SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 16, 2015—It was only appropriate that if the seemingly indestructible John Nerud had to choose his time to step off the stage for good, it would be the week the New York Racing Association hosted a tribute in remembrance of H. Allen Jerkens.

Like most young people, I was way too smart to appreciate how great a man and horseman he was. It was only after he actively retired from training and got deeply involved in the marketing of Breeders’ Cup, which he co-founded with breeder John Gaines, did I get to know and value him personally.

Gaines and Nerud envisioned a season’s-end championship series and that’s exactly what they got. It might not have realized the same stature as the Triple Crown but don’t tell that to the bettors. They bring fistfuls of cash to the fray. Like the horses; they either win big or lose bigger.

Jerkens and Nerud were cut from the same horse blanket; only differently. Jerkens, as Saturday’s touching day-long tribute that featured still photos, video of his horse’s greatest victories and affectionate remembrances of the racetrack lives he touched everyday proved--he never stopped giving.

When Jerkens passed this winter in Florida, Gulfstream Park held a memorial service in their second floor Vegas-style theatre, the appropriately named Sport of Kings. Despite short notice many hundreds attended looking for a reason to smile, for a sport without Allen Jerkens was unacceptable.

As invited speakers told their Giant Killer stories, emotions swelled within the large South Florida gathering. To say goodbye in such fashion seemed an honor. On Saturday in Saratoga, it was more of the same, but different. New York is home.

And “Saratoga is,” as Allen Jerkens Jr. noted in a touching family eulogy from inside the winners’ enclosure, “well, Saratoga.”

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Allen Jerkens Jr. is the spitting image in the Chief's favorite chapeau

Horsemen like Jerkens and Nerud are revered, exalted, held in awe, their names enshrined forever across from the Race Course on Union Avenue in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

On Saturday the Chief came home to Saratoga and will be there every time a trophy bearing his name is presented to the meet’s leading trainer. Accomplishment and circumstance make men great but only a soul can make a man beloved. In the end Jerkens killed the biggest giant of all; self-interest.

Nerud was the same, but different. Unlike the Chief, John Nerud was not shy and retiring. His speaking voice while high-pitched at times more resembled a bark. His aura demanded respect and once the intimidation factor was eliminated, his honesty demanded respect and admiration.

When Wayne Lukas was inducted into the Hall of Fame a decade ago he was surrounded by the protégés he taught; Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, to name a few.

For that, “the Coach” became known as a Trainer of Trainers. But his branch of the horsemen’s training tree began with Nerud, who also launched the careers of Scotty Schulhofer and Carl Nafzger.

Like Nafzger, Nerud came to racing via the rodeo circuit and was a groom, jockey, jockey agent--for Ted Atkinson, no less--trainer, owner and breeder, a renaissance horseman. He also played a role in developing the first synthetic racing surface with his client, William McKnight of 3-M fame. Remember Calder’s Tartan Track?

For McKnight, Nerud was brilliant enough to purchase an unknown sire named Rough n’ Tumble. One match in his first crop was a mating to the mare Aspidistra which begat a colt named Dr. Fager, the only Thoroughbred to win four in a single season; the Handicap, Sprint and Turf divisions including Horse of the Year.

I didn’t know Delegate first hand, Nerud’s first “big horse,” but I remember Intentionally’s name from the entries in the NY Daily Mirror when I first started following the game in 1959 at 15, two years older than Nerud was when he first became a rodeo cowboy.

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Kiaran McLaughlin's Mutin is surrounded by Jerkens admirers.

Nerud also trained another all-time fave; the brilliant, highweight-carrying Ta Wee, often defeating males and winning consecutive sprint titles in 1969 and 1970. He also trained Gallant Man of Shoemaker-Derby-Gaffe fame, who later set a stakes record in the ‘57 Belmont until Secretariat’s world-record 2:24 in 1973.

In 1985, owner Nerud won the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile with his homebred Cozzene, trained by his son, Jan, the horse later becoming an influential sire. Nerud’s genius as a breeder can be found today in the bloodlines of two top sires; Tapit and Unbridled’s Song, and the race horses Shared Belief and presumptive Horse of the Year American Pharoah.

Like Jerkens, Nerud will be remembered as a man who championed the little guy. He has helped many backstretch workers and gave lots of jockeys a chance when no one else would. He was respected and well-liked by every racetracker he came in contact with.

At a time when the sport needs horsemen of influence, it has lost two of its greatest practitioners in history and two of its very best people.

Photos by Toni Pricci