09/04/2003 12:00AM

Jerkens comes off hot summer at Spa

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ELMONT, N.Y. - A popular handicapping guide noted that trainer Allen Jerkens hadn't won with a first-time starter at Saratoga in the last nine meets, a staggering 0 for 44. So all Jerkens did this summer at the Spa was pop with a pair of first-time starters at boxcar mutuels.

The maiden victories by juveniles Society Selection ($37.80) and Smokume ($52.50) were just two of the highlights of a solid Saratoga season for the Hall of Famer Jerkens. Upset victories by Passing Shot in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign and Puzzlement in the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup also marked Jerkens's best Saratoga summer in seven years.

"You never know how you're going to come out," said Jerkens, who finished Saratoga with a record of 7-8-7 from 41 starters. "You hope, that's all."

Jerkens hopes the momentum of the summer can continue through the fall, when many of his big guns will run in graded stakes and possibly earn berths in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. On Saturday, Jerkens will look to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of Prove Out's upset of Secretariat in the Woodward when he sends out Puzzlement against Mineshaft in the 50th running of the Woodward at Belmont Park.

That same day, at Delaware Park, Jerkens runs House Party - winner of the Grade 1 Prioress - in the $200,000 Endine Stakes at six furlongs. Next weekend, Jerkens plans to saddle Passing Shot - who knocked off odds-on choice Wild Spirit in the Personal Ensign - and possibly Shine Again in the Grade 1 Ruffian. Shine Again, who finished second in two graded stakes at Saratoga, could skip the Ruffian and run in the Floral Park Stakes on the Ruffian undercard.

This could all lead to Jerkens having his best year since 1994, when he won a personal-best 111 races and his horses earned $4.9 million. Thus far this year, Jerkens has won 59 races from 249 starters for purse earnings of $3.55 million, 13th-highest in the country.

Even at 74, and three years removed from a severe bout of pancreatitis, Jerkens remains one of the most consistent and hardest-working trainers in the country.

"It's always fun to win," Jerkens said while atop his pony last weekend before leaving Saratoga. "It's fun to train in the mornings."

Puzzlement's upset of Volponi in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup was especially gratifying for Jerkens. Puzzlement, owned by Jerry Shields, was developing a reputation as an underachiever, and had gone winless in nine stakes tries. But he seemed to put it together at Saratoga: He won an allowance race on opening day, then finished fourth, beaten 2 1/2 lengths, in the Grade 1 Whitney before rallying up the rail to win the Saratoga Breeders' Cup.

"He always threatened to be good, and he finally got good," Jerkens said. "The Whitney was a really good race, too, if you took it apart and figure in the bias of the track and everything."

Puzzlement seems to have thrived on racing. The Woodward will be Puzzlement's fourth race in 45 days.

"Some horses like to do that," Jerkens said. "Some horses would rather have some strong gallops and have days off in between. Years ago, that's what we used to do with all the horses."

Jerkens has not participated in the Breeders' Cup since 1994, when Devil His Due finished 11th in the Classic and Sky Beauty finished last as the favorite in the Distaff at Churchill Downs. The year before, both horses ran only moderately better at Santa Anita.

"It's always nice to go if you think the horse is good going in," said Jerkens, who is 0 for 5 in the Breeders' Cup. "I've been disappointed all the times I went. Sky Beauty not running at all is one of the biggest disappointments of my lifetime. I thought Devil His Due could run better, too."

Jerkens has 40 horses in training, including nine 2-year-olds. In addition to Society Selection and Smokume, Jerkens is high on the 2-year-old Marjorie's Wildcat, a son of Storm Cat out of the champion mare Hollywood Wildcat. That makes him a half-brother to 2000 Breeders' Cup Mile winner War Chant.

"He's pretty good - haven't tried to see yet how good," Jerkens said.

The summer was good to Jerkens. The fall could be better.