Saturday, May 29, 2010
John Nerud’s Triple Crown
John Nerud, 97, is old enough to vote. Nobody's given him a ballot, but as the Triple Crown sinks in the East, he's got an opinion. He won't be able to run for dogcatcher in Baltimore after this gets out.
Nerud feels that the Preakness should be eliminated from the Triple Crown. "It's never been much of a race," he said.
Nerud didn't think the Preakness was much of a race even after he won one. Against his better judgment, he permitted Wayne Lukas, who was new to the training job that Nerud had given him for the Tartan Stable, to run Codex at Pimlico in 1980. Codex won the race, but there was a foul claim against his jockey, Angel Cordero, on behalf of Genuine Risk, the Kentucky Derby winner, and the result wasn't declared official and the purse wasn't paid until the state racing commission conducted a three-day hearing before the Belmont was run. I sat near Nerud and Lukas for part of the hearing, and watched Nerud yawn when one of the Pimlico stewards took 20 minutes to testify how he had bought his binoculars at an Army surplus store. Even then, lawyers knew how to keep that meter running. Nerud won the race and won the hearing, and still had no love for the Preakness.
The Triple Crown, better off without the Preakness in Nerud's judgment, has a bigger problem, he said. "The Derby's too early," he said.
Nerud's history with the Kentucky Derby is also short and sour. In 1957, while still training, he sent Gallant Man to Churchill Downs, and he was the best horse that day, but Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line, stood up for an instant in the irons and Iron Liege beat them by a nose.
The only time Nerud went back was when Tartan's Muttering finished fifth in 1982. "The only reason I don't like the Derby is that it's too soon for the horses," he said the other day. "Some of them aren't even three years old when they run it, and they aren't ready for a mile and a quarter. This year, Lookin at Lucky wasn't three years old until well into May. They ran the Derby on May 1st."
If Nerud had his way, they wouldn't run the Derby until at least May 15. Out of habit, people would still be talking about The First Saturday in May, only the race would be on the third Saturday.
Then, Nerud said, use the Belmont as the second leg of the Triple Crown, and run it when it's run now, in early June. That would usually position it four weeks after the Derby. Going from a mile and a quarter to a mile and a half, no problem. Extra time between the two races would make it easier on the horses.
And the third leg? "The Travers," Nerud said. "When it's always been, in August at Saratoga."
Nerud was the chairman of the Breeders' Cup's first marketing committee, he was partly responsible for getting NBC to televise the whole day, and he's savvy about promoting the sport. A Derby-Belmont winner, awaiting the Travers, would give the horse plenty of shelf life before the third leg is run. Going from a mile and a quarter to a mile and a half and then back to a mile and a quarter is not an obstacle, he said.
Does it sound interesting? Sure. Would there be a rush of Triple Crown winners that would cheapen the accomplishments of champions past? Not likely--the new shooters that would show up for the Belmont and the Travers would take care of that. Will it ever happen? "When was the last time horse racing did the right thing?" Nerud said.