Once Again

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The Chief, Allen Jerkens, stands at the end of the paddock chute. He folds his frayed Seersucker sport coat over his left arm, rests his right fist on his right hip and stares across the infield. Straw hat shading his eyes, the Chief stands motionless, silent.

The field of six fillies break from the gate for Saturday’s Grade I Prioress, a mile away, favorite Agave Kiss sprints to the lead, unruffled this time, she opens up a quick 2 lengths. Tu Endie Wei, Judy The Beauty, Jazzy Idea and Livi Makenzie stack up like bricks. Jerkens’ Emma’s Encore drops like a stone off a bridge, lagging in last.

Turning for home after a half-mile in 44.64 seconds, Agave Kiss still leads as Judy The Beauty rallies and Emma’s Encore and Junior Alvarado swing to the outside. In the far off distance, she’s making up ground. How much? How fast? Hard to tell from a furlong past the wire, a furlong from a TV.

Jerkens rocks forward, takes a half step toward the rail, he slaps his rolled-up program off his leg, once, as co-owner Peter Berglar, leather snap shank in his hands, begins to yell, “Come on Emma. Come on Emma. Come on Emma. Go on. Go on.”

The crowd roars from the left, the sound reverberates, strangely close but far away at the same time, the crescendo coming . . . Agave Kiss wilts as Judy The Beauty takes over, late, within strides of the wire. Emma’s Encore claws after her, flying now, with time running out. The two fillies flash across the wire. Somewhere below the din, Tom Durkin says it’s too close to call.

Not from here.

Berglar leaps off his feet, Jerkens whips around and high fives a friend, shoulder high, slamming a hand to the ground. Before Emma’s Encore gallops past, tears rush from Jerkens’ reddened eyes. He quivers, wiping his hand across his eyes. He turns and watches her for a moment, then, voice shaking, says, “That’s another one for the jockeys over there,” pointing to the painted statues reserved for Grade I wins at the Spa.

Jerkens ducks under the rail, brushes his shirt against the bottom of the dusty metal rail, Berglar tries to stop him, but there’s no stopping him. He walks onto the track, shakes his head in admiration and astonishment, tears falling over his cheeks.

Berglar says, “Chief, you’re the greatest,” and throws his arm around him.

“No, I’m not,” Jerkens says. “But, boy that sure was fun.”

Halfway between the paddock chute and the winner’s circle, Jerkens and Berglar stop to watch the replay, the crowd still wildly in the moment, as Judy The Beauty and  Emma’s Encore flash across the screen.

Jerkens looks to a friend in dismay, “She did win?”

“I think so,” he says.

“She didn’t win?” Jerkens says, quietly, searchingly, hauntingly.

Berglar is convinced or is trying to convince, “She won. No, she won. She won.” The Cool Hand Luke of owners.

Emma’s Encore’s 1 flashes at the top of the toteboard.

“All rrrright,” Jerkens says, and begins walking again.

From a man, hanging over the rail, “Mr. Jerkens, you’re the best.”

From a lady, bouncing and waving, “Allen. Allen. Allen.”

The crowd roars the length of the storied grandstand.

Jerkens smiles, nods his head, appreciative and humbled.

His phone rings from his pocket, he answers it like he’s sitting on the couch, watching the news.

“Hello,” Jerkens says. “Yeah. Yeah. All rrright. Thanks.”

It rings again.

“Hello,” Jerkens says. “Thank you. Like that train, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’ “

Jerkens snaps his phone shut and walks into the pulpit, cameras flashing, his fans, his friends celebrating a tough filly and a living legend.

“Just like the old days,” Jerkens says to Ralph Theroux before bearhugging assistant Fernando Abreu.

Owned by Berglar and Brenda Mercer, Emma’s Encore produced her second consecutive graded stakes. The $2,000 yearling purchase upset the Grade 3 Victory Ride at Belmont Park a month ago.

The dark bay daughter of Congrats began her career with Don Combs and Alice Kohn before joining Jerkens in Florida. She finished third for a maiden $50,000 tag before taking a Florida-bred maiden and an allowance at Gulfstream. Stretched to 9 furlongs in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, she finished last before going north to Belmont where she finished second in an optional claimer in May. A month later, she upset the Victory Ride, rallying from 10 lengths down as Prioress rivals Agave Kiss and Tu Endie Wei faded from exacting fractions. A month after her first stakes score, she put Jerkens back in the winner’s circle at the Spa, a tradition spanning 60 years.

Jerkens and Abreu credit a morning equipment change for the turnaround. Emma’s Encore trains in a bitless hackamore bridle every morning. Jorge Duarte jogs her once around the track the wrong way, as she gets closer to a race, they go one and a half circuits. The only time she turns around the right way is to breeze and the pony takes her to the pole on those occasions.

“She’s a different filly now, she wants to train, her mouth healed up with the hackamore. If you watch her first few starts, she throws her head all over, she had big cuts in her mouth. Now it’s all clicking,” Abreu says from the edge of the winner’s circle. “We talked about it, every time we put a bit in her mouth, she’d come back with a cut in her mouth, it made it worse and worse and worse all the time. Now she wants to do it, she wants to train. All she does is go the wrong way and turn around with the pony when she works.”

Jerkens remembers using the hackamore on Jerome winner Sensitive Prince back in the late 1970s and didn’t hesitate when it came to Emma’s Encore.

“We use it occasionally, when a horse gets a cut in their mouth. We needed to find some way to exercise her,” Jerkens says, on his way for champagne. “She’s come around and won stakes since. When she won at Hialeah . . . I mean Gulfstream, she fell out of it and still got up, I remember Fernando running along saying, ‘The real deal. The real deal.’ He was right.”

After the Prioress, mentor and pupil meet once more in the clubhouse as Jerkens walks to the Trustees Room and Abreu tries to get back to the barn.

“I don’t want champagne, I want to go back to the barn,” Abreu says to Jerkens.

“Come on, it doesn’t happen too often,” Jerkens says, rolling his right fist and brushing it off Abreu’s chin.

Maybe not often, Chief, but it happens.