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Updated on 09/15/2011 12:57PM
A man of few words but many victories
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The audience made a sound that could best be described as a cross between a gasp of wonder and an "ahhh" of recognition. There before them, striding to the podium, was a tall, big-chested man wearing gray slacks and a blue blazer. He was being introduced as Allen Jerkens, but that was impossible, because the last time most of them had heard the name mentioned, Allen Jerkens was flat on his back in a hospital in Florida.
And even if it was the real Allen Jerkens, there was no way he would be saying much, especially in front of the large crowd gathered in the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion for the 2001 Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The real Allen Jerkens gave speeches like the one he delivered when he received an Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer of 1973. That one consisted of the words "thank" and "you."
The hush gave way to applause, which died down just in time to catch Jerkens presenting Richard Mandella as the newest trainer admitted to the Hall of Fame. Jerkens kept it short and sweet - blink and you missed it - then he turned, shook Mandella's hand, and beat a hasty retreat.
Down in the audience, Liz Jerkens had to laugh. "That's it? He's been practicing a speech for days, pacing around at night, worrying about what to say," she said of her 72-year-old husband. "You wouldn't believe how nervous he was."
Nervous or not, his mere presence made the moment worthwhile. Mandella had been telling people for weeks that Jerkens would be standing beside him on Hall of Fame day, acting like a kid who gets the Pope to appear at his confirmation.
This is a fairly typical reaction from a younger generation of trainer, growing up on bits and pieces of the Jerkens legend. But his peers among senior trainers feel the same way. And if Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons or Eddie Neloy or Buster Millerick could come back from the grave, they'd agree. That Jerkens kid could really train.
How did such a reputation evolve? Jerkens has never won a Triple Crown race, never won a Breeders' Cup race, never won a national training championship, and in all his years of training he has had but a single solitary champion, Sky Beauty, the Eclipse older filly in 1994.
Yet the name of Allen Jerkens remains magic, treated with reverence, awe, and consummate respect a half-century after he saddled his first winner on the Fourth of July, 1950.
"He's been one of the truly great horsemen of our time," said Mack Miller, the retired Hall of Famer who turns 80 in October. "And you know, he might not be through. The sonofagun is still young."
Miller was right. Jerkens is far from through. He still trains a full stable, and he is still dangerous at the highest levels of competition. When he saddled the 4-year-old filly Shine Again to win the Ballerina Handicap at Saratoga last Sunday, his victims included runners from the stables of Bill Mott, Wayne Lukas and Shug McGaughey.
Shine Again's progress has followed a classic Jerkens pattern. From her maiden win in late 1999, she moved steadily through her conditions and into stakes company. Her victory last March in the $100,000 Chip Stakes at Gulfstream was a glorious "welcome back" for her trainer, who had been out of the hospital for less than a month. When she upset the Ballerina, Shine Again was at her best on a day when the favorites - in this case Dream Supreme and Spain - failed to fire.
The Ballerina was the highlight of the Saratoga meet for Jerkens. Before that, things had been a little slow. One morning, a couple of weeks before Shine Again's race, Jerkens gave vent to his frustration.
"They never tell me anything!" he said, appealing to anyone who would listen. "When did they move the winner's circle? They must have moved the winner's circle, because I sure as hell can't find it!"
Jerkens was going through a slump - at least by his own definition - and the world had once again ganged up against him. On another occasion, after his grand filly Sky Beauty finished up the track in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Distaff, Jerkens cursed the fates.
"I don't know what I've got to do to win one of these things!" Jerkens said at the time. "What am I doing wrong?"
Not much, especially when viewed through the prism of his record from the very start. Old-timers still marvel at the way Jerkens turned a mid-1950's sprinter named Admiral Vee from a $7,500 cast-off into major winner at two miles, at how he beat Kelso three times with Beau Purple in 1962 and '63, at how he upset Buckpasser with Handsome Boy in the 1967 Brooklyn.
Ancient history, you say? Okay, then it was the same Jerkens who was every bit as pertinent in the 1990's with Sky Beauty, Devil His Due, Kelly Kip, Missy's Mirage, Virginia Rapids, and November Snow. It was the same Jerkens who won the two-mile Display Handicap in 1955 with War Command and then, 43 years later, the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup with Wagon Limit.
The years have not mattered to Jerkens, who led the New York trainers' list in 1957 and led the standings again at the end of the Aqueduct spring meet in 1998. In fact, there are very few horsemen who have sustained such a level of excellence over such a long period of time. In 1957, Jerkens ranked 13th on the national list of trainers in terms of purse money. In every decade since then, he has been among the top 10 in at least one of the years.
In 1966, Jerkens finished third behind Eddie Neloy and Hirsch Jacobs. In 1969, he was third to Elliott Burch and Charlie Whittingham. In 1973, the year of his Eclipse Award, Jerkens ranked third to Whittingham and John Campo. And so on . . . 10th in 1979, eighth in 1983, sixth in 1993, and ninth in 1995, leading to career totals of 3,395 wins and $73.6 million in purses, not including his first year as a trainer in 1950.
