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Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies: Jerkens instrumental in success of Gyarmati and Hushion
Allen Jerkens most likely will be at his Long Island, N.Y., home Saturday afternoon, but the Hall of Fame trainer’s presence will be felt across the country when the field is loaded for Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita.
It is under the tutelage of the legendary Jerkens that Leah Gyarmati, the trainer of Juvenile Fillies morning-line favorite Sweet Reason, and Mike Hushion, the trainer of second choice Artemis Agrotera, learned invaluable lessons in horsemanship.
During the 1990s, Gyarmati, then a divorced mother of a young daughter, worked as an exercise rider for Jerkens. She also rode races in the afternoons. Jerkens put Gyarmati on her first winner, Forest Lover, in 1997. Gyarmati said if it wasn’t for Jerkens, she wouldn’t be in racing.
“I don’t think I would have stayed on the racetrack if I had worked for anybody else,” Gyarmati, 49, said. “There’s something about him that just inspires you. You want to impress him so badly, and when you do, there’s nothing like it.
“I could win 10 races as a jockey for anybody else, but breezing one horse correctly for him in the morning and having him pat you on the back, or smile, or say that you did it right was 10 times more gratifying than winning races,” she added. “I still feel that way. Even when I do stuff now, I’m hoping that he saw it. I want to know his opinion.”
In September 1999, six months after she stopped riding races, Gyarmati began a training career. It often has been a struggle for Gyarmati, who in 14 years of training has won 202 races. There were times, like in 2003, when owner Vincent Papandrea removed all of his horses from her care, that Gyarmati wanted to quit.
“There were a couple of times that if I would have just been offered the right job, I would have quit for sure,” said Gyarmati, who has a master’s degree in theology from Samford University. “That was a time I was ready to quit. That just ripped my heart out.”
For myriad reasons, Gyarmati stayed. The hopes of one day getting a good horse was among them. In recent years, Gyarmati and owner Jeff Treadway attended yearling sales, purchasing several promising horses who didn’t pan out.
Sweet Reason, a $185,000 yearling purchase by Treadway at the 2012 Keeneland September sale, has panned out very well. A daughter of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Sweet Reason went 2 for 2 at Saratoga – both races run over wet tracks – including a 5 3/4-length triumph in the Spinaway Stakes. It was Gyarmati’s first Grade 1 victory.
On a dry track in the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont on Oct. 5, Sweet Reason finished second to the Hushion-trained Artemis Agrotera, a race in which Sweet Reason’s chances were compromised when she veered in sharply leaving the starting gate.
Sweet Reason isn’t the only promising 2-year-old in Gyarmati’s barn. Win or lose in the Juvenile Fillies, she will take the red-eye flight Saturday night back to New York, where on Sunday she will run the debut-winning colt Noble Moon in the Grade 2, $250,000 Nashua at Aqueduct.
“It’s very exciting,” said Gyarmati, who has 25 horses in her care. “If you could just have two or three horses like that in your barn, I’d be happy to just have that.”
In her training of these 2-year-olds, Gyarmati employs some old-school methods learned from Jerkens. She has worked both Sweet Reason and Noble Moon a mile, choosing the slow and steady moves as opposed to the rapid four-to-five-furlong drills desired by many trainers.
“That’s straight from the Chief,” Gyarmati said, referring to Jerkens by his nickname.
“She always had confidence in herself, too – that’s a big thing with her,” Jerkens said. “She’s not afraid that if she makes the wrong decision, she’s not going to pout about it. She picked out both these horses, too. That’s not to be sneezed at.”
While Jerkens has been perhaps the most influential person in Gyarmati’s professional career, Hushion also has been instrumental. As she was making the transition from rider to trainer, Gyarmati worked for Hushion as an exercise rider. Hushion also put Gyarmati on her one and only winner as a jockey at Saratoga, Unique Uponem, in July 1998.
“From Allen, I learned more intuitive training, stuff you pick up on and ideas about the horse,” Gyarmati said. “I learned a little more managerial skills from Michael.”
Hushion worked for Jerkens as a groom for about six years in the 1970s. He groomed Step Nicely, who beat Forego in the Jerome Handicap. He was there when Jerkens beat the mighty Secretariat with Onion and Prove Out, celebrating those victories by playing touch football back at the barn.
Since starting out on his own in 1975, Hushion has enjoyed a solid career, winning more than 1,300 races. He has developed a bevy of stakes winners, including Boom Towner, Great Intentions, Nicole H, Turnofthecentury, Lovely Lil, and The Lumber Guy. It was The Lumber Guy who last year gave Hushion his first Grade 1 success, in the Vosburgh at Belmont, and took him to his first Breeders’ Cup.
The Lumber Guy finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and will make his second appearance in that race Saturday.
“I think last year kind of whet my appetite a little bit,” Hushion said. “I thought he had the race won. I thought he was going to reel in Trinniberg, so it was almost like a tease .... If a Breeders’ Cup win doesn’t mean a lot to you, there’s something wrong. That’s why we’re here. No matter how long you’ve been in the game or how little you’ve been in the game, it’s a pretty great thing to go out there with a live horse.”
Artemis Agrotera, a daughter of Roman Ruler bred and owned by Chester and Mary Broman, certainly is live in the Juvenile Fillies. After winning her debut by 11 3/4 lengths at Saratoga against New York-bred competition, Artemis Agrotera won the Frizette, earning her trip to the Juvenile Fillies.
The Lumber Guy and Artemis Agrotera have been professional triumphs for Hushion and came along at a time when he is dealing with a personal tragedy. Fourteen months ago, Hushion’s wife, Sharon, died after a long battle with cancer.
Hushion, 65, got emotional when asked what it would have meant to have been able to share the success of these two horses with Sharon.
“I’m sure that if we get lucky, that’ll be the first thing to run through my mind,” said Hushion, unable to fight back tears.
Since then, Hushion’s friendships on the track have taken on new meaning. He and Gyarmati have bonded, and they’ve enjoyed their little rivalry with these two fillies.
“We’re having a lot of fun with this poking back and forth, challenging each other,” Gyarmati said. “Before the Frizette, we were schooling horses in the paddock, and his filly was there, and he said, ‘You see that?’ And he pointed to her rear end. He said, ‘That’s all you’re going to see in the Frizette.’ I think he was joking when he said it.”
Noting the result, Hushion, with a smile, said, “Apparently, I wasn’t joking at all.”
Hushion, who calls himself a worrier by nature, said the tone leading up to the Breeders’ Cup has been a little more serious.
“We really haven’t done any trash talking, no banter with this on the line,” Hushion said. “The only thing I said to Leah after the last race was, ‘Do you realize there’s a pretty good chance you or I are going to train a champion?’ ”
Meanwhile, back in New York, Jerkens will feel a sense of pride when he settles in to watch the race.
“Naturally, I’ll be anxious for them; I’d rather they win than anybody else, that’s for sure,” said Jerkens, who never won a Breeders’ Cup race. “The main thing is for them to run well. Naturally, we all want to win, but when you run well and your horse finishes strong, it makes you feel good.”
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