08/27/2014 3:07PM

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.

Dan Fidel More than 1 year ago
Jerkens used to send his horses to the paddock galloping in with a pony and an orange hobeau blanket. They would be nice and loose by the time they ran. That's the type of out of the box thinking that made him a great trainer.
Dan Fidel More than 1 year ago
I was fresh off the farm In the early 70"s wanting my first galloping job at Belmont and I hounded him for a job day in and day out. Of course no one ever left Jerkens, so there was no room. I caught him in a bad mood one day and he cussed me out."Leave me alone"!See you tomorrow, I said and left his barn dejectedly. That afternoon at Aqueduct, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Come back tomorrow he said. He had gotten me the perfect job. An old timer named Paul Healy had 6 nice horses and I rode and walked them all, and learned. You don"t forget men like this. I was 18 and now soon to be 59.
Eric Singer More than 1 year ago
Exciting for a trainer to run one two. Given the comments it seems like he wanted WS to win. Still he and his Dad are rightly thrilled.
farrightwing1 More than 1 year ago
I guess that it was H Allen we saw at the Wishing Well on Getaway Day 2013. Article says that this is the first Saratoga meet he has missed in forever. Hope he comes back next year. All best wishes from Doug Symmes, a/k/a Green Mtn Punter, a long time admirer.
Nick Sisti More than 1 year ago
The one and only-- the old school is the best school
Vincent More than 1 year ago
Nobody can say enoughtabout Allen. I had the opportunity to visit him in the nursing home where he was rehabbing from his open heart surgery. I was visiting my aunt in the nursing home and heard he was there also. When I asked at the desk for his room number I was told there was no one named Allen Jerkens registered, but did say there was a Henry Jerkens. Of course it was Allen and when I pushed my aunt in her weelchair into his room and explained I was an admirer, he didn't know me from Adam but welcomed me in and regaled me with several stories I had never heard before.
anna villafane More than 1 year ago
Jimmy just Giant Killed himself.
anna villafane More than 1 year ago
I miss seeing Poppa Jerkens at Saratoga perched on top of his big pony with his John Wayne hat leading his stock about in morning workouts. He was always so consistent. Still remember Handsome Boy, with Eddie Belmonte riding, leading Buckpasser all the way home in the Suburban Handicap. That was one heck of a score. Whenever Allen and Jimmy had horses in the same race, I as well as many old timers, would always boxed them in an exacta. You would be a fool not to as they were a very profitable tandem.
Jim Eggers More than 1 year ago
Every time I see the Jerkens name on a racing card I take a long hard look at their runner. You never know....
James Ronan More than 1 year ago
I suspect the son Jimmy might just be every bit as classy as his Dad, who I had the honor to meet once. Had two very nice wagers on V. E. Day in both the Travers and his prior win. Wouldn't trade for anything the opportunity to spend that 1 1/2 hours with H.A. Jerkens years ago taught me everything I ever need to know about what "true class" is. Hear that Mr. T. Pletcher!!!!!
Barbara Bowen More than 1 year ago
You were doing great until that last gratuitous, irrelevant sentence.
tim blake More than 1 year ago
very true. of course, anyone someone feels the need to boast to strangers about having bet on a winner, it's never a good sign so my expectations were low by the time I reached the last sentence.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
Yes, why do you feel the need to denigrate one trainer (without citing ANY evidence for your perceived slight) in order to praise Mr. Jerkens (who needs no such artificial boosterism?).
Cleon Silence More than 1 year ago
I reckon I understand why you feel the need to denigrate a person/trainer. Just look how much better it would have been with out you last comment.
Cleon Silence More than 1 year ago
I cannot believe I said that, I need to practice what I suggest
Cleon Silence More than 1 year ago
sometimes I feel the need just to express my self, does that ever happen to you