03/10/2016 2:10PM

Hovdey: Effinex gives Jerkens a window to the West


As far as the Jerkens family is concerned, the racing landscape of the United States pretty much ends at the I-65 corridor running from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Michigan, which has allowed them the luxury to roam among the jurisdictions of New York, Florida, Kentucky, and the various points east without fear of resetting their watches.

This is not to criticize. Wherever they have raced, they have mopped up admirably, whether it was the late Allen Jerkens, the man they called “The Chief,” or his son Jimmy, who went from his father’s right-hand man to a respected public stable of his own.

Allen spent 40 of his 85 years in the Hall of Fame and played the stakes programs of New York and Florida like a violin, winning good races deep into his career. He made headlines by beating champions like Kelso, Buckpasser, Riva Ridge, and Secretariat with horses named Beau Purple, Handsome Boy, Prove Out, and Onion. He also made lifelong disciples of racetrackers far and wide with an intuitive, common-sense approach to the care and training of the Thoroughbred.

For his part, Jimmy has carried on the family spirit with runners like Artie Schiller, Quality Road, Zaftig, Corinthian, and Afleet Express. When he finished first and second in the 2014 Travers with V. E. Day and Wicked Strong, the two separated by a only nose, they gave Jerkens the key to Saratoga Springs and several surrounding communities.

And yet for all their success, the concept of winning a major race in an exotic place like, say, Southern California was as foreign an idea as serving Trump steaks in the White House. At Santa Anita, for instance, Jimmy Jerkens has gone 0 for 3 in Breeders’ Cup races, the same record of frustration posted by his dad.

Ancient history. On Saturday, Jerkens will be represented in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap by morning-line favorite Effinex, a 5-year-old son of Mineshaft who already has earned $2.1 million and will carry the top weight of 123 pounds against eight opponents in the historic event.

There have been 78 runnings of the 1 1/4-mile Handicap, a fair share taken by such East Coast invaders as Top Row, Mr. Right, Nodouble, Royal Glint, Broad Brush, Einstein, and Ron the Greek. In his own way, Effinex has been every bit as accomplished for Dr. Russell Cohen and his family’s Tri-Bone Stables.

With Mike Smith riding for the first time, Effinex was the only horse with a decent view of American Pharoah at the end of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland last fall. Earlier in 2015, Effinex beat Eclipse Award finalist Tonalist in the Suburban Handicap, and he wrapped up his season with a gritty win in the Clark Handicap under Smith at Churchill Downs. This will be his first race in 106 days.

“Let’s face it, going a mile and a quarter is a tough thing to ask first time out,” Jerkens said from Florida this week. “Then again, if it was a mile and an eighth, he’d have to go like a bat out of hell all the way, where a mile and a quarter should go at an easier clip. His record is so good going a mile and a quarter, I don’t think the distance will make much difference for this horse.”

With his stable split between Florida and New York and starters on the boil, Jerkens will miss the chance to stand alongside a Santa Anita Handicap winner. Assistant trainer Kent Sweezey has been handling Effinex out West.

“I don’t feel good not being there, but the timing could not be any worse,” Jerkens said. “But if he wins, believe me, I’ll be just as happy here.”

In Smith, Jerkens is teaming with the winner of the last three Santa Anita Handicaps: Shared Belief last year and Game On Dude in 2014 and 2013. No other jockey has won more than two in a row.

There is also a neat arc of history to the collaboration. Smith rode the champion and Hall of Famer Sky Beauty to 11 major stakes wins from 1993 to 1995 for Allen Jerkens when Jimmy was a stable assistant. One of the most memorable was the 1994 Ruffian Handicap, in which Sky Beauty was required to carry 130 pounds. The conversation in the paddock between father and son went something like this:

Jimmy: “Why don’t you put the saddle up further? All that weight, you’re going to put it in the middle of her back?”

Allen: “Well, where the (bleep) am I supposed to put it?”

Jimmy: “Put it up there above her shoulder, where all her strength is.”

Allen: “Okay. All right. You happy now?”

Jerkens still laughs.

“He put it like halfway up her neck,” Jimmy said. “Poor Mike spent half the race trying to get the saddle back in place. Thank God it worked out.”

If there has been a day when Jimmy Jerkens didn’t think about his father, he’s hard pressed to remember it. The Santa Anita Handicap comes up just six days shy of the anniversary of Allen’s death on March 18, 2015, and if you close your eyes, you can still hear The Chief when Jimmy talks about a warrior like Effinex.

“He’s not the kind of horse who wants to be coddled,” Jerkens said. “He’ll want to go out in the afternoon, but when you put him away, he wants to be left alone. He’s a tough bastard, a real good, old-time hard knocker.”

In other words, just the kind of horse to put the Jerkens name on a whole new piece of the map.