Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, author of some of American racing's greatest moments in a career that spanned parts of seven decades, died Wednesday in a Florida hospital due to an infection. He was 85.
Born in Islip, N.Y. on April 21, 1929, Jerkens galloped his first racehorse at age 7, at his father Joe's Long Island riding academy to begin a long, successful association with Thoroughbreds. Jerkens helped his father rehabilitate horses off the track, rode a handful of steeplechase races (badly, in his words) and as a teenager cared for a small stable of horses officially trained by his father. At 21, in 1950, Jerkens took out a trainer's license. His first winner, Populace, came July 4 of that year at Aqueduct.
Success flowed like so much Saratoga spring water, rolled through victories in races important and not so and built to a Hall of Fame induction at 46 (then the youngest trainer so honored) in 1975. To that point, he'd won training championships in New York, upset Kelso with Beau Purple in 1962 and 1963, knocked off Buckpasser with Handsome Boy in 1967, shocked Secretariat with Onion and Prove Out in 1973 and built a spot among the top trainers in the nation.
Then the Hall of Famer outdid himself.
Jerkens kept coming up with important horses, kept winning meaningful races, kept being a mentor and a father figure to most anyone who wandered into his barns in New York and Florida. He became known as "The Chief" for the impact, the leadership, the position of honor. He was an all-time great, still plying his trade among peers half (one-third?) his age. Seeing Jerkens still active as a trainer was akin to watching Babe Ruth play major-league baseball as a grandfather.
Forty years after that Hall of Fame nod, Jerkens was still winning races - three at the current Gulfstream Park meet. In 2011, he laughed when asked why he was still working.
"Number one, you don't know anything else. Number two, you play polo and do things that use up all your money so you have to keep working," Jerkens said. "You just get to where you like to compete, you like horses and that's why you keep trying. You have to be lucky. There's a lot of guys who try hard that can't get lucky. You also have to be lucky enough to do it every day. It's an every-day game. You can't play it once in awhile, you have to play it every day."
He played every day.
Jerkens won 3,859 races, 11th on the all-time list, but he was about more than numbers and cranked out success from a relatively small stable for decades.
Despite its roots in the late 1940s, the barn included plenty of modern-day stars:
- Sky Beauty: Champion older mare of 1994, she is his only Hall of Famer and champion thanks to a career with 15 wins in 21 starts. She won five in a row as a 3-year-old in 1993 (the Acorn, Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Rare Perfume) and did it again (Vagrancy, Shuvee, Hempstead, Go For Wand and Ruffian) the next season. Twice she finished worse than third, in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
- Devil His Due: He earned just shy of $4 million, with 11 wins including the Wood Memorial, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Excelsior, Pimlico Special, Brooklyn and Suburban (twice). He finished second in 10 Grade 1 stakes.
- Kelly Kip: A four-legged rocket, he won 15 of 31 starts for longtime Jerkens client Hobeau Farm. In 1998, he captured the Bold Ruler Handicap at Belmont Park by running 6 furlongs in 1:07.61. A year later, he won it again - in 1:07.54 - after fractions of :21.70, :43.64 and :55.36. Jerkens used to tell stories about being in awe of the horse's raw speed.
Success on the big stages came a little less frequently over the past few years, but there were more than enough bright spots.
Shine Again took the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga in 2001 and 2002, for Kelso's owner Bohemia Stable; Society Selection turned the Test/Alabama double at Saratoga in 2004; Swap Fliparoo won the Test in 2006; Miss Shop captured Saratoga's Personal Ensign in 2007; Emma's Encore won Saratoga's Grade 1 Prioress in 2012; Go Unbridled added the Saratoga Dew at the Spa in 2012 and 2013.
Horses like those made Jerkens who he was, but there were more - oh so many.
"The first racehorse I remember was Omaha, I'd cut his picture out of the newspaper and put it in my scrapbook, I remember ripping it slightly while I was pasting it in, so then I had to push it back in there, you could see it," Jerkens said a few years ago. "I can't believe I don't know where that scrapbook is now, God it would be a lot of fun to look at. I'd cut every horse picture I could find and paste it in there. I knew I was going to be horse crazy at a young age. When he won the Derby, it was in the paper, that's the first one I remember. It was so funny to see it later on. If I showed you that little scrapbook, you would laugh."
