10/04/2012 1:29PM

Jerkens in long line of trainers thriving after 70

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Allen Jerkens with Emma's Encore, who gave him his first Grade 1 win in five years in the Aug. 4 Prioress. Now 83, Jerkens currently oversees a 17-horse stable.

At half past eight on the morning the Belmont Park fall meet opened, Allen Jerkens stepped out of his golf cart at the training track as thunder rumbled in the distance and dark clouds sat low in the sky. He was about to watch an unraced 2-year-colt of his work. He had told the exercise rider to breeze three furlongs, to let the horse have his head a bit, but Jerkens wasn’t expecting quicksilver.

Jerkens leaned against the rail and, in a storytelling mood, began praising old trainers: Calumet’s Ben Jones, George Widener stable’s Bert Mulholland, Scotty Schulhofer, and Johnny Nerud, still alive at 99. Like Jerkens, all have plaques in the Hall of Fame, which appropriately doesn’t wait for an honoree to retire. Nerud quit training at 65, but the others continued into their 70s and 80s. 

Jerkens gazed toward the far turn as a clocker stood next to him looking through her binoculars. She asked Jerkens the name of his horse. He spelled it: G-o-e-s-s-e.

“How do you say that?” she asked.

Jerkens spelled it again.

“But how do you say it?” she declared.

It was like an Abbott and Costello routine.

“Go Easy,” he said finally. “I don’t know why they don’t just spell it, Go Easy.”

He paused for effect. “That’s what you get when you’re an 83-year-old trainer,” he said self-deprecatingly.

“Who the hell wants an 83-year-old trainer” – he paused again, pointing toward the far-off clubhouse while searching for the right name – “when you can get someone like Chad Brown?”

The few people who overheard shot down his claim, and Jerkens grinned. But there was a hint of melancholy to his statement. Jerkens was about the same age as Brown when he was the young star of American racing. Brown, 34, is fifth in earnings nationally and probably oversees close to 100 horses. Jerkens won New York training titles in his mid-20s and was 33 when he began training for Jack Dreyfus’s Hobeau Farm and sent Beau Purple to defeat Kelso in the Suburban, the “pearl” of handicaps, in July 1962.

As a man whose horsemanship knows few equals, Jerkens deserves more horses than the 17 he watches over. He’s sharp as a tack, a living legend, part of many of racing’s greatest moments, and in early August his filly Emma’s Encore won Saratoga’s Grade 1 Prioress.

In what other profession would an 83-year-old be competing against a 34-year-old? Or, for that matter, how many octogenarians do you see in your workplace? Jerkens is at an age when people aren’t supposed to be useful anymore − except he isn’t alone. Elder horsemen are part of the daily routine of the backside. Indeed, it’s one of the charms of horse racing, what spins its historical fabric and makes it unique in sport. As his non-racing brethren spend somnambular afternoons in rocking chairs, Jerkens desires more work. There is a gallows-humor refrain often heard at the track: “Trainers don’t retire, they die.”

Across the country, you find trainers in their 70s and 80s who are not only hanging in there but still successful. Californians Ron McAnally, 80, and Jack Van Berg, 76, are busy. Henry Moreno recently celebrated his 83rd birthday at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner, and among those joining him was Mel Stute, a recent retiree at 85. D. Wayne Lukas, who could pass for someone much younger than 77, just won the lucrative Kent Stakes at Delaware with Triple Crown also-ran Optimizer.

Canada’s Roger Attfield, 72, is the most recent Hall of Fame inductee. Maryland legend King Leatherbury, 79, finally has his first millionaire in turf sprinter Ben’s Cat. Joe Pierce Jr., 85, and Willard Thompson, 77, still arrive before dawn at Monmouth Park. Jonathan Sheppard, 71, recently won a race at Saratoga for the 50th consecutive year. Barclay Tagg, 74, is not far removed from the Funny Cide years. In the Midwest, Jinks Fires, 72, had his first Grade 1 winner and Derby starter last year in Archarcharch. And only two weeks ago, George Handy, one of the oldest living trainers in America, saddled his fifth winner of the year at Calder at age 89.

