03/19/2015 2:15PM

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.