02/25/2010 12:00AM

Q&A: Allen Jerkens

Barbara D. Livingston

One of the sport s all-time great trainers, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975 and is still going strong 35 years later. DRF caught up with him last week at Gulfstream Park.

Nicknames: Chief, The Giant Killer.

Birthdate: April 21, 1929 in Islip, N.Y.

Family: wife, Elisabeth; sons Allen, Jimmy, and Steven; daughter, Julie.

Got into racing because . . .: My father, Joseph, came to the United States from Austria in 1908. It was only supposed to be a vacation, but he stayed. He worked with hunters and polo ponies. He had old racehorses. We lived near the bay and my father would take them to the bay for an hour, with the saltwater. When he lost his job in 1937, him and a friend opened a riding academy, and that s where I learned to ride. I used to breeze horses in the fields and on the bridle paths. We used to gallop horses on the bridle paths with the mud and the pebbles and they never broke down. Now, tracks are groomed to perfection, and they break down. I started galloping horses at old Aqueduct when I was 16. I rode nine times in jumping races.

How many horses are you training now? I haven t got many. Just 15.

Do you like coming to Florida? The older you get, you want to be out and about. You can t do that with the cold weather up north. Pancho Martin and Mike Hernandez, I don t know how they do it.

You re riding around in a golf cart. Do you still get on your pony? I sure miss getting on the pony. He s lame right now.

Best horse seen: Citation. Secretariat was awfully good. Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, too. Affirmed how do you do more than he did? Spectacular Bid, they laid a trap for him here in the Florida Derby. I was watching the race near the three-eighths pole from the stable area. You could hear Ronnie Franklin s stirrup hit the rail. He still came around and won by six. He probably should have been a Triple Crown winner.

Speaking of Secretariat, you had good luck beating him a couple of times. Were you confident you could do it? It wasn t so much that as it was a small field. I thought I could beat the rest of them. It was different circumstances. It was real sloppy when Prove Out beat him. He ran the last quarter-mile in 24 seconds going a mile and a half. They intended to run Riva Ridge, but he didn t like the mud. And a lot of times when you have a horse like Secretariat, you might think you don t have to be at your best to win, like when we beat him at Saratoga with Onion. Sometimes a real good horse will fool you and you think you can t be beat.

Those wins cemented your nickname of The Giant Killer in the press, but on the backside, everyone calls you Chief. Who gave you that nickname? Robert Grayson, a pony boy.

It seems you prefer Chief to The Giant Killer : Chief is okay. It s just that I ve seen other guys do the same thing. And I hated it when, if I didn t win, guys would say, What happened to The Giant Killer today?

It seems like there are fewer nicknames on the backside these days: When most of the grooms were black, they all had nicknames. There was a guy named Train Robber. I asked him how he got his name. He said he was given money to go to the feed store, but the train was on a siding next to the store, so he took the feed off the freight train and kept the money. There was Paycheck, Hard Times. Cold Cuts, he d always go to the deli to get something to eat. Duck Butter.

Duck Butter ? What does that mean? He said somebody threw a butter dish at him.

Best horse trained: Sky Beauty would have to be. I ve had a lot of nice, honest horses. Sensitive Prince, he was right behind Affirmed and Alydar.

How did it feel to be, at the time, the youngest trainer inducted into the Hall? I remember Pat Lynch [the late NYRA vice president] called to tell me. It was in the evening. I was at the barn. The phone was at the other end of the barn. I didn t want to get it, but it was still ringing by the time I walked over there. I thought maybe someday I d get there if I did well, but not then. Mr. [Jack] Dreyfus presented it to me. I remember C.V. Whitney was there.

Are you proud of what your son Jimmy has accomplished? He s won two Breeders Cups. But you ve got to keep going in this game. It hurts when you lose the horse of a lifetime [Quality Road]. It s got to play on your mind.

Who are the best jockeys you ve seen? There s so many. Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Bobby Ussery. Alot of people say the riders were better years ago, but we ve got some good ones now. The best riders are the ones they send for. The real good ones are always on an airplane.

You ve used a lot of obscure riders over the years. Why? I ve gone in a lot of races on the spur of the moment, and by then, the good riders are gone. But I ve had kids with me who gallop a horse every morning and thought the horse would go better in a race with them.

You re a big movie fan. What are some of your favorites? I only watch the old ones on television. Turner Classic Movies and Fox, they have the best old movies. I love the old ones, like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Tall Men. I really get a kick out of an actor who can ride a horse. Clark Gable, he looked like he could ride anything you ve ever seen in The Tall Men. I really admire that. I like Witness for the Prosecution. Also The Sun Also Rises. Ava Gardner, she was something special. Deborah Kerr was my favorite actress. In Beloved Infidel, she played Sheila Graham, F. Scott Fitzgerald s partner. Bing Crosby had some good horses. I remember one, Don Bingo, he could beat all the good handicap horses in America. [He won the 1943 Suburban.].

Do you miss big handicap races? Seabiscuit, he beat horses giving away weight, and he was supposed to be a cripple. Tom Smith was a great trainer. The guy who had Seabiscuit before him, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, he was as nice a man as you could ever want to meet in your life. He was a great trainer. He won two Triple Crowns, and both horses, Gallant Fox and Omaha, trained in New York in the winter.

How well did you know Sunny Jim ? He helped me get started. He gave me one of my first horses, gave it to me on the come. I paid him half, and owed him half. After the horse ran second first time out for me, he said, You did a good job with the horse, and if I take the rest of your money, you won t have any, so he left me with $2,500.