Goodbye, Chief

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Hard week. 

My phone vibrated at 5:51 Wednesday evening. I was in the kitchen, stacking dill chips on water crackers for Miles. I looked down and saw “Rog,” on my screen. Roger Horgan, my old friend who rode races with me back in the 90’s. He never calls, but I didn’t pick up on anything when I saw his name. I slid a plate to Miles and walked into the living room, answered with ease, “Hey, Rog, what’s happening?” Then I heard his voice, it quavered, “We lost a legend today…” I slumped onto the living room couch. “I just knew how close you were to him. He liked you…”

There was nothing else to say. I stifled my tears, just to get off the phone and cry on my own.

H. Allen Jerkens, the Chief, was gone. The checklist of questions still to be asked sat in my backpack upstairs, the photos of Miles and him stuffed between a pile of bills on a cardboard box next to my desk, pages and pages of his life in limbo on my laptop.

I tried to hide my tears from Miles, home from school on spring break, then I called my brother.

“Now what?” he asked.

“I don’t know, buddy.”

“I guess that’s why you’re calling,” he said.

Again, we stood at the intersection of being a friend and a writer, trying to process the loss and figure how what to do about it. They say being a writer is like having homework every day of your life. There is no homework assignment like the day a friend, a hero, a legend dies.

Joe wrote a feature late into the night, pulling quotes from the Chief, gathered over our years at Saratoga. In a short amount of time, he tried to wrap up a long life.

The first quotes came in 2001, standing on the horse path as Chief sprayed down the dust, thumb over the end of the hose, water spraying onto my pant leg, into my shoe. I didn’t know if he knew who I was, but learned that he did. I wanted to talk about how he upset Secretariat, he wanted to know how I placed a horse to a jump.

Then more quotes, after Society Selection won the Test and Alabama, through Shine Again’s reign and the best, when he stopped riding his pony and started driving the golf cart. An end of an era but an opportunity of a lifetime, just drifting from his barn to the track, to the Morning Line Kitchen, back to his barn for the next set, to the track, to the kitchen. Eventually, he’d stop and ask, “Where are you going?” I’d smirk and say, “My car’s right here.” I’d walk miles back to my car.

So many mornings, drifting but never wasted, I’d come back to the office and Joe would ask what I had for the stakes preview. I’d look at him and say, “Nothing, but man Jerkens told me some stories.” Eventually, thanks to NYTHA, we ran a quote a day in The Special, for maybe the last three seasons. It’s the most popular thing we ever did.

Thursday morning, Steve Byk asked me to go on his radio show. I told the story about Chief winning the Alabama with Society Selection.

After a glass of champagne in the Trustees Room, Jerkens walked out of the gate near Nelson Avenue and stopped in front of a girl selling roses.

“You gotta buy a rose now,” Jerkens said, reaching into his pocket for his money roll.

“How many do you get for $10?” Jerkens asked.

“Two,” the girl answered.

Jerkens handed her a ten-dollar bill.

“How do you like that?” Jerkens said, carrying two roses. “They cost $3.75 each and she sells me two for $10. You can’t beat the racetrack.”

Mike Penna called and asked if I could come on the Equine Forum, I told the story about the day Jerkens won the Prioress with Emma’s Encore. Working for HRRN, I stood in the winner’s circle with minutes to post, then thought about Jerkens, knowing he’d be watching in the paddock chute. I turned off my radio head set, stuffed the microphone in my belt like a revolver, walked out of radio range and sidled next to Jerkens. I didn’t think she’d win, I just knew there was only one place I wanted to be if she did.

I’ve learned as a writer to watch the people, not the race – you can watch the replay later. When Emma’s Encore started passing horses, I broke my rule, watching her, then watching Jerkens, then watching her, then watching Jerkens. I even started yelling for her – which doesn’t help your story. She got there in the last jump. Chief burst into tears before she passed us, a sixteenth of a mile past the wire, high-fived me, crawled under the rail and walked up the racetrack with fans bellowing his name. It was the greatest moment we shared.