I typed the words.
“Where the hell is everybody?”
Then I paused, walked around in circles and stared into the abyss of standing water below Allen Jerkens’ barn at Gulfstream Park. It didn’t feel right.
I took my right thumb and held down the delete key, the words disappeared, falling off the screen like tin cans in a shooting gallery. When I didn’t see Jerkens, assistant Fernando Abreu or the usual morning entourage, I knew something wasn’t right, I thought back to something Jerkens had told me in the summer of 2011 when I asked him why he still trained horses.
“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 in 2011. “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 a while, you have to play it every day.”
Here I was at Gulfstream Park, looking for the most every-day horseman I’ve ever known and he wasn’t here. On a Sunday morning, his barn was quiet.
Finally, I saw Bill Higgins, who’s been around Jerkens’ barn since 1982 when Jerkens wanted to buy a pony off him and Higgins wound up galloping for the Hall of Famer.
I walked along the macadam, in front of his long shedrow, seeing a few familiar exercise riders, hotwalkers and a few burly bay horses who could only belong to Jerkens. At least seeing saddle towels with the family J on them made it seem more normal.
I said good morning to Higgins and we talked for a few minutes. Still no sign of Jerkens or Abreu, who was going to receive the text if I sent it. Wanting to ask Higgins, “Where the hell is everybody?” but somehow knowing I shouldn’t, I leaned on the corner of the barn and made small talk.
I hate small talk.
Finally, Higgins said, “You know the Chief’s in the hospital?”
I looked at the ground and shook my head.
Higgins tried to explain it, downplayed it, at least a little. I didn’t know how to feel, and I’ll admit I thought of the conversations I still wanted to have with Jerkens, the unfinished stories he still had to tell. I thought of the three 8 X 10 photos I had in my backpack, the ones of my son with Jerkens two years ago at Saratoga, the Sharpie was in my pocket. I wanted to hear about Beaukins, Prove Out, Sky Beauty and about how he tuned up Onion one more time, I wanted to drift in his golf cart, I just wanted to talk. I was here to talk to him, not cry for him.
The barn was somber.
Abreu parked his car behind the barn and walked to the tack room.
He feigned a smile when he saw me.
“No good,” Abreu said, quietly, when asked about Jerkens.
Abreu came out of the tack room and talked to a blacksmith, to a hotwalker, to Higgins and then walked away.
“Such a big, strong man…to see him like this,” Abreu said.
Abreu began his odyssey with Jerkens’ former assistant Mike Hushion, 20-some years ago, faking his age on his license because he wasn’t old enough to be on the track. Hating school, he loved the track. Knew nothing about horses.
Abreu, simply wanting to talk about anything else and being asked, explained his start. He and another hotwalker, Wooden-legged Bob, or Mike, I can’t remember.
“I didn’t even know how to walk one,” Abreu said. “This horse took off with me, I didn’t know what to do, I tried to put my arms around him to stop him, he ended up in a hay net.”
Hushion’s two grooms went back to Mexico and never came back.
Abreu was promoted.
“Junior, you want to learn about horses, here you go,” Hushion said.
“It used to take me an hour and a half to muck one stall,” Abreu said. “I was grooming two days after my first day. I couldn’t walk one, much less groom one.”
Hushion stayed north for the winter and Abreu wanted to go south. Hushion hooked him up with Jerkens. He’s been there ever since.
Then, we talked about Hushion, in the hospital too. We shook our heads, thinking about good people having hard times.
“Been here 19 years,” Abreu said, on the saddest morning in those 19 years.
Eddie, who galloped for Jerkens, stopped by, he knew the score.
Hotwalker Frank, who used to be exercise rider Frank, swept water down the road and Hotwalker Rick finished his turns for the morning. Eight horses walked, two jogged.
Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike watched from a corner stall. Two outriders rode through a foot of standing water, the track opened, the track closed. We leaned on corners and talked about Jerkens.
It took a while but we told a few stories, just to make us feel better.
“This guy walks up to me one day, I didn’t know him. Open shirt, gold chains,” Higgins said. “He said to me, ‘Yeah one day I’m watching you and Jerkens stand by the rail at Saratoga before the start of a stake. I had my binoculars on you guys and I see him reach in his pocket and hand you money. I called my guys in New York, ‘Jerkens is betting. Put the money in. Put the money in.’ Then I see you walk back from the bar with two beers, I called them back, frantic, ‘Don’t bet the money. Don’t bet the money.’ “
We laughed. At least for a few moments we laughed.