Jerkens remembered listening to famed race caller Clem McCarthy on the radio, and sneaking into the racetrack to watch at 14 (you were supposed to be 16). All the while, he watched the Thoroughbreds his father got from the racetrack, learned to ride them, cared for them, became a groom, an exercise rider a trainer, a steward of their care.
In 1946, 12 days before Assault won the Belmont Stakes to complete his Triple Crown sweep, the 17-year-old Jerkens got a leg up from his father on the $75 purchase Ohlala in the Hibler Purse, a $3,500 race over hurdles going about 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park.
"Like all kids, when you get over wanting to be a baseball player, you have to come up with something else. By the time I swung the bat, the ball was in the catcher's mitt, I don't know how they hit that thing," Jerkens said. "So yeah, after that, horses were all I could do. I was galloping my own horses and wanting to be a jump jockey. I didn't know anything about it, anything I did over jumps was self-taught. I could never get just how to handle yourself getting into the fences, you have to maneuver through a hell of a lot of jumps to get accurate at it. I'd go into those fences and be thinking, 'Where am I going to take off?' "
He rode with Hall of Famers Dooley Adams and Paddy Smithwick, but their advice never really stuck. Jerkens and Ohlala were well beaten that day, and several other days. Crack Time, another early mount, finished sixth as the 3-2 favorite in a September start at Belmont. All told, the young Jerkens rode in eight races that season, finished fourth twice, was unseated twice, and his mounts earned a collective $470.
But a seed was sown.
No longer harboring thoughts of being a jump jockey, Jerkens went to the track with a few horses for his dad, basically grooming, riding and training them. Patched horses, low budget. Running in Joe Jerkens' name, Otter Brook, First Night and Althird won races in the late 1940s, including victories at Saratoga.
In his late teens, Jerkens gathered a small string of horses with the support of owner Larry Gottlieb, wintering in Florida and returning to New York for the rest of the season.
As Jerkens put it, "For some reason, he thought I knew what I was doing."
In 1948, they claimed Marine Victory, who had finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby two years earlier, for $2,500. Running in Joe Jerkens' name, the horse won in Florida with eventual New York Racing Association color man Louie Olah in the saddle.
Famous or not, the names continued to come. War Command and Admiral Vee (for owners Al Meser and Eddie Seinfeld, respectively) won stakes after getting claimed by Jerkens, both stretching from their sprinting pasts to win going long. Jerkens told stories about horses named Decimal and Ferd, about spending the winter at Jamaica Racetrack and starting at 9:30 in the morning so the track would be thawed out and beating the "sleek seals" with his "wooly bears" on Opening Day 1958.
Gradually growing in the 1950s, the barn became a national power in the next decade thanks in large part to a relationship with owner/breeder Jack Dreyfus and his Hobeau Farm. The Wall Street investor, whose work eventually became The Dreyfus Funds, tried to hire Jerkens as a private trainer in 1962. Over lunch in Manhattan on Memorial Day and breakfast at the track kitchen two days later, Jerkens turned him down twice. Ultimately, Dreyfus sent six horses - a 5-year-old named Beau Purple among them.
He'd won the Derby Trial at 3, and flashed ability, but also missed time with shin issues and a fractured pastern while trained by G. P. "Maje" Odom. With Jerkens, Beau Purple made history - taking down the great Kelso with a front-running tour de force in the 1962 Suburban.
Jerkens was shocked, telling William Leggett of Sports Illustrated, "I must have looked like a crazy man. Once I saw my horse go under the finish line I started walking around in circles. My mouth was open but I couldn't say anything. My eyes filled up and, oh well, I was just plain flabbergasted."
Beau Purple did it again in the Man o' War on the turf that fall and the Widener Handicap at Hialeah the next year.
"Beau Purple was the kind of horse that if you let him get that first half of a mile and nobody was chasing, he could beat anybody. He could beat Kelso. He could beat any horse around," the horse's jockey Bill Boland said last year. "And he did do it, from three-quarters to a mile-and-a-half. Of course if he got stirred up leaving the gate, say the first eighth of a mile, a lot of horses could beat him."
The success ignited big things for Hobeau and Jerkens, annually among the top 10 nationally in their respective categories - while providing a big omen for things to come.
