Cup of Coffee: Chief Claim

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Like all good racetrack stories, this one begins in a bar. Stephen Valente stood at the bar at Stella’s, the venerable Italian joint, eight minutes from the back gate at Belmont Park. It was an hour or two after the last race was run at Belmont Park June 29, 2005. The Cerrone family – Gina, Giuseppe, Enza, Vincenzo, Antonio and sisters, nieces, nephews – served sausage rolls, eggplant rollatini and tagliatelle filetto di pomodoro. 

Stephen had a drink while he waited for his father, Roddy, to join him for dinner. Stephen saw Allen and Elisabeth Jerkens, said hello and told him what he and his father had done that afternoon. 

“We claimed your mare today,” Stephen said, thinking it was a fair, $100,000 business transaction between Hobeau Farm and Valente and Barry Ostrager. 

“She was our pet,” Elisabeth said. 

“Two can play that game, too, you know,” Allen said. 

That was the end of the conversation. 

By the time Roddy walked under the green awning outside Stella’s, Stephen had thought long and hard about his conversation with the Hall of Fame trainer and his wife. 

“What were you thinking?” Valente asked his son, doing everything but smacking him behind the ear. “You shouldn’t have said anything.”

But, Roddy had missed the big question.

How could he claim a horse off H. Allen Jerkens? Or better yet, how dare he claim a horse off H. Allen Jerkens?

“Cocky, I guess,” Valente said, thinking about it 11 years later. “Not too smart, just cocky.”

His cockiness didn’t last long. 

Valente turned over Lilah to his main trainer, Bruce Levine.

It did not go well.

Lilah, a winner of 11 races after Jerkens bought her privately from trainer Anthony Grogan Jr. in 2002, looked like a smart claim, even for the stout sum of $100,000. 

She had carried Shannon Uske to two wins as a 10-pound bug, four wins as a 7-pound bug and one win as a journeyman jockey. Five-pound apprentice Rajiv Maragh won three in a row on her. A brute daughter of Defrere, Lilah won the Grade 3 Hurricane Bertie at Gulfstream Park, just three months before Valente dropped the slip at Belmont Park.

All Levine had to do was keep her between the yellow lines, she drew off to win by 3 ½ lengths the day they took her, walloping optional claimers and looking like a contender for dirt sprint stakes at Saratoga and Belmont Park in the fall. 

Levine was excited, then aghast. 

“Not long,” Levine said, when asked when he knew he was in trouble. “Not long,”

Lilah had a tendency to tie up, well, it was more than a tendency, it was a full-blown way of life as the mare struggled with the chronic onset of muscle cramping, stiffness, pain and an inability to move. She had tied up so badly on the track at Hialeah, Jerkens thought she wasn’t going to survive. 

 “Tie up? She tied up if you looked at her wrong. Like every day,” Levine said. “I’m looking at all these works for the Chief… :34, :58, four days later, three-quarters in (1):12. I take her out and work her a half-mile, she’d go in :51 driving. She goes in :58 for the Chief, I can’t get her to go in 1:03. I don’t know how he did it.”

Six weeks after dropping the slip, Levine ran Lilah in an optional claimer at Saratoga. Richard Migliore rode her, she finished last, 19 ¼ lengths behind Smokey Glacken. Her Beyer figure dropped from a 92 to a 45. 

“Divide by two,” Levine said, shaking his head at the thought. 

After the race, Levine and Valente digested and discussed the situation. 

“Look, Roddy, me and this horse just don’t hit it off,” Levine said to Valente. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m not helping you with this mare.”

Valente thought back to when Jerkens came over to his table that night at Stella’s and wished Bruce good luck with the mare. 

“Jeez, do you think I’m out of my mind if I go ask Mr. Jerkens about taking her back?” Valente asked. 

“Of course not,” Levine said. 

That night, Valente walked into the men’s room at Villa Balsamo and saw Jerkens. 

“I’m kind of intimidated by the guy,” Valente said, thinking back to the meeting.

Despite the intimidation, Valente cleared his throat. 

“Mr. Jerkens, well, I’m the guy who claimed Lilah from you…” Valente began. 

“Yeah, I know,” Jerkens said. 

Valente cleared his throat again, thinking to himself, ‘Man, this next question ain’t going to go over too good.’ 

“Jeez, Mr. Jerkens, would you mind training her for me?” Valente stammered.

“Only if it’s all right with Bruce,” Jerkens said. 

“Listen, I already know the answer to that,” Valente said. “You’d be doing him a favor.”

Lilah was back where she belonged by morning.

Jerkens ran her six more times, she won the Garland Of Roses in December and retired after finishing sixth in the First Lady in January. Ten months later, in foal to Speightstown, she brought $270,000 at Keeneland.

“She was a home run,” Valente said. “And I got to have a stakes winner trained by Allen Jerkens.”