Looking through history, prominent horsemen James Fitzsimmons, Max Hirsch, Charlie Whittingham, Woody Stephens, Horatio Luro, Tommy Kelly, Jimmy Croll, Buddy Raines, Henry Clark, and Noble Threewitt – who in 2006 became the oldest trainer to win in North America at age 95 – are but a few who kept going and even had their best horses well past the age of collecting social security.

What explains this? The reasons are obviously plentiful, but perhaps the nicest one is that a forward-looking mentality is intrinsic to the sport, shared even by the most jaded – the next horse to enter the barn could be good, perhaps very good. The trainer usually has something new and exciting to anticipate every day, with a thousand problems requiring an answer, and the race itself to measure his effort. Most “real” jobs, as any racetracker would deem them, you wake up and go to the office, and every day is the same as the one before it; then you retire and collect your pension if you’re lucky, or find a part-time job if you’re not.

Some trainers might have standout years, but greatness in this sport equates to standing the test of time. And so, 57 years after winning his first stakes with War Command, Allen Jerkens, New York’s oldest trainer, who began training in 1950 at age 21, is still winning big races.

Emma’s Encore, a small, brave filly with a deep-closing kick and feel for the wire, entered Jerkens’s barn at Gulfstream Park last winter, a winless filly for owners Brenda Mercer and Peter Berglar, whom he had never met before. This summer she won two stakes in a row – before the Prioress, the Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont – and provided Jerkens with his first Grade 1 success in five years.

It was an emotional scene in the winner’s circle that day. Adoring fans cheered loudly for him, and he was misty-eyed. Jerkens doesn’t get many stakes horses any more, but Emma’s Encore only became a stakes horses under his care. She cost $2,000 at the sales and was no better than fifth in three maiden starts for other trainers.

Jerkens has made a career out of this, shaping overachievers from horses nobody else gave a shot, horses who ran for a tag or horses considered surplus by another stable: in the 1950s, War Command, whom he claimed for $8,000, and Admiral Vee, haltered for $7,500 before going on to earn more than $250,000. In the ’60s and ’70s, Onion and Prove Out – both defeated Secretariat – Poker Night, Tunex, Beaukins, and so many others. With few exceptions, such as his handicap stars Devil His Due and distaff champion Sky Beauty in the 1990s, Jerkens has excelled without blue-blooded stock.

Emma’s Encore could be a new act rather than an encore, if only owners would send Jerkens more horses. Earle Mack, whose filly November Snow Jerkens saddled to wins in the Test and Alabama in 1992, recently sent him a horse for the first time in years. However, in today’s game a premium is placed on trainers who, like chief executives, can manage 100 or 150 horses at multiple tracks from coast to coast. Jerkens is not a business manager.

When you look down the shedrow in the morning you want to see something good, Jerkens said. “No place is fun unless you have something to look forward to.”

So Emma’s Encore has restored that?


It was similar to an observation made by an old racetrack hand after “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, then 80, won Belmont’s prestigious Futurity Stakes with Nashua in 1954.

“Look at him,” a man named Slim Sully said. “In what other business could an 80-year-old man win something called the Futurity?”

All the papers ran that line the next day.

Looking at Jerkens, you find certain explanations for longevity in horsemen – the physical activity, a life spent outdoors, the hopeful disposition, the ability to change with the times. Racing is very competitive, but it’s also shielded from a rat-race mentality present elsewhere. An owner might take away his horses, but a trainer doesn’t lose his job altogether.

Even though Jerkens moves slower than he used to, his observational acumen persists and even grows, his almost telepathic ability to look at a horse and know exactly how it feels. This has not slackened with age.

His memory is one of his strongest attributes. Jerkens recalls races from last week and races from 60 years ago, even ones in which he did not have horses, with total clarity. On the day I’ll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont Stakes, the long-forgotten Burgoo King and Bold Venture – the last horses, in 1932 and 1936, to miss the Belmont after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown – were previously unuttered names among the turf writers who suddenly had to delve into this obscure precedent.

