The Chief’s most ardent disciple - and her journey to fulfilment

Leah Gyarmati: “It’s one thing if you’re Allen Jerkens and you’re known for doing these crazy things, but it’s another thing when you’re Leah Gyarmati.” Photo: NYRA.com

At night after the horses were fed and comfortable in their stalls, the tack cleaned and hung and the barns mucked out, a little coterie of trainers and horse people gathered in a townhouse on Route 50 in Saratoga Springs to listen to the ‘Chief’ speak of the days of old.

Among those drinking in the wine - and the words - of legendary trainer H. Allen Jerkens was one of his most gifted disciples, Leah Gyarmati, who would cook her specialty of spinach lasagna for the gang. She eventually followed in Jerkens’ footsteps as a Thoroughbred trainer, but not before her complicated, diverse life took her from show jumping, to life abroad, to academics, to divinity school, and finally the racetrack.

Hers has been a life full of taking chances, a life marked by uncertainty and doubt that come with an unpredictable profession like racehorse training, a life following in the footsteps of an icon in the business. But, after years of hard word work and dedication, some measure of calm has entered her world, although Gyamarti, 52, is too wise and experienced to take anything for granted.

“Everything I did on the racetrack, I did to try to impress him,” she said of Jerkens, who died in Florida in March 2015 at age 85 after several days in semi-consciousness.

Short-lived happiness

At the time, Gyarmati was in Florida at the Ocala sales, preparing to fly back to New York but instead, missing her flight, she went to visit her mentor in the hospital.

‘The Chief’: “Everything I did on the racetrack, I did to try to impress him,” says Leah Gyarmati. Photo: Skip Dickstein“That morning the doctor tried one more time to get him to wake up by shaking him,” she recalled, still pausing and swallowing hard when speaking about it after more than a year. “Allen opened his eyes and I got to speak to him, telling him ‘I knew you’d wake up’, and ‘what am I going to do without you’, that kind of thing. He responded by blinking his eyes and I left there happy but knowing it was going to be a slow progress.”

Her happiness was short-lived as Jerkens passed within days of the visit.

“You would have to be blind not to see their special relationship,” said trainer Fernando Abrue, who was part of the group those years in the 1980s. “It was almost like father and daughter between her and the Chief.”

“A lot of people didn’t get him,” recalled his son, Jimmy Jerkens, a prominent New York trainer in his own right, who never tired of hearing his dad’s stories. “She always got the gist of what he was talking about.”

Gyarmati and Jim Jerkens are still very close, a sibling-like bond cemented between them during those early years together.

The Chief’s ‘deadly weapon’

“He insisted on feeding the horses himself every day,” she said of those earlier years around the Jerkens barn, which one long-time owner described as a “pirate ship”, referring to the characters who gravitated there. “As soon as we saw him go for the feed cart, we’d all run and push each other out of the way to follow him, like ducks following their mother,” she said.

Each afternoon after the races and the work was done, they’d sit in a golf cart and enjoy a Coors Light together.

“The Chief called Gyarmati his ‘deadly weapon’. The nickname came into play especially during touch football games behind the Belmont barns,” Jim recalled.

“‘Leave Leah alone’, he’d say. “Then he’d throw her the ball and she’d score a touchdown,” he continued. They devised a play where she would fake a fall, the defenders would go elsewhere, she’d get up and he’d throw it to her for a score.

It worked once.

‘Water Rat’ was one of the Chief’s nicknames for her; a ‘WR’ posted each morning next to the horses she would gallop that day. He’d sing her a song that a friend sang his daughter, with the same name: “Lee, Lee the water rat, she’s not too pretty and she’s kind of fat.”

Escape from a Russian prison camp

Jerkens’ influence on Gyarmati’s life-changing decisions was monumental.

In 1981, still a teenager, at her father’s suggestion, she took a summer job with Jerkens but stayed on as exercise rider, occasional jockey and assistant trainer until 1989, when she went to Hungary for a year to be with family.

