03/19/2015 12:30PM

Allen Jerkens: The Chief, but also a teacher

Barbara D. Livingston
Allen Jerkens and Leah Gyarmati share a moment at Saratoga in 2009.

Friends, co-workers, and racetrack acquaintances of Allen Jerkens reflect on the man known as “The Chief,” who died Wednesday at 85.


“Even when I didn’t ride one of his horses, he’d still yell at me. ‘When are you going to learn? Turn for home and put that stick in your left hand!’ What do you mean, Chief? I didn’t ride your horse. He said, ‘I watched you.’

“He developed you as a horseman, and you didn’t know it. All you had to do was just listen to him. I met a handful of them – I can count them on one hand. He’s definitely No. 1 on my list.”

On winning the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup on 34-1 shot Wagon Limit, who upset Skip Away and Gentlemen:

“We’re 30-1. I stepped into the paddock, and there he is all dressed up with the hat, suit, and a tie, and just as dapper as can be. He saunters over to me and says, ‘Well, jock, what are you going to do?’ I was hoping he’d tell me what to do. Now, he’s put the pressure on me. My knees start to buckle, and my stomach already had butterflies, and it dropped another foot. I had to think of something quick. I said, ‘Well, Chief, there’s a lot of speed in here. Why don’t we sit back and get a check? It’s a million-dollar race; a check ought to be great. He said, ‘That’s right, why don’t you just get a check. That sounds good.’

“We turned down the backside, I had my horse in a nice little stride. Next thing you know, I’m 20 lengths back. I was like, ‘Oh, God, am I in trouble?’ Skip Away and Gentlemen went out there, and they were flying. I went to move a little bit, and my horse wasn’t moving, and I said, ‘Well, let me just sit and wait a bit. ‘I’m counting to the fourth horse, and finally I’m up to fourth, and I said, ‘He’s going to be happy, pressure’s off, I’m going to get a check.’ Then, before you know it, I pass that one, and I said, ‘I’m going to be third, and he’s going to be real happy.’ I turn for home just thinking I’m going to be third, and boom, they hit a brick wall, and I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ I wiggled through inside of Skip Away and came around Gentlemen, and he comes flying and wins the race. I was in tears. I come back and said, ‘Hey, Chief, how’s that for a check?’ He said, ‘Oh, Bobbie!’ He had tears coming down his face, the crowd’s cheering. To make him happy was the best feeling in the world.”

LEAH GYARMATI (trainer who worked for Jerkens)

“He’s the only reason I came back to the racetrack. Every time I won a race, I hoped he was watching and was proud of me. My biggest shame would be if I ever did anything wrong. Integrity was very important to Allen, and I take that seriously.”

JULIE KRONE (jockey)

“Being at the barn wasn’t a job for him. It was a lifestyle. It wasn’t something he was ever doing instead of something else. Every day had an integration of spirituality, camaraderie, solitude. He made every single day with the horses complete because he loved every breath the horses took from morning to nighttime.”

SHUG McGAUGHEY (trainer)

“I think the thing I admired most about Allen was how much he enjoyed the game. He loved horse racing, the history of horse racing, as much as anybody I’ve been around in my life. He really enjoyed coming out in the morning, he really enjoyed his horses, and he was very competitive. He also loved those old, traditional races, the ones he grew up with and watched all those great horses compete in and win in the past. He didn’t care about the Breeders’ Cup or the Dubai World Cup. He would rather win the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Whitney than eight World Cups.”


“I don’t think there’s a trainer on the grounds that hasn’t gone to Mr. Jerkens at some point and asked for some advice, and he’s very giving with it ... The Chief is a legend, not only as a trainer but as a person. He’s a special man.”

DALE ROMANS (trainer)

“He helped me out right off the bat my first year at Saratoga (1993), but we’d really gotten very close the last 10 years or so when our barns were right next to each other here at Gulfstream and we started going out to dinner all the time.

“He never hesitated to help anyone. He never worried about teaching someone something that would come back to beat him. In a competitive world like this, that’s something.

“My first year at Saratoga, they wouldn’t let us train one morning because it was raining, and there was a Grade 1 that day, and Allen got really mad and said, ‘Somebody’s got to stop this insanity.’ He took his pony out there even though he wasn’t supposed to, and I told my exercise rider, ‘Just follow him out there. They’re not going to do anything to him.’ And they didn’t. Right then, I thought, ‘That’s The Chief.’

