and she stood by me then and has been with me all these years.


“When I started training, if I was doing good she’d go to the beauty parlor. If I was doing bad she’d do her own hair.


“To be here and see all my trophies and see my Hall of Fame plaque is a great honor. It travels with you the rest of your life. Wherever you go you’re accepted as a man of honor and integrity. This is not just a Hall of Fame, it’s a keeper of history and the holder of the torch. And without history, racing would not be what it is today. All of us in the Thoroughbred business, especially those of us in the Hall of Fame, have an obligation to make sure the Hall of Fame survives and prospers. Without it, we have no history.


“In three months, I’ll be 98, and it’s nice to sit here and talk to everyone. Never in my fondest dreams did I think I would ever arrive at this pinnacle.”