Sought out that afternoon for his encyclopedic mind, Jerkens immediately recalled Bold Venture. He was injured more than a week before the Belmont and never entered. “I think it was a tendon injury,” Jerkens added – same as I’ll Have Another – and he didn’t think the colt raced again. He was right on all counts.

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Jerkens’s stature today is much like Fitzsimmons’s when Jerkens came onto the track. Fitzsimmons was one of Jerkens’s role models. He learned from him as well as other old-timers such as Max Hirsch.

With Nashua, Fitzsimmons began what amounted to another career; all of that reached a head with training him for his match race with Swaps, which he won. At 83, Fitzsimmons had the Kentucky Derby favorite in Bold Ruler.

Hunched over, arthritis bending him over to an almost L-shape, Fitzsimmons went to the barn six mornings a week, priding himself on a day’s work after seven decades of hard labor, as a teenage exercise rider and stable boy at old Sheepshead Bay, then as a jockey constantly reducing, and then as a trainer at hardscrabble, fly-by-night tracks before reaching the pinnacle of his profession with owners such as William Woodward Sr. and Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps.

As Jimmy Breslin wrote in “Sunny Jim: The life of America’s most beloved horseman”:

“One morning in 1960, at about the time of his 86th birthday, Fitzsimmons was around his horses at Belmont Park and a visitor was busy reading one of those ‘Golden Years’ columns of advice to the aged which was in one of the papers.

“ ‘Did you read this?’ he asked Fitzsimmons. ‘It’s filled with advice for people who get old.’

‘Does it say in there that they should get off their fannies and go do a day’s work?’ Fitzsimmons said. ‘If it don’t, it’s wrong.’ ”

Fitzsimmons never lost his pluck, nor his hopefulness. Still winning races at 87, two years before he retired, he said, “But that’s the nice thing about it. You’re always lookin’ ahead. Don’t have time for anything that happened yesterday. That’s gone. What’s ahead is what’s important. Makes livin’ nice.”

The same was said by Max Hirsch, King Ranch’s famous trainer, who in his day trained for more millionaires than anyone else and claimed owners, not horses, had to be trained.

“Being in this sport keeps you young,” he said at 87, “because there’s always another colt, another filly to train. . . . You always look to tomorrow. There are always more races to run, and you live in hope of winning your share of them.”

His filly Heartland won the Test two days after his 88th birthday, the first time Hirsch had ever run a horse in it. Heartland then ran in the Alabama, where she finished first but was disqualified. Hirsch was crestfallen. It would have been his sixth win in the celebrated race, and he knew his years were numbered.

“As we were walking past the dining room on the way out,” recalled one of his assistants, “one of the stewards, a big, tall man, came over and said how sorry he was to have had to take Heartland down. Mr. Hirsch said something like, ‘I understand. You were just doing what they pay you to do.’ The steward then said how well Mr. Hirsch was taking it. Hirsch snapped. ‘Of course, I’m taking it well, you blind son of a bitch’ and jumped on the man with both hands. Some nearby waiters had to break it up.”

Hirsch was the leading money earner in New York in 1968. On April 2, 1969, Heartland won the feature at Aqueduct a few hours before Hirsch died of a heart attack, a few months short of his 89th birthday.

Hirsch and Fitzsimmons adjusted with the times. Won over by the proclaimed benefits of naturally occurring iodine in South Carolina’s soil and water, Hirsch decided to send his horses there for the winter, noticing how horses segued nicely from there to New York in the spring. He was in Columbia for only three winters before he won his first Derby.

Fitzsimmons liked a liniment originally used by New York’s baseball managers on their players; he ended up buying the formula from its inventor and with another partner formed a company to sell it. Jerkens remembered how Fitzsimmons created a sling to hold broken-down horses in traction. Fortuitously, Fitzsimmons was at Garden State in the autumn of 1956, when Swaps fractured a hind leg, and he lent Swaps’s trainer, Mesh Tenney, the special sling. Swaps survived.

