Allen Jerkens pushed his chair back after two hours of talking and eating, a March dinner coming to a close. The Hall of Fame trainer picked the time and place, which comes with three guarantees - early, Italian, close to the track.
Like at every dinner with Jerkens, 83 at the time, conversation leapt from insights to memories, stories to opinions, horses to jockeys, trainers to tracks. We talked about his greatest day of polo, the 1962 Suburban when Beau Purple outran Kelso and Carry Back, his favorite old pony Whitey, the way Fitzsimmons trained, the way Beaukins ran. We talked about bygone racetracks and bygone practices, old-timers and newcomers.
"...Tropical Park was great, I won the last stake race they ever had there, a horse called Beaukins, 1972 I think it was, he was my favorite horse, even if he wasn't the best horse. He bowed, they gave him a whole year, fired him, brought him back, he ran for two years, he won stakes. God, what a nice horse. He won three times at the Saratoga meet, when it was a short meet...
...Things got to change, there's been rumors for 20 years that they're going to do away with Aqueduct. Look at all the tracks that went by the boards since I've been alive. Jamaica, that was a great racetrack, 1959. The old Aqueduct. To be at Hialeah on a Saturday afternoon in those days...they had the greatest barns in the world. They had the greatest clubhouse in the world...
...That was another thing years ago, a lot of the horses were owned by the big outfits, they didn't work on horses like they do now, they didn't do any icing, tubbing. We used to jog them a lot, too. I had a barn, it had 11 stalls on each side of it, I had the whole barn myself, we would jog them around that barn a lot, we would be running them close. We would run them, walk them two days, jog them three or four days, pony them and then blow them out. I was crazy about blowing them out real sharp. One furlong. If you blow one out one furlong and he goes three-eighths of a mile in :35 before you get him pulled up, you know you have something..."
Jerkens paused and provided one more opinion...which funny enough led to more opinions.
"The steadiest one of all is Mott. Steady as a clock," Jerkens said, referring to Bill Mott, the only trainer younger than Jerkens when inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Look at what he's done, over a long period of time."
Three dinner guests agreed that Mott is good, but there was more to say.
"Chief, you're the greatest."
"Nah," Jerkens said, looking at his napkin. "We've had a lot of fun. It's been a good ride."
"Chief, you've won races for over 60 years. You won a Grade 1 stake at Saratoga last summer."
"I'm not like those other guys."
"What? You've stood the test of time, changed with the times, produced good horses and won big races, with a small stable. What's the most you ever trained at one time?"
"Forty, that's the most?"
Too much flattery, Jerkens tried to change the subject, thanked his host and began to leave. Then he paused and quietly admitted that he still has a goal.
"I have to win another 140 races or so," Jerkens said. "That would be 4,000."
We said goodbye for the night. The next morning, we stopped at Gulfstream Park. There was Jerkens, working at that goal. Still a horse trainer, he advised an exercise rider to slow down his gallops, explained to an assistant what he wanted done with a nervous filly and continued to try to make sense of the Thoroughbred. And, yes, he repeated his quote, his mantra.
"You don't ever know if they win because of you or despite of you," Jerkens said.
Whether they've won because of him or despite of him, they've been winning since 1950. Jerkens posted 100-plus wins in 1965, 1966 and 1994. He won 73 races in 2003. He's won 3,848 races, without ever having more than 40 horses in his care. The past three seasons, the numbers have dwindled, 13 wins in 2011 and again in 2012. Last year, he produced a dozen wins from 123 starts. He showed he can still win at the top, as Emma's Encore won the Grade I Prioress in 2012. Go Unbridled won a stakes and Classic Limit just missed in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss at Saratoga in 2013.
When you look at his numbers, think about his career, the question comes to mind, do you think Jerkens has slipped or his owners have slipped?
To run the risk of sounding like a telethon, come on people, pick up the phone, send the Chief a horse.