“I’m hoping. I’m hoping.”
That’s how Allen Jerkens described the chances of Any Limit in the Honorable Miss Handicap. The Chief braced on a post near the end of the paddock stalls and thought long and hard about the Grade II stakes.
And then he split.
As the five fillies and mares walked out of the paddock for the 6-furlong stakes, Jerkens slipped off his sport coat and walked out of the back gate of the paddock. He waited for his Chevrolet Blazer to get unhinged from the treed parking lot and then drove to the backside to watch Any Limit in solitude.
Jerkens’ assistant Fernando Abreu waited for the Honorable Miss in his own solitude. Standing at the clubhouse big screen, he figured Jerkens was at his customary spot at the end of the paddock chute. Looking at the odds board, Abreu couldn’t believe the ascending price on the recent First Flight Handicap winner.
“Six to one in here?” Abreu said. “They’re betting an allowance filly more than her, I can’t understand it.”
Moments later, everybody else understood. Any Limit turned for home with a widening lead and Abreu escorted her home.
“Get into her. Mama. Get into her. Mama. Get into her. Mama.”
The Chief, Allen Jerkens, had upset another stakes at Saratoga. Owned and bred by Joseph Shields Jr., Any Limit crushed four rivals to win by 5 3/4 lengths over that allowance filly Zada Belle and Churchill Downs invader Graeme Six. A bay daughter of Limit Out, Any Limit finished in 1:09.98.
Abreu sprinted to the winner’s circle, then walked out on the track to look for his boss. Then his phone rang.
“Where the hell are you?” Abreu asked.
“I’m at the barn,” Jerkens said.
“What are you doing at the barn? The winner’s circle’s here.”
“That was great, Papa,” Jerkens said. “That was great.”
Abreu snapped his phone shut.
“That’s his favorite line, ‘I’m at the barn,’ ” Abreu said. “That’s his favorite line.”
Shields, his business partner Lev Miller and their families arrived a few steps behind Abreu. They looked up and down the racetrack and didn’t see Jerkens. They weren’t surprised. At 79, Jerkens is slowing down. He also likes to be alone when his horses run, he’s never been a clubhouse kind of trainer.
“I’m really sorry he wasn’t in that picture. We have a lot of them with him,” Shields said. “He’s a good friend. He’s got more knowledge, more skill and more compassion than any man I’ve ever known, not only in this field but in general. He’s untouchable. He’s very shy. He’s entitled to it. And extremely competitive. He’s got really good people and they’re all crazy about him.”
Abreu, Bill Higgins, Jerkens’ wife Elisabeth and it seemed like most of the backside celebrated the Honorable Miss victory. They know.
“He’s the greatest,” Abreu said. “What he’s done with this mare is incredible.”
Miss Macy Sue attracted the most attention in the Honorable Miss. Sent off as the favorite for the second straight time, she was trying to make amends for a chaotic trip last year where she finished fourth. Any Limit handed her more chaos. Cornelio Velasquez nudged Any Limit to the lead soon after the break. She enjoyed that comfortable spot through the first quarter in 22.16 seconds and a half in 45. She squelched the only threat when Eusebio Razo tried to maneuver Miss Macy Sue to her inside. Once the favorite backed out, Any Limit had everything her own way. Velasquez hit her four times in the stretch, but they weren’t needed as she eased across the line like she was merely warming up.
“She’s a nice filly. Last time she ran good, but this time, this time she ran big. She’s more better, more better, more better,” Velasquez said. “She went to the lead easy. She’s a tough filly now. She broke on the lead and then went easy, I had a lot of horse at the quarter pole. He told me do whatever, let her go, sit behind horse, whatever.”
Any Limit made her 21st start in the Honorable Miss. With seven wins and over $400,000 in earnings, she had enjoyed a productive career. She won the restricted My Flag in 2006 and picked up the First Lady and Hurricane Bertie Handicaps at Gulfstream Park in 2007.
Shields nearly retired her after she suffered a severe laceration right below her front fetlock, missing exactly 11 months of racing, before returning on the turf in May. She finished third in the Upper Noosh, then finished fourth in the Vagrancy before taking the First Flight July 4.
“Allen didn’t think she could run at the same level. She got hurt, a weird thing, we patched her up and she did the same thing again, superficial, just below the fetlock. Everybody thinks it was a loose shoe,” Shields said. “She’ll be some broodmare. Her dam is out of a very good Phipps family and her sire set a stakes record in New York.”
Jerkens trained Limit Out, winner of the Jerome and the Bay Shore in 1998.
“He held a stakes record at Belmont, this is no fluke this horse,” Shields said. “She’s got a lot more to her pedigree than meets the eye. Everybody asks who’s Limit Out. Well, Limit Out is out of a du Pont mare named Lucky Delight who was by Miswaki. He was a beautiful horse, by Northern Flagship. Northern Flagship wasn’t much of a racehorse and he wasn’t much of a sire, but if you believe in skipping, which we do, it skipped.”
By the end of the day, Jerkens was securely back at the barn while Shields walked out of the clubhouse. He met Jerkens on the Meadowbrook polo field in 1962 and got into racing in 1982. It took him about a decade to feel like he had a horse good enough for Jerkens. He sent his first horse to him in 1990.
“I said to Lev, ‘You call up and ask him, see if he’ll take a couple.’ I had garbage then,” Shields said. “We started very modest, and we’ve done all right. We don’t spend a lot of money, we breed everything, we cull a lot. He’s that kind of man. He looks at the horse first and then the pedigree maybe. He’s that kind of horseman. How many can you name like that? He’s an icon, what can I tell you.”
Shields thinks of Jerkens as a friend first. His horse trainer second.
“We’ve been with Allen for so long, he works so hard with our horses. He takes it so personally, I like to see him win, with anybody’s horses,” Shields said. “He’s such a good man, and such a good trainer, and a good conditioner, and a good person for this sport. You want him to have luck, I don’t care whose horse he has. He gets them to do the best they can. That’s all you can do. He’s got a great character, a wonderful storyteller, strong opinions and a wonderful sense of humor. He’s better with horses than he is people, he understands them better. A lot of stories have been written about him. A lot of stories that haven’t been.”