For 20 years, veteran horseman John Nerud had a vision: a great, year-end championship race that would draw nationwide attention and "spread the word of thoroughbred racing."
Nerud was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Breeders' Cup, and he saw his vision become reality when the multimillion-dollar series of races was run for the first time last fall.
But the second Breeders' Cup may be especially sweet for Nerud, because he has an excellent chance to win the $1 million one-mile turf race with Cozzene, a colt he bred and owns. It would be a fitting triumph, not only because of Nerud's work with the Breeders' Cup, but because he is one of the most astute, knowledgeable racing men in America.
In the mid-1960s, around the time he was training the great champion Dr. Fager, Nerud knew racing needed something like the Breeders' Cup. "I went to different racing organizations, but I couldn't get anyone interested. Nobody wanted to talk money. Racing people are a funny bunch. They're very individualistic. If they're doing all right, they don't much care what's happening to the guy next door."
This was the type of resistance that Kentucky breeder John Gaines encountered when he conceived the program that he saw as racing's answer to the Super Bowl and the World Series. Gaines' genius was that he had the specific idea for funding the races -- having breeders pay a percentage of stallions' stud fees to make their progeny eligible -- but he still had to fight hard for support.
He asked for Nerud's help, and Nerud has been a tireless worker and promoter of the Cup ever since. He's also been an investor. "In the early stages of this," he recalled, "we went broke, and six of us put up $50,000 apiece to keep the idea going."
Once the Breeders' Cup was established, it was just a matter of time before Nerud got his investment back in a big way. As successful as he was as the trainer for Tartan Farm, he has had even more of an impact on the sport since he retired to devote full time to his job as president of that big racing and breeding operation. Year after year, Tartan has been one of the country's most successful stables, and Nerud is being honest rather than boastful when he is asked the reason for Tartan's record: "Management."
Nerud said, "I maintain complete control of the operation, from breeding to racing. I plan the matings of the mares and stallions. I don't think there's any outfit in the world today where anybody has control of a place like I have."
The second Breeders' Cup could have been dominated by Nerud and Tartan if it weren't for a little bad luck and the horseman's conservatism. His undefeated colt Ogygian would have been an odds-on favorite in the Breeeders' Juvenile race if he hadn't been sidelined by a shin ailment. "He's probably the best horse we've had since Dr. Fager," Nerud said. The 2-year-old filly Gaudery would have been one of the favorites in her Breeders' race if she hadn't hurt her shins, too.
But Nerud still has a strong chance for a victory in the Breeders' Cup with Cozzene, a 5-year-old colt he personally owns. Cozzene is an extremely talented runner, but his special talent is one that doesn't give him many chances to win big money in this country. He is a grass specialist and a miler, and the United States' big-money turf races almost all are run at long distances. The Breeders' Cup is his big chance.
"Last year," Nerud said, "he got sick shipping to California and it messed up his training schedule." Even so, Cozzene lost the 1984 Breeders' Cup Mile by less than two lengths, as Royal Heroine set a world record of 1:32 3/5. Cozzene is y far the best U.S. entrant in this year's field, but he meets a strong foreign contigent headed by the French colt Rousillon.
The Breeders' Cup Mile, more than any of the other races on Saturday's program, is a true international championship event: the United States' best grass miler vs. Europe's best. It is the kind of matchup that Nerud and Gaines might have envisioned when the Breeders' Cup was just a pipe dream of theirs.