I was going to write a story about Melissa Cohen, assistant trainer for Rick Violette, winner of the Godolphin Industry Award last year. I was going to meet Cohen at the barn and spend a day with her. I asked her what time to meet her. She said, “4:30…4:35.” I set my alarm for 4:00 several mornings. Setting an alarm and abiding by an alarm are two different things. I did not meet Cohen at the barn at 4:30.
I decided I would find her around 6:30 or 7 Saturday morning, spend an hour with her, walk back and forth to the track while she ambled on my favorite lead pony (OK, I have a lot of favorites). Then the siren went off, the lights flashed and Cohen’s morning, Violette’s morning was shot. So was mine.
Hours later, without the moxie to try Cohen on a tough morning, I was picking trash and kicking stones at the Morning Line Kitchen when Hall of Famer Jacinto Vasquez walked past. Drinking a cup of black coffee and by himself, he just seemed like he wanted to talk. When in doubt/desperation, ask a Hall of Famer about another Hall of Famer.
I said hello and hit record. The subject was Allen “The Chief” Jerkens, and a big day at Saratoga in 1973 when an ordinary horse named Onion met a great horse named Secretariat.
“We catch Secretariat on a bad day. You have to give Allen Jerkens a lot of credit, he saw Secretariat work, that’s how he made the decision to run the horse. I come to the paddock and he said, ‘Just get me a check.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, a check? We’re going to get the whole thing.’ He was so nervous. After the race, he was crying like a baby.
“No, we didn’t talk strategy, he never give me instructions, I never followed instructions in 50,000 races, I never follow instructions.
“Onion was a nice horse, you could lay third, fourth with him. He was a solid 30, 40,000 horse. He loved this racetrack, he loved this racetrack. I went to the outside fence on the backside, I said, ‘I’m going to make sure Secretariat goes inside me not around me.’ Secretariat liked coming outside. Cordero and Belmonte were behind me, they holler, ‘Here comes Big Red.’ I went farther out. Turcotte was all mad, he yelled, ‘Shut up. Shut up.’
“When I got to the turn, I crowded him right back to the inside fence, I keep him in there, I said to Turcotte, ‘Please, Turcotte, don’t leave me, take me for a ride to the eighth pole. Don’t leave me.’ He stayed with me, we passed the three-eighths pole and come to the quarter pole, I see him hit him on the shoulder and he didn’t move, I said, ‘Uh oh, I got Big Red.’ I squeezed him a little bit more and made sure I kept him in there, I only let him down the last sixteenth, I went out and hit my horse left-handed, he won by about a length.
I came back and the crowd booed me like I did something wrong.
“Mr. Jerkens said, ‘How can you win on this horse? How can you win on this horse?’ I said, ‘Because you’re the trainer, that’s why I win on the horse, because you’re a good trainer.’
“He put Cordero on a horse one day that got beat, he started screaming and hollering, ‘I don’t know why this horse didn’t run no good today.’ Cordero said, ‘Papa, Papa, Papa…’ I said, ‘Mr. Jerkens, you just can’t train any more.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re ---damn right,’ and walked away.
“He was an excellent guy to ride for, they don’t make any human beings around the racetrack like Allen Jerkens. A lot of kids got started with him, he would give a mount to anybody. Anybody who was not doing any good would go to him and say, ‘Mr. Jerkens, I’m not doing any good, can you put me on a horse?’ He’d put them on the best freaking horse in the barn, he was always trying to help someone.
“John Ruane was riding a horse for him, he would make three or four moves with the horse and he got beat most of the time, he rode him three or four times. I went to him and said, ‘Mr. Jerkens, why don’t you put me on that horse?’ He said, ‘Damn it, I’m trying to help John Ruane, he’s trying to make a living, trying to pay his bills.’ I said. ‘But, he’s costing you money.’ John Ruane went to ride another horse out of town, he didn’t want to hurt his feelings, he put me on the horse and the horse galloped. John Ruane came back to town and he said, ‘Sorry, you lost that mount to Vasquez.’ He never wanted to take a jock off a horse. Allen Jerkens was the most wonderful trainer, the most wonderful man on the racetrack.”