"He's the most remarkable, gifted trainer I ever saw," said V.J. "Lefty" Nickerson, who trained alongside Jerkens at the old Aqueduct racetrack in the 1950's and early 1960's.
"He lived and breathed horses," Nickerson said. "Somehow he knows what they're thinking. As for people, he might not always have time for them. He was always sort of lost in thought. Except at the table. He was a great dinner companion."
Most of the time.
"One night we went to Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay," said Ron McAnally, a fellow Hall of Famer. "It was me, Lefty, and Allen, and in the middle of dinner Allen gets up and leaves without saying a word. Left a big plate of food. We figured he went to the men's room, but he'd gone back to the barn because he was worried about some horse. He had to feed it milkweed or something, stuff he was growing right there at the barn."
With so many things that can go wrong around a Thoroughbred, there is no detail too small, and it is usually Jerkens who notices those details.
"He's from the old school, like Charlie Whittingham," noted Alex Hassinger, a Whittingham disciple who has trained two champions. "But not even Charlie was as hands-on as Jerkens. He's a guy who still sets his own feed every night."
Jerkens himself describes his style as "thorough" and cites the example of a stakes raid made long ago across the New York state line to the little track Green Mountain.
"I think it was the only stakes they ever ran in Vermont," he said. "I had Ron Turcotte to ride, Bill Boland to saddle him, the groom, a night watchman, the pony boy and the pony. The purse was $15,000."
Note there was no exercise rider. None needed. Jerkens would often give a horse a riderless "blow out" before a race, accompanied by a pony. On the morning of the race, Jerkens called for an update on the one-furlong exercise.
"Don't know what they gave the horse," Boland reported, "but the pony went in 13." Later that day, the horse won by 15.
Jerkens cites his father, Joseph Jerkens, as a primary influence in the development of his horsemanship. Joseph Jerkens was a former Austrian cavalry officer who immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and set up shop in the racing business, earning a reputation as a man who could get a lot out of horses who were thought to be at the end of the line.
The Jerkens stable has a utilitarian decor and no-frills atmosphere. His pony, named Circus, once belonged to Marjorie Cordero, who loaned him to Jerkens when his old pony came up lame. After Marjorie Cordero was killed last winter by a hit-and-run driver, her husband, Angel, gave Jerkens the horse for keeps.
"You keep him, Chief," Cordero said. "Margie would want you to have him." Jerkens has that kind of impact on racing people, which helps to explain his nickname, "Chief" - someone who will work and care and try harder than anyone else.
For his part, Jerkens figures that his success is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"I was fired in 1961, and I got lucky," Jerkens said. "Not long after that I was introduced to Jack Dreyfus."
Just like that, the perfect owner-trainer relationship had been created.
The Wall Street investor and the cavalryman's son forged a bond that has lasted to this day. Besides Beau Purple, Onion, and Prove Out, they have collaborated with Step Nicely (who beat Forego), Group Plan (who beat Wajima) and Sensitive Prince (who nearly upset Affirmed).
Asked to describe Jerkens, the 88-year-old Dreyfus was glad to oblige.
"For starters, we're both nuts," he said. "I think I'm the only owner who has had to cool out the trainer after losing a race, rather than the other way around."
There wasn't much to grouse about in 1973, when the Dreyfus runners spoiled every proper party. First Onion beat Secretariat in the Whitney. Then Prove Out beat Secretariat in the Woodward. Then Prove Out beat Riva Ridge in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"That was a great day," Jerkens says now about the Whitney. "It was the only time they saddled on the turf course. Onion looked as good as Secretariat that day."
Dreyfus acknowledges the Jerkens heroics of 1973. But he cherishes most their first good horse together, Beau Purple, who came along in their first year as a team.
"I didn't know enough back then to see that Allen was different," Dreyfus said. "Of course, I didn't know I was different, either."
This has been a year of healing for Jerkens. Last winter in Miami, where Allen and Liz had set up shop for another Gulfstream Park meet, he was stricken with a shutdown of his pancreatic functions that nearly sent him into a coma. For days he was in grave condition, and for weeks the prospect of a complete recovery was a longshot.
"They wanted me to try some rehab, to get some strength back, but the first time I tried to walk I couldn't do it," Jerkens said. "I didn't think I'd ever walk again."
Liz, who has been married to Allen since 1987 - the second time around for both - said she was amazed at the parade of friends that made the pilgrimage to the hospital.
"The waiting room always seemed to be full," she said. "Even after visiting hours ended, one of our men wouldn't leave until he was able to see Allen for himself."
Jerkens made it back, slowly at first, and with a few lifestyle changes.
"No more salt," Jerkens said. "No more drinks. Non-alcoholic beer, and it's not bad, I guess."
But for pleasure, in those rare moments he is not thinking about his horses, Jerkens can still enjoy his beloved movies and his collection of "Honeymooners" tapes. It should come as no surprise that when asked to name his favorite film, Jerkens answered without a second thought.
"It's 'Casablanca,' " he said. "I love that movie."
That figures because that's Jerkens: The same as any other man, only more so.