03/05/2015 3:16PM

Hovdey: Jerkens taking on another formidable foe


Here comes one of those days for which racing fans suffer through the dead of winter, dreary Thursdays, and rainy afternoons when nothing should be played outdoors.

At Tampa Bay Downs, Florida’s other white meat, a fresh batch of names will try to elbow into the Kentucky Derby conversation with a breakout performance in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

In New York, climate change permitting, the $400,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct pits local talent fueled on hay, oats, and antifreeze trying to be taken seriously as prospects for the classic races ahead.

And then there is Santa Anita, where management has shoveled weeks worth of prime attractions into one delirious afternoon, during which formerly marquee races like the $250,000 San Carlos and $400,000 Kilroe Mile will be dwarfed by the gaggle of hot 3-year-olds gathering for the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes and the appearance of Shared Belief in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Call it a holiday on the Fantasy Island of horse racing, where the cares of the world can beat on the doors and rattle the windows all they want. We’ll get back to them later, once the Santa Anita Handicap is official a shade after 8 o’clock in the East.

Problem is, though, there’s one thing that won’t go away, no matter how excited anyone can be over the return of Carpe Diem, or the way fans ooh and ahh when the sun disappears behind Dortmund as he enters the ring, or the idea that Shared Belief could be the best pure racehorse on the prowl since Curlin roamed the land.

Allen Jerkens has been in a south Florida hospital since last weekend, fighting the potentially dangerous effects of a urinary tract infection that requires intensive care. Jerkens has been in and out of consciousness, breathing with the aid of a ventilator and otherwise scaring the living daylights out of his friends and family.

“I talked with him just a week ago Tuesday, and he was in great spirits,” said horse owner Peter Blum, a close pal and longtime patron. “I know he hasn’t been in the best of health this winter, but I was very encouraged. Then this.”

How could Blum be otherwise? Jerkens, who turns 86 on April 21, has been nothing less than the Energizer Bull when it comes to battling through physical travails. Several times in the past 15 years or so, he’s taken the mandatory eight count only to bounce back, to the point where Jerkens got tired of people asking more often about his health than his horses.

“What do you expect?” he’d say. “I’m getting old.”

To which the congregation would reply, “No way.”

No matter how he comes out of this latest fight, Jerkens always will be the dashing polo player, the hustler of touch football games, the die-hard film buff and boon dinner companion who can hold forth as easily on the training of Bend Or more than a century ago as he can the therapeutic effects of dandelions on bleeders. There is never enough time to spend with Allen Jerkens, simply because there isn’t that much time.

Which is why the idea of a Thoroughbred world without Allen Jerkens is unthinkable, so let’s think about something else, like how he would love to take a crack at a horse like Shared Belief for a million-dollar pot. On the face of it, the 4-year-old gelding has no vulnerabilities, beyond the modest amounts of weight he is giving away in the handicap part of the Santa Anita Handicap. Mike Smith will be on board. The distance is right. The post is perfect, and neither Bayern nor California Chrome is anywhere in sight. Chill the champagne.

Jerkens, however, looks beyond such obvious factors. He would watch Kelso in the morning and know he was a race away from ready, then beat him with Beau Purple. He would hear rumblings about Secretariat, then behold the glow on his horse and truly believe Onion could win, which he did.

More than the historic one-offs like Upset beating Man o’ War or Jim Dandy dusting Gallant Fox, it was Jerkens who institutionalized the idea that even the greatest horses are beatable on any given day, because even the greatest horses are just horses. He was there waiting for Buckpasser with Handsome Boy, for Riva Ridge with Prove Out, for Skip Away with Wagon Limit.

Such a record earned Jerkens his “Giant Killer” nickname, which he does not favor since it smacks of disrespect to those horses and fellow trainers vanquished on that particular day. Besides, Jerkens has had more than his share of giants – Sky Beauty, Devil His Due, Classy Mirage, Kelly Kip, November Snow, Sensitive Prince – and hopes in his heart to have another one again.

But right now, he is in a south Florida hospital, in and out of consciousness as his noble body fights off infection. Do you dream when you are under like that? Who knows? But if dreams come, for Jerkens, I hope they are of War Front winning the Vanderbilt, of Society Selection taking the Alabama, of Banker’s Gold winning the Tom Fool, and Never Bow winning the Widener, spiced with snippets of Groucho, Art Carney, and Kim Novak dancing with Bill Holden in “Picnic.”

Then, when he comes around, we can fill him in on Saturday.