“I never heard him say anything bad about anyone, and I never heard anyone ever say anything bad about him. People want to talk about what a great horseman he was, but it’s absolutely true that he was an even greater person. Absolutely.”


“Such a genius of a trainer. He was just genius. I remember him rubbing his hands around horses like he’s petting them, but that’s not what he was doing. He was touching their muscles, making sure nothing was sore. He was doing something no other trainer does.

“How can we forget the good times that we had with Kelly Kip, who still holds track records at Aqueduct and Belmont? Shine Again, if I didn’t break my leg in 2003, I would have won the Ballerina three years in a row for him. She got beat a nose. She was really a funny filly.

“Allen Jerkens ... great, great man, loved people, loved to help people. You don’t see people like that anymore; you really don’t.”

CHUCK SIMON (trainer who worked for Jerkens)

“We don’t get to choose how to go, but that was a tough way for him to go. You thought he’d just keel over in the shed row one day. He’s been pretty sick many times but always bounced back out of it. I think when [Jerkens’s wife] Liz died, that really hurt.

“As a trainer, he was the last of an era. He had no contemporaries anymore, really. It’s hard to explain, but he had that innate feel for horses. He knew exactly when to go and what buttons to push. He used to tell us, ‘Look at Mott’s horses, look at Shug’s horses. We’ve got to outwork them and do everything better than them because they’ve got better horses.’ He always made you feel you were working with him, not for him. You’d see him walk a horse or curry-comb them or giving them a bath.

“No person was immune to his kindness, and he’d be rewarded for it. He’d see a stranger walking down the road in the rain and pick him up. One time, he bought a filly for Hobeau Farm with a relatively modest pedigree and race record. He bought it from a guy who was down on his luck, pretty much to do the guy a favor. The filly wound up winning a stakes. It was almost a karma thing.

“He got the most out of every horse. When you worked there, you always felt like every horse wound up running to their potential. But there was no pattern to it. He wasn’t the kind of guy to take you under his wing and say, ‘This is how we do it.’ He wasn’t a micromanager at all, but he was very detail-oriented, if that makes any sense. We were left to our own devices to solve problems. He would ask us questions like, ‘How would Lukas or Skiffington do this?’ He’d pick our brains all the time because he felt he could never stop learning. And he’d already been in the Hall of Fame for 20 years by then!

“He could be extremely intimidating when he was upset at the barn. He was so focused on the training of the horses; it wasn’t fun being on the other end of those when he’d get mad. But it really wasn’t personal. It was just that it was so important to him to have things done the right way because this was his whole life.

“I felt extremely fortunate to be his assistant. People didn’t leave him. It was one of those racetrack jobs that you longed for. He’d say, ‘Why do you want to work for me? You’ve worked for those fancy guys.’ He was insecure to the very end about his training. He’d say, ‘They’re going to take me out of the Hall of Fame, the game has passed me by.’ He was so self-conscious. It seems like everyone except him knew he was the greatest.”


On riding 16-1 Prove Out in the 1973 Woodward, upsetting Secretariat: “He just said, ‘Good luck.’ When I come back to the winner’s circle, he was crying, tears were coming down his cheeks. He was so happy. About a week later, he called me up and said, ‘I want you to have a breeding right.’ So, I had to buy a mare to breed to him.”

“Allen was unbelievable. One day, I was riding a regular race, and I just got a horse up for third. He comes up to me when I’m unsaddling the horse and he said, “Wow! If it wasn’t for you, she wouldn’t have finished third. He put his hand in his pocket, and he pulled out a $100 bill and said, ‘Take your wife out to dinner.’ “He really appreciated when you tried hard for him. He was the best. We lost a good man.”

RICK VIOLETTE (trainer, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association)

“This is certainly a sad day for racing. Allen Jerkens was larger than life, as a horseman and a human being. But to those of us who had the honor of knowing him, he was the kindest, most generous soul. He had so much knowledge and experience, and he was always more than willing to share. As much as we will miss him, I’ll always remember his words of wisdom and the afternoons spent playing football in the chute by the Belmont training track.”

– reporting by David Grening, Marty McGee, and Mike Welsch