(Her uncle, Dezso Gyarmati, among the 1956 Hungarian Revolution leaders and a member of Parliament in 1990, was an Olympic medalist and team coach in water polo. He participated in the infamous ‘Blood in the Water’ 4-0 defeat of the Soviets at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a game fraught with drama and emotion because it was played against the backdrop of the Hungarian student resistance to Communist control.)

Gyarmati’s 92-year-old father, who is still living, fought the Nazis alongside the Russians in World War II and then afterwards fought the Soviets, who captured their former ally. He escaped over a wall from a Russian prison camp and now lives in New York.

Gyarmati spent a year with her relatives in Hungary, where she hoped to prep for applying to medical school but found the Eastern Europeans way ahead of her in science and math training. So that notion went by the boards.

“She was a little wild, a little rebellious when she left. She needed to get away,” said Jim Jerkens.

Seeking the truth

While in Hungary, she was a translator for a group of people building a seminary, a job that gave her the notion of applying to theology school.

When she returned from Hungary, she enrolled at Samford University in Alabama and then in its Beeson Divinity School but was discouraged by the fact that at the graduate level “the pursuit of something original” is of primary importance rather than seeking the truth.

“I got into it to keep arguing until I got to some sort of truth,” Gyarmati said, and this wasn’t the focus. So she headed back to New York with another plan in mind: law school

To get information about the LSATs, the law school entrance exams, she had lunch with two female lawyers but, coincidentally, all they wanted to do was talk about horses.

They had owned horses in the past, running under the Castle Village banner, but wanted to purchase another one “just to have some fun with at the upcoming Saratoga meet”, Gyarmati recalled.

The training career begins

She complied, took out her trainer’s license in 1998 and the trio hit the jackpot with Flippy Diane, a Maryland-bred who earned $202,250 from 23 starts (5-5-4), from 1997-2000. Flippy’s biggest win was the 1999 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap. The Waterford Crystal trophy from that race is on display in the National Museum of Racing’s “Women in Racing” section because it represents the first stakes win by a female jockey (Diane Nelson) and trainer.

The trophy is in good company: it sits alongside Julie Krone’s whip and silks used in Colonial Affair’s 1993 Belmont Stakes win and the Mary Hirsch-trained Thanksgiving’s 1938 Travers Stakes trophy.

After the Castle Village success, it took time, but eventually Gyarmati connected with a few committed owners, several still with her.

“She’s the only person I’ve ever seen stick it out through lean years and I give her credit for that,” Jerkens said. “She is into training for the long hall.”

Her stable has grown to about 45 horses, primarily at Belmont, and her earnings at more than $14 million in 16 years as a trainer.

Among her most successful owner relationships is that with Dan Collins and his partners in Bona Venture Stable, who have about four horses with Gyarmati.

Honest and sincere

Collins said he hired Gyarmati when he decided he wanted more quality in his stable than he was getting at the lesser mid-Atlantic tracks. At the time, he was looking for “a young talented trainer where we could be a significant part of their growth. More importantly we wanted someone who didn’t have a history of violations – medical and otherwise – and was honest and sincere,” he said. The fact that she had been a jockey was also a plus.

He recalled going to the 2006 Saratoga yearling sales with Gyarmati with a maximum budget of $50,000 to purchase one horse.

That horse appeared on the auction block in the form of Prince Dubai (E.Dubai - Princess Caveat by Caveat), bred by David Cassidy. “The price went up to the 40 thousands and, when the gavel came down on our $50,000 bid, I can remember Leah with her long fingernails grabbling my arm and squeezing it. I think I still have the scar to this day. She recommended it and we bought him. That cemented our partnership.”

And Prince Dubai did pretty well, banking $166,783 (52-4-2-10), from 2007-12, primarily in claiming and optional allowance races.

Gyarmati’s most successful is Jeff Treadway with whom she has collaborated since 2009, when he bought Thunder Chief, a 9-year-old gelding, who had modest success on the track, and is now her stable pony.

