03/19/2015 3:15PM

Hovdey: Jerkens’s imagination helped set him apart

Barbara D. Livingston
Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens with Grade 1 stakes winner Wagon Limit.

Everybody’s got a story about Allen Jerkens. If you don’t have one, just hold still. One will come around any minute.

“Allen, me, and Lefty Nickerson were having dinner one night at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay, one of the biggest fish markets I’ve ever been in, with a bar 50 feet long,” said Ron McAnally, who made the Hall of Fame 15 years after Jerkens. “Right in the middle of the dinner, Allen got up and left. We thought he was going to the rest room, but he never came back. The next day, we asked him where he went. Allen said, ‘I forgot to feed a horse his milkweed.’ That’s the kind of horseman he was.”

The kind of horseman Allen Jerkens was is being celebrated far and wide now in the wake of his death Wednesday in Florida at the age of 85. The kind of horseman he was, however, is hard to measure by modern standards and almost as tough to comprehend in historic terms.

His love of the game was comprehensive, warts and all. For Jerkens, the racetrack was a place to live life, not just do a job. He never won a Triple Crown race, never won a Breeders’ Cup race, and because of that, he proved beyond question that winning Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races was and still is not the most satisfying pleasure to be derived from the sport.

For Jerkens, the best part of horse racing was the horse. He was raised with them on Long Island, N.Y., rode them in all kinds of arenas and fields, and spent time on the ground watching them, wondering, by turns both mystified and amused.

“This was when I had just lost the bug, and I wasn’t doing that well, but then Allen named me on a filly at a mile and an eighth on the grass,” said Richie Migliore. “All she’d ever done was sprint and always in front – 21 and 4 kind of speed – so I’m washing out. It would be horrible. She’ll run away with me, and I’ll look ridiculous. But I figured Allen would have a plan.”

The plan was simple.

“Just try and get me a check,” Jerkens said.

“So, I walk the filly to the gate,” Migliore added. “Petting her, talking to her, telling her she’s so sweet. The doors open, and I don’t breathe. After about 50 yards, she came off the bridle. I ease her down to the fence, and we go a half in 50, just galloping. Turn for home, I picked her up, and I think, ‘I could win.’ But we hit the eighth pole, and she stops, gets beat eight, nine lengths. But I did my job, right?”

Well ...

“I could see Allen was a little bit agitated, kicking the dirt,” Migliore said. “I said, ‘Chief, she ran good. I got her to relax, slow down really good. Maybe she just can’t go that far.’ ”

This apparently was not what the trainer wanted to hear.

“Slow down? Slow down?!” Jerkens was hot. “She’s got one weapon – her speed. Horses have been running away from their enemies for a million years, and I get a jockey who wants to change evolution!”

This reporter once asked Jerkens to name the most important trait a trainer can bring to the table.

His answer: “Imagination.”

When it came to dealing with the racehorse, the Jerkens mindset fit perfectly with Albert Einstein’s observation, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” They also would have made great dinner companions.

Jerkens applied his imagination in deference to a creature that communicated in ways only the most patient, perceptive horse handlers can interpret. In fact, he was speaking for the horse when he berated a rider for winning by too much (“OK, now you go back to the barn tonight and try to get her to eat!”) or telling a groom to lay off the braiding (“How would you like someone fussing around with your head all day?”) or changing his mind on the fly.

“What are we doing with him?” the rider asked as he reached the track, with Jerkens alongside on his pony.

“I don’t know yet,” Jerkens replied. “Let’s just walk for a while.”

So, they did, and then they went back to the barn.

The idea that Allen Jerkens will be there no more to visit is hard to swallow. Even the inevitable seemed unlikely when it came to Chief.

“I’ve known him since I was a teenager,” said owner-breeder Peter Blum, a close friend for whom Jerkens won his next-to-last race. “He always gave me the impression of great strength, almost indestructibility. Losing him is very hard.”

Blum was speaking for the entire congregation. If imagination was the key for Jerkens, the word that others used first and foremost to describe him was “generous” – generous with his time, his wisdom, his history, his pocket money, and yes, his ire, which flamed and then fizzled quickly because life was too short.

“He was the perfect storm of the creation of a human being and a horseman,” said racing radio host and horse owner Steve Byk.

The storm has passed, but what perfect memories are left behind.

Mark Oleary More than 1 year ago
Great man, Great trainer, who will be greatly missed!. I had the pleasure of talking to him once at the Belmont track kitchen years ago. He was gracious , glib, and quite funny in a droll kind of way. My big memory of him at the track has got to be the day Onion shocked the World and beat BIG Red. I still remember it like it just happened, and my non racetrack friends looked at me as if I had ridden Secretariat and got him beat, like it was my fault.
James G Romano More than 1 year ago
Allen Jerkens` name brings memories of a mid to high long shot of his beating some odds on fav. right down the stretch.Seems to me that his charges were able to close off the pace,especially in heavy track conditions,,and his use of many ,many no name/unknown jockeys who did not get the public`s attention. The Nolan Wynter , Shannon Uske ,Linda Ayoub and others who have been long forgotten.Guess that he did not believe that jockeys meant much in a horse race and that the horse and the trainers` instructions were the important factors in a race,be it a cheap claimer or an allowance of some $50.000.He had to be right;jockey`s importance might reach a 10% difference ,if any. Gotta have a well trained horse for the distance and conditions.We`ll all miss him at the winning circle!
Jim Eggers More than 1 year ago
Great writing as per usual, Jay. He was always someone who put the horse first, and as a handicapper, if you saw his name next to an entry, no matter what the price, you has best take a long look at that horse. One of the all time greats, he will be missed, glad we had him as long as we did.
tommy More than 1 year ago
He was one of few trainers to beat a triple crown horse !!! Onion beat secretariat which made him the best horse !! It's easier to steal the triple crown instead of winning it. Onion beat secretariat so that he stole his triple crown!!!!
Larry Goldberg More than 1 year ago
This may be the first time I have ever seen a series of DRF articles, where no trolls have bad mouthed the individual or the sport. That may be the best tribute yet for The Chief. RIP!!!!
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
I vividly remember him sending Prove Out to Bowie to run in the Chesapeake Handicap back in '73. He was in front coming into the stretch and then ducked into the rail which cost him the race if memory serves. Don't you know that in his very next race he beats Secretariat at Belmont? How many trainers would take on Secretariat after a race like that? I'm still amazed.
Anna Villafane More than 1 year ago
My entire family loved Allen Jerkens. When we would spend a day at the track, my husband and my son would take extra care in handicapping a race where Allen Jerkens had a horse running, as no matter how long its odds, you could never disregard his chance of winning it. You are going to be missed big time Mr. Jerkens
Frank Raccioppi More than 1 year ago
All hail the "Giant Killer" .Rest in peace Mr Jerkens. Woody Stephens has someone on his level to talk to now.
wayne haehner More than 1 year ago
great article--well written with compassion
Dan Fidel More than 1 year ago
Whether you interacted with him for a moment in time,as I did, or you were close with him for many year,.he left you with a strong impression and memory. His family must be be very proud of the man he was.