10/16/2003 11:00PM

Jerkens brings a team again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Bruce Headley harbors a fond recollection of his earliest encounter with Allen Jerkens. It was about 40 years ago, and there was a football involved.

"I heard he liked to play," Headley said. "Heard he had a team from his barn. We had a six-man team out here that played touch football all the time. So we got together one day in the park by Santa Anita."

It wasn't pretty.

"We got to beating them so bad I threw one to their defensive back so they could get the ball," Headley said. "Allen was very complimentary, and we had a lot of laughs. But one game was enough for him."

The Headley squad included his brother, Gary; Tucker and George Slender; Buzz Fermin; and Bobby King. The only name that rings a bell from the Jerkens side was a fellow called Nature Boy, a backstretch character who never wore shoes and rarely a shirt. Headley said he could run like a deer, but Nature Boy wasn't enough.

"They were too fit for us," Jerkens recalled this week. "But at least we had a good time."

That is a fairly typical Jerkens reaction, consistent with a man who will react emotionally in the moment, then move on. Jerkens never met a grudge he could hold for long.

Which clearly is why he is willing to dive back into the Breeders' Cup this week with the 2-year-old filly Society Selection, winner of the Frizette Stakes at Belmont Park and one of 14 pre-entered for the $1 million Juvenile Fillies next Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

Jerkens has never won a Breeders' Cup race. To be fair, though, he has started only five. This is hardly on a par with the frustrating record that Bobby Frankel took into the 2001 Breeders' Cup (0 for 36), and it is certainly comparable to the Breeders' Cup tallies of such respected trainers as Christophe Clement (0 for 10), Patrick Biancone (0 for 9), Roger Attfield (0 for 10) and Todd Pletcher (0 for 9).

But there is only one Allen Jerkens, and he has set his own bar indecently high thanks to such runners as Beau Purple, Prove Out, Onion, Sensitive Prince, Classy Mirage, Handsome Boy, Kelly Kip, and Wagon Limit. Good horses like Sky Beauty, a champion, and Devil His Due, a winner of nearly $4 million, are not supposed to run up the track in a Breeders' Cup race when Jerkens brings them over to play.

It has been nine years since Jerkens started a horse in the Breeders' Cup (Devil His Due finished 11th in the 1994 Classic at Churchill Downs), and 10 years since he was at Santa Anita with Devil His Due and Sky Beauty for the 1993 Breeders' Cup.

"She was not a fall mare, though," Jerkens noted. "She liked to run better when the weather was warmer. In the spring, she did good all the time."

The record bears him out. Sky Beauty was the best in the East, but she had already started to go the way of the autumn leaves when Jerkens brought her to California in October of 1993. To that point, Sky Beauty had won 9 of 10, then she was fifth in the Distaff at Santa Anita behind fellow 3-year-old Hollywood Wildcat. The race cost Sky Beauty the division championship.

Ancient history, though, in light of more recent events. At the age of 74, Jerkens has been a trainer for 53 years, and 2003 has been among his very best. Jerkens currently ranks 12th in the nation in terms of purses won, with a total of $4.6 million that is outpacing such fellow Hall of Fame members as Richard Mandella, D. Wayne Lukas, and Ron McAnally.

"I don't know that we're doing anything different," Jerkens said. "We've just got some nice horses, and we've been lucky, too."

Then why not find out if the luck ships west? When Society Selection travels to California on Wednesday, she will be surrounded by the smells and sounds of familiar people, including assistant trainer Fernando Abreu, groom Junior Gutierrez, hotwalker Zuleika Zapata, and exercise rider Ron Ganpath, who will also ride Society Selection in the race. Liz Jerkens, Allen's wife and stable manager, will also be on hand.

The full-blown assault is reminiscent of the raid Jerkens made across the New York state line into Vermont many years ago for a $15,000 stakes race at tiny Green Mountain. He sent the jockey, an assistant trainer, a groom, a night watchman, a pony boy, and a pony. The horse won by 15.

"That's old-school," Bruce Headley said. "You don't leave anything to chance."

Though a major stakes winner, Society Selection figures to be lumped somewhere in the Juvenile Fillies betting well back of favored Halfbridled and the Bob Baffert pair of Class Above and Victory U. S. A. Headley, who will be starting Got Koko in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, warns not to take Jerkens for granted.

"He was already a giant-killer when he came out here 40 years ago, a great trainer that everyone admired," Headley said. "I'm just glad he doesn't have a horse in my race."