Decades of success, scholarship, and untiring commitment were often rewarded later in life. Scotty Schulhofer had Lemon Drop Kid at 73; Woody Stephens’s historic streak of five consecutive Belmont Stakes began when he was in his late 60s; Charlie Whittingham finally won the Derby with Ferdinand and then with Sunday Silence while in his 70s; and Jimmy Croll campaigned Holy Bull, the best horse of his life, at age 74.

* * *

George Handy would like a few more horses in his barn. What trainer doesn’t? Except Handy is 89. He has won more than 2,400 races and may well be the oldest living trainer in America.

“I don’t feel 90,” he recently said from Calder, where he now trains. “I feel 110!” He laughed. “I feel fortunate. The only time I got hurt was in the war.”

Handy served in the Navy during World War II on the battleship U.S.S. Kidd, which was in the middle of nearly every major action in the Pacific. He and the ship barely survived a kamikaze attack, near Okinawa, that killed 37 of his buddies and wounded 57 more.

Discharged in 1946, he went home to East Providence and returned to Narragansett racetrack, where he had galloped horses as a teenager. He soon took out his trainer’s license at Lincoln Downs. About the only sick day he’s taken since then was caused by a bad case of shingles a year and a half ago.

“I get up at 4:30 every morning and go to the barn seven days a week,” he said. “I holler at the help and try to win some races. But I’d like to be busier. I have seven horses. That’s like a vacation. I’d like a few more. I like the action.”

Handy trains for Barbara McDonnell, whose husband, Skip, died three years ago. They hail from New England but also have a farm in Ocala. With one interregnum, Handy has trained privately for them for nearly 10 years. Before that he had a public stable of 40 or 50 horses.

Handy came up the hard way, at tracks such as Narragansett and Pascoag, which he called “the end of the world.” In 1956, he won his first training title at Suffolk Downs (“We called it Suffering Downs”). He trained for union folks, and Woody Stephens and Sherrill Ward used to send him horses who couldn’t make the cut in New York.

Handy won the 1973 Arkansas Derby with Impecunious, who was also third to Secretariat in Aqueduct’s Bay Shore and third in the Blue Grass. A quarter-crack on the eve of the Derby kept him out, and that was as close as Handy would get. His horse Paristo ran third in the 1981 Preakness.

He moved his tack to New Jersey and south Florida in the mid-1970s and became a regular there for the next 30 years. His best years weren’t long ago; his horses earned $681,162 in 2000. Handy always stood out. He was a flashy dresser, popular with women, sported mutton chops, and drove sports cars. He used to drive an orange Mercedes convertible and wore orange blazers. “Heck, I even wore orange underwear,” he said.

Handy is still spry and still drives fast cars, now a candy-apple Mustang. He had a chance to retire in late 2005 after he lost all of his horses; instead he started over, claiming a horse for $10,000 and winning first time out.

“As long as you can get to the barn, get under horses, and repair problems, I think you’re capable of training,” he said then. “It would be different driving a truck or operating a crane. If you have a sound mind and like the business, you can turn out winners. I still have a lot of confidence in myself.”

He only had 13 starts in 2006, but he resumed training for the McDonnells, and in 2008 his horses raced 125 times and earned almost a quarter-million. This summer, he won two races July 15, and then with a homebred named Winner’s Circle he won a maiden claimer Aug. 31 and then a claimer Sept. 14. His most recent win came Sept. 27 with Explosive Image.

Still, Handy isn’t sold on south Florida in the summer, so he is pondering returning to Monmouth Park next year. Going on 90 but thinking about his next step.

“You have no plans to retire any time soon?” he was asked.

“What’s that?” he responded.

Had he not heard the question? It was repeated, louder this time.

He just laughed. The joke became clear.

“Retire? What else would I do?” And then he laughed some more.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Rhode Island racetrack where George Handy trained early in his career. It is Pascoag Race Track, not Pasco.