I miss seeing the Chief on his pony. But I love seeing him in his cart. Early Friday morning, the Chief, H. Allen Jerkens, rolls to a stop, near the three-quarter pole of the main track.
Assistant Fernando Abreu stands under a tree, watching the Hall of Fame trainer from one eye and a Grade III stakes winner from the other. Prioress contender Emma’s Encore, in a bitless hackamore bridle, walks onto the track and I hop in with the Chief. On a pony, he could get away. In his cart, he’s stuck with you.
I guess he enjoys the company . . .
Elliott Walden walks up and says how much he likes The Special’s daily quips from the Chief.
“It’s great stuff,” Walden said. “I liked the one when you stayed in Jamaica, the same guys who were late at 5 were late at 9. It’s the truth.”
Jerkens watches Jorge Duarte jog Emma’s Encore the wrong way, exercise rider motionless, filly strolling along. Jerkens reached deep in his tack trunk to pull out the hackamore a few months ago. It’s helped. She upset the Victory Ride in her last start and breaks from the rail in today’s Prioress.
“We’ve done all we could do. It’s funny how you try to do the same thing when you were lucky, but sometimes, maybe you shouldn’t,” Jerkens says.
Four days before the Victory Ride, Emma’s Encore worked a bullet half-mile in 47 seconds at Belmont. Monday, she worked a half mile in 47 2/5.
“She worked a real good work before the stake, at Belmont, it was early in the morning when the track was good,” Jerkens says. “She worked good here, not quite as fast, I don’t think the track was that fast, but she worked good. I didn’t want to put the jock on her, because she’s been happy with the other boy who gets on her every day.”
The golf cart rolls lazily, the wheels crushing sand noisily underfoot, the Chief eyes the main track, looking for Emma’s Encore as he’s thinking about Bobby Ussery.
“Through the years, some jocks are great riders but aren’t much in the morning, Ussery wasn’t much in the morning, Vasquez was very good, Samyn, Cordero was, except one day he worked Step Nicely, he said he’d do anything I said, he was supposed to go a mile in 43, he went in 49,” Jerkens says. “Cordero was his own agent, when he was in his prime, he’d come to your barn and go down the line and say, ‘Who’s this one?’ ‘Ruane.’ Who’s this one?’ ‘Roe-ben.’ That’s what we used to call Robyn Smith. He’d say, ‘I no see me.’ “
Jerkens laughs at the thought, the memory.
“Then you’d pick one out for him,” Jerkens says. “And his agent, Tony Matos, would come to you and say, ‘Unbeknownst to me . . . Angel told this guy he would ride his horse.’ They were great.”
Then, suddenly, back to Emma’s Encore and her unorthodox equipment.
“She used to run off a lot and she’s been going in this for a couple of months, we take her to the pole when we work her. This kid rubbed Any Limit, he wanted to be an exercise rider all along. We’d put him in the shed at Belmont, he’d fall off. We said, ‘You’ve got to go to a farm where you can get on a lot of horses.’ He’d come back and we’d ask him how he did, he’d say, ‘Me no do so good.’ Then I started putting him on horses and this his fourth year, he’s doing good.”
Again, today’s observation triggers yesterday’s memory. Over the years, Chief has talked about the exercise rider held in the highest esteem.
“Jimmy Rhodes could do anything, he was with me for 30 years, a horse would run off with Gargantua, he’d hold him, somehow. Sensitive Prince was as hard to hold as any horse. We put the hackamore on him, he’d pull so hard even with the hackamore, his nose swelled up. Sensitive Prince came up here and (Rhodes) couldn’t come up here, so we galloped him on this little track (Clare Court) the first day, piece of cake. The next day I heard this scream, he’s running off as fast as he could go. Imagine a horse as fast as him around that track. I had a good pony and he caught him. We called him Whitey. He was only a bronc, they timed him one day, an eighth, in 13.”
Jerkens leaps from memory to memory, thought to thought. Decades ago, to today’s entries, to yesterday’s jumpers, to tomorrow’s sprinters. He thinks about Whitey, the pony.
“I bought him the year I was in California,” Jerkens says. “Cowboy came along and said, ‘I got this horse, want four and a quarter, won’t take a penny less. If you want to keep him for a week and try him, fine. Be back here next Monday, give me the four and a quarter and keep him, all you’ve lost is a week’s feed.’ I said, ‘all right.’ We had him for 20 years.”
Seems like yesterday.