In 1973, Secretariat ruled racing. He'd been Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old the year before, then stormed through the Triple Crown - winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought and become an icon with the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrate to prove it.
Jerkens beat him with Onion in Saratoga's Whitney and with Prove Out in the Woodward at Belmont Park.
"I know it's meant to be a compliment but I don't like the Giant Killer. Everybody's beaten a good horse every once in a while," Jerkens once said of the nickname he acquired. "I can't help what they call me. Got to be 30 years ago, Robert Grayson started calling me Chief. He was my pony rider and he started saying 'Hey Chief, what are we going to do here?' Somebody heard him. I like it better than Giant Killer, I'll tell you that. With the other one, when you lose, everybody wants to know, 'What happened to the Giant Killer?' Nothing happened, you just got beat, that's all."
Jerkens won his only Eclipse Award as champion trainer for the 1973 season, and two years later he received an even bigger honor.
He hopped off his pony and ran down the shedrow to answer the phone one day at Belmont.
"Congratulations, you've been elected to the Hall of Fame," sportswriter Pat Lynch said. "Don't tell anyone but your wife, until it's made official."
"Wow," Jerkens said, bracing himself against the wall of his tack room
"You thought you'd get in, didn't you?" Lynch asked.
"Yeah, I thought I would get in someday but I wasn't even thinking about it today," Jerkens replied.
And that was the man. Humble and successful and confident, all at the same time. He trained for almost 40 years after that phone call - outliving his heroes, piling up more than $103 million in purse earnings by his horses, playing touch football back at the barn after wins and losses and making an impact on the world around him.
Though he kept training, and winning, Jerkens dropped out of the national top 10 over the last 20 years. Losing an owner like Dreyfus, who died in 2009, will do that to you. So will a changing game where top trainers can be responsible for hundreds of horses, where yearlings sell for millions, where racing partnerships become the norm. Dreyfus downsized, sold the farm in Florida.
Still, the Jerkens stable found plenty of success, kept cranking out winners, kept producing people to take up the mission. Now, some of the country's best point to Jerkens as their model. His son Jimmy had a banner year in 2014. Former assistant Mike Hushion did too. Trainer Leah Gyarmati, once a jockey and exercise rider (and star wide receiver) in the Jerkens system, has been to the Breeders' Cup the last two years. Tom Bush won major races with turf star Get Stormy a few years ago. There are dozens of others - assistants, trainers, jockeys, owners, agents, racing-office staffers, leaders in the game - who pass credit on to The Chief.
"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," longtime owner Jerry Shields once 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."
A standout polo player for 24 years, Jerkens gave it up in 1980 but kept riding the stable pony before yielding to a golf cart. In 2000, he survived a stint in the hospital with pancreatitis. In 2008, he had heart surgery. Last year, he did not travel to Saratoga but kept training, and weathered the death of his wife Elisabeth. This winter, he was active at Gulfstream, and won three of 19 starts at the meet. He wound up in the hospital March 1, with a urinary tract infection and it proved to be too much.
Jerkens' first wife Ann died in 1986. He is survived by sons Allen, Steven and Jimmy, daughter Julie and several grandchildren (including Del Mar racing secretary David Jerkens). A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Gulfstream Park.
A Trainer's Career
- 3,859 wins, 11th all-time.
- $103,749,915 in purse earnings, 14th all-time.
- Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer, 1973.
- Hall of Fame induction, 1975.
- Leading trainer in New York: 1957, 1962, 1966, 1969.
- Leading trainer at Saratoga: 1971-73, 1978. Leading trainer award now named in his honor.
- Mr. Fitz Award from National Turf Writers Association (for typifying the spirit of racing) in 2001.
- New York Turf Writers Association outstanding trainer award: 1957, 1962, 173, 1992 and 1994.
Editor's Note: The interviews and research for this article were compiled by Sean Clancy, Tom Law and Joe Clancy during a more than 15-year relationship with Jerkens through The Saratoga Special newspaper, thisishorseracing.com and other publications.
For photos of Jerkens through the years from Tod Marks, see TIHR Photo Gallery.
For some memories of Jerkens from people in racing who knew him, see Thoroughbred Racing Commentary's article by Karen Johnson.