08/27/2014 2:07PM

Hovdey: Jerkens follows in Giant (Killer) footsteps


James Jerkens, son of the legendary Giant Killer, still has a few things to learn from the old man. Like, for instance, if you’re going to slay a giant, make sure the giant in question comes from another barn.

When Allen Jerkens toppled stars like Kelso, Buckpasser, and Secretariat with horses named Beau Purple, Handsome Boy, and Onion, he made sure some other trainer took the hit. When V. E. Day upset Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy Stakes winner Wicked Strong in the Travers Stakes last Saturday, it was the same Jimmy Jerkens on both ends of the close photo.

“Weird” is how the younger Jerkens put it.

He got that right. Very few trainers have ever finessed such a situation to perfection. Only one, as a matter of fact. In the 1990 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park, a Grade 1 race at the time, Richard Mandella watched with unadulterated delight as Beautiful Melody and Reluctant Guest hit the wire as one while carrying the colors of different owners.

More often, a trainer will end up playing spin doctor in the wake of a razor-thin, intramural finish. D. Wayne Lukas has been there a few times, most notably when Flanders edged Serena’s Song in their epic Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies of 1994, while Charlie Whittingham enjoyed the sight of Cougar coming on late to nip Kennedy Road at the wire in the 1973 Santa Anita Handicap, then wore the same expression when Kennedy Road held off Quack to win the 1973 Hollywood Gold Cup by a nose.

In such cases, Whittingham always was quick to praise the horse who didn’t win. Jimmy Jerkens took a page from the same book, insisting that Wicked Strong ran too good to lose. Still, he seemed flabbergasted by the results.

“Who wouldn’t be?” offered Allen Jerkens, reached by phone in South Florida, where he now trains year-round. “I don’t think it happens every day exactly.”

The elder Jerkens missed the Saratoga meet this summer for the first time since forever. He’d witnessed just about every Travers worth the trouble, from Native Dancer to Gallant Man, to the Jaipur-Ridan donnybrook, to the operatic performances of Damascus, General Assembly, and Easy Goer, as well as the upset 2010 win by Afleet Express, trained by Jimmy Jerkens.

It’s tough enough for any child to follow in a father’s footprints. But when the prints are as large as those left all over the racing game by Allen Jerkens, the task becomes downright daunting. Jimmy, 55, has answered the challenge by staying true to the horsemanship he learned at Allen’s side, then doing a few things his dad has yet to do in a career of 64 years, like win a Travers ... and then another.

For his part, Allen Jerkens can hardly hide his pride.

“We’re still basking in the glow of what happened last Saturday,” Allen said. “I was screaming at the TV, ‘Oh my god, he’s not gonna hang on! They’re gonna catch him!’ while my daughter’s in front of me jumping up and down. I said, ‘Jeez, he got caught right at the end.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but it’s his horse.’

“I loved what he said at the press conference after the race,” Allen added, “ ‘My old man would love to train this horse.’ ”

With a shrinking client base and a smaller stable to work from, Jerkens figured the gradual expansion of racing dates at Gulfstream Park would present enough opportunities to make the timing right for a move. Also, at 85, he’s not as mobile as he once was, and the idea of staying put in a place he enjoyed was appealing.

“I feel safe here,” Jerkens said. “I don’t need to be traveling.”

This being his first summer in South Florida, Jerkens was asked if he faced any new training challenges. As if there are any new challenges left for a guy who’s been in the Hall of Fame since 1975.

“We’ve got a couple that didn’t want to sweat,” Jerkens replied. “It’s unusual to me, but we give them light salt, something for the thyroid – everything they say helps. Mostly, I lighten up on their training and just wait until it gets cooler. I’ve tried training earlier, but it’s not that cool even then. That’s the biggest difference.”

Jerkens has battled back in recent years from open-heart surgery and pancreatitis. In early August, he lost his wife of 27 years, Elisabeth “Liz” Jerkens, to heart failure.

“I’ve been feeling all right, for my age,” Allen said. “I get out here and train the horses, watch them go, then sit with them every afternoon at the barn. By the time I get through taking care of the horses, talking to my friends, and watching old movies, I really don’t have that much time on my hands.”

Visitors during the South Florida offseason have been few and far between, and Jerkens understands. He’ll be there to greet them when November rolls around.

“Jimmy was going to come down before the big race,” Allen said. “I told him, ‘Nah, stay there and take care of your horses.’ ”

Good advice, especially after the way things turned out. The caller wondered if Allen ever had a day like Jimmy just had in the Travers.

“I did, but not in that big of a race,” Allen said. “When Jimmy won the Metropolitan with Corinthian, though, I was second and didn’t get beat that far. Does that count?”

Jerkens 1-2 in a big one? Yeah, that counts.