10/25/2004 11:00PM

Jerkens chases first Cup win

Email
Horsephotos
Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens does not have a Breeders' Cup win. This year he'll saddle Bowman's Band (above) in the Classic and Society Selection in the Distaff.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - The last time trainers Allen Jerkens and Richard Mandella were in such close proximity, Jerkens was introducing his younger colleague to the audience assembled for the 2001 Hall of Fame ceremonies in Saratoga Springs. On that particular day, the newly inducted Mandella was too overwhelmed to summon any wisecracks.

On Tuesday morning at Lone Star Park, Mandella was in true form, going out of his way to give Jerkens a warm greeting, a hearty Texas handshake, and a couple of ribs.

"I heard you were here," Mandella said, beaming. "Great to see you. Welcome to Texas. But you know, that tiny belt buckle just won't cut it around here. And where's your cowboy hat?"

Jerkens smiled, waited a beat, and then - like Rodney Dangerfield delivering a punchline - he ducked into the backseat of his nearby car, grabbed the most gorgeous Catalena Classic Panama you could imagine, and planted it Texas Ranger square on his head. A hatless Mandella pretended to pout.

"Heck, he's had time to shop," Mandella said. "I just got here."

Never mind the headgear. The fact that Allen Jerkens has been pried away from his New York comfort zone to be on hand for the Breeders' Cup this Saturday is stop-the-presses news. It also should be noted that he did not buy the hat in town, but shipped it safe and sound, just like his two Breeders' Cup runners, Distaff contender Society Selection and Classic longshot Bowman's Band.

Stir in the fact that his son, Jimmy Jerkens, is making his Breeders' Cup training debut with Artie Schiller, a prime American entrant in the Mile. Fathers and sons have won Breeders' Cup races in the past - namely Charlie and Mike Whittingham, and Wally and Craig Dollase - but never on the same afternoon.

At this point, however, any Jerkens will do. A lot has been made of the fact that Allen Jerkens has yet to win a Breeders' Cup event, elevating the raw stat to the level of Sam Snead's lifetime blank in the U.S. Open, or Ernie Banks being deprived of the chance to play in a World Series.

In truth, Jerkens has not thrown a lot of horses at the Cup. He is 0 for 6, which can be roughly compared to Patrick Biancone's 0 for 10, Roger Attfield's 0 for 11, and Christophe Clement's 0 for 12.

Still, expectations tend to run high when Jerkens leads one over. At the age of 75, he has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1975, longer than any active trainer. His record is required reading for any young horseman who wants to play at the top. And besides, no one applies more pressure than the man himself.

As he stood at the Churchill Downs backstretch gap in November of 1994, about to bring Devil His Due to the paddock for the Breeders' Cup Classic, an exasperated Jerkens cursed and wondered aloud what he had to do to win one of these.

Jerkens had just watched his brilliant filly Sky Beauty finish an inexplicable last in the Distaff. A little while later, Devil His Due did not run much better in the Classic.

"Those kind of horses, even if they don't have their best day, you'd still think they should have hit the board," Jerkens said.

Jerkens is a great student of racing history, which is only fitting for a man whose first two stakes winners were sired by War Admiral. He knows, however, that what came before has nothing to do with what will happen on Saturday, and what must be done to prepare.

And so, like every other trainer who worships at the altar of detail, Jerkens was less concerned about the past than he was about the horse-spooking, machine-gun racket of the rain on the barn roof Monday afternoon during a three-hour Texas torrent, or about the final breezes for his two Cup starters Tuesday morning. If the press wanted to talk about the Breeders' Cup failures of Sky Beauty or Devil His Due, fine. But right now, what was catching his attention was the sliding barn doors that could be closed against any sudden change in the prairie wind, and a decision on whether to give Society Selection and Bowman's Band a trace clip or a full-body buzz of their freshly sprung cool-weather hair.

Such metabolic changes are a fact of life, further exacerbated when Thoroughbreds are taken away from home.

"People are always asking me why I don't ship around more," Jerkens said. "I really don't really know why you'd want to ship out of New York when there's every kind of race to run in right there."

Except at Breeders' Cup time, which was enough to put Jerkens on a plane, still aglow from last Saturday's victory of Spite the Devil in the $250,000 Empire Classic at Belmont Park. Spite the Devil is a son of Devil His Due, owned by Liz Jerkens, the trainer's wife.

"Fourteenth, twelfth, ninth, sixth, first," Jerkens said, recreating the chart call. "It was great. And you could hardly see, it was so dark."

Now, if he can just tap into that momentum for Saturday.

"If I can manage to finally win one of these," Jerkens vowed, "I'll get one of those big belt buckles and wear it every day."