06/13/2012 3:12PM

Hovdey: Hall of Famer Jerkens keeps going at age 83

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Barbara D. Livingston
From atop his pony, trainer Allen Jerkens watches his horses train at Belmont Park in June 2011.

On the morning after the Belmont Stakes, in a state of renewed bewilderment, a pilgrim hastened to the Belmont barn of Allen Jerkens to ask the burning question. Jerkens, being to Thoroughbred racing what Delphi is to oracles, figured to be the right guy to ask why it has become so hard for a horse to win the Triple Crown.

“How would I know?” Jerkens said. “I never even won one of those races.”

Fair enough. So how’s the weather up there?

Jerkens smiled. For the first time since last fall, he was on horseback. Something about the transport of ponies between barns. The important thing was that Allen Jerkens was back on a horse, which is where he belongs even at 83, just shy of 40 years since he nailed down everlasting awe as the man who beat Secretariat with two different horses.

This, among other things, put Jerkens in the Hall of Fame two years later, at 45, as the youngest trainer ever inducted. Spending nearly half a life being referred to with “Hall of Fame” preceding one’s name could inflate the ego, but somehow Jerkens has managed to keep his under control, despite the worshippers regularly flocking to touch the hem of the robe worn by the man they call Chief.

Triple Crown or not, the Jerkens barn seemed to be the right place to be on the morning after, if only to know that life would go on. Only it wasn’t the barn he’d been in for so many years, with the rotunda for indoor jogs, hard by the backstretch kitchen. He was now in Barn 19, kitty-corner from Bill Mott’s spread.

“These barns here were built by C.V. Whitney,” Jerkens said upon dismounting from the pony, named Appletini. “Over there is the ship-in barn, where I saw Round Table and three other horses Bill Molter brought in from California. They’d take them out in the afternoon, take all the bandages off them, brace their legs again, and put the bandages back on. Round Table was hard looking – just look at all the times he ran – and Molter would insist on him having a prep race before his big races. Even when he ran for the big money in that race in Mexico, he ran down there the week before. You can look that up, I’m pretty sure of it.”

Time spent with Jerkens requires a visitor to be tied on tight when it comes to historical reference (he most recently was reading of Bend Or, the great English stallion, whose stud groom “walked him 15 miles a day,” according to Jerkens). That a man like Jerkens would be delighted in sharing the lore of the game is of immeasurable value. Never mind that he made a fair share of that lore with horses like Beau Purple, Handsome Boy, Step Nicely, Onion, Wagon Limit, Shine Again, and many, many others.

The Round Table rumination made Jerkens think of a lesson learned from Carey Winfrey, the Hall of Fame trainer of champion Dedicate.

“When he retired, I wound up getting his horses to train,” Jerkens said. “I asked the old black guys who worked for him, ‘What does he give, a lot of vitamins?’ Nope, they said. ‘Then how’s he keep his horses so big and strong?’ Guy says, ‘I don’t know, but he give them all that heavy clover hay, all them Canadian oats, and we cut carrots ’til our fingers gettin’ sore.’ ”

This in turn led to 10 minutes on the growing and curing of heavy hay, the equine digestive tract, and the feeding of the modern racehorse compared to practices of the past.

Jerkens is down to 14 or so horses at the track, led by the mare Go Unbridled, winner of the John Hettinger Stakes for New York-breds. Now behind the wheel of his golf cart, Jerkens flitted around his training yard and down the spacious alley at the back of the barn, eyeballing every small detail of his world.

“I thought he could do it,” Jerkens said, doubling back to I’ll Have Another and the injury that deprived him of a chance to win the Triple Crown. “Of course, they do everything they can to try and prevent it. There’s no way in the world you can train a horse with 10 people looking over your shoulder every day. If you decide to ice a horse you get, ‘What’re you icing him for? He must be broke down!’ They don’t know any different anyway.”

As for the race itself, Jerkens pushed back on the idea that Mike Smith blew it by letting Union Rags slip through inside to edge Paynter at the wire. Smith and Jerkens have teamed for a lot of big wins together.

“He was worried about Atigun,” Jerkens said, talking about the horse closing on Smith’s right flank. “He stayed with his left hand a lot longer that if he’d known there was a horse inside him. As good a filly as Sky Beauty was, she might have lost two, maybe three races she didn’t without Mike Smith. The Oaks here, the Alabama, and that race where she carried 130. You know any fillies carry 130 since?”

No, and you can look it up. Also note that Allen Jerkens won a race on the day before the Belmont, a $20,000 claimer, ridden by Maylan Studart, one of many off-brand riders he has given a shot aboard his runners.

“They need the money and they’ll try hard to pick up a check for you if they can, which is valuable when you own them,” he said. “When you have a horse with terrible form, I hate to ask a rider doing real well to ride him. It’s not the case that they don’t try, but they go at it half-heartedly. And if you haven’t been riding that particular jock, and all of a sudden he appears on a 30-1 shot, he thinks, ‘Look at the horse he picks to finally put me on.’ ”

The visit was drawing to a close, and for some reason the lack of a Triple Crown winner didn’t seem nearly as traumatic anymore. In the sand pen, the pony Appletini was lying on his left side. Even after all these years, Jerkens, the son of an Austrian cavalry officer, is endlessly entertained by just about anything a horse does.

“Hey pony, you tired?” Jerkens said.

No reaction from Appletini. Ten minutes with Chief in the saddle, and he was wiped out.

“Naw,” Jerkens said. “He does that every day.”