Grade 1 victories

“She was an easy person to work with,” said Treadway, a Brooklyn-based investor. “She didn’t have a lot of horses but since I was just getting into it, I had the feeling we could build something together.”

Treadway’s instincts have been rewarded with horses such as Sweet Reason (Street Sense - Livermore Leslie by Mt. Livermore), Gyarmati’s most successful horse to date. Sweet Reason won the 2013 Spinaway Stakes for 2-year-old fillies and both the 2014 G1 Test and Acorn Stakes to bank more than $1.4 million before being retired a year ago after finishing fourth in the G1 Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs in May, 2015.

Wonder Gal, a New York-bred (Tiz Wonderful - Passe by Dixie Union), was another successful venture for Treadway Racing Stables, with several placings in graded stakes and firsts in stakes races to earn $746,000. She placed third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies race.

Noble Moon (Malibu Moon - Mambo Bell by King Mambo), a Virginia-bred still in training, has rewarded Treadway and Gyarmati with a win in the January 2014 G2 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct and other solid performances in graded stakes races.

The 3-year-old Adventist (Any Given Saturday - Sharp Minister by Deputy Minister) finished third in three straight 2016 graded races (the Withers, the Gotham and the Wood) and, despite a troubled trip in the August West Virginia Derby, where he finished seventh at Mountaineer Park, is on track for further stakes races.

Success at Saratoga

The latest horse they’re optimistic about is Coasted, a 2-year-0ld Tizway filly, who broke her maiden handily at Saratoga in mid-August.

Coasted (Tizway - Mailbu Pier by Malibu Moon) went on to win the PG Johnson Stakes very impressivey, and Wonder Gal, off seven months, won an allowance at Saratoga, posting a 100-plus Beyer figure.

Gyarmati finished Saratoga tied with a dozen other trainers at 32nd with a record of 3-1-4 from 23 starts and earnings of $228,651. Her career earnings are more than $14 million since she became a full-time trainer.

Treadway said among Gyarmati’s strengths is that she was an exercise rider and jockey, and during the beginning of their relationship was getting on horses regularly. She’s too busy now, but seeing things from the standpoint of a jockey has contributed to her success, he said.

Another plus is that her barn is small so she can be extremely hands on. “Nothing falls between the cracks. You never feel like you’re getting short shrift because she has 150 horses in her stable.”

Important quality

A third, and perhaps most important quality she brings to the table and for sensitive owners, the most important, is that, if a horse doesn’t seem to take to the track, it is retired quickly and placed in a good home. “To keep him training is not beneficial to anyone. We’re very quick to find horses good homes if not suited to the track,” he said.

Treadway said he has observed a lot of similarity between the training styles of Gyarmati and Allen Jerkens (and Jim for that matter). Long, slower works, being patient with horses - “that’s been strongly passed down to everyone who worked with Allen,” he said.

Gyarmati said among her mentor’s strengths was that he took risks and thought out of the box when it came to training.

“A lot of times on the racetrack, you do the same thing all the time, get into a routine such as working a horse 5/8th all the time, she said. “He never understood that. He’d work them the distance they were going to run.”

And, although conventional wisdom says never work a horse the day of a race, Jerkens occasionally broke that rule as well.

She recalled an incident in which Jerkens took a chance with Believe The Queen, a multiple graded stakes winner in the early 1980s (he banked close to a half a million), the morning of a big race at Belmont.

‘Sometimes criticism gets to you’

“‘Do you think we can sneak onto the training track, blow him out an eighth of a mile,’” he asked Gyarmati, who used to gallop him. “‘Yes, sure we can do it, Chief,’” she responded. “So I tacked him up, got on him, jogged him around the yard to warm him up, ran to the track and blew him out an eighth of a mile,” she said. “Then I pulled him off the track, got him back to the barn, gave him a bath and he won that day.”

Gyarmati imitated that pattern before the 2013 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita when she worked Sweet Reason, a “slow mile” at Santa Anita shortly before the race so she could get her head around two turns. She took criticism from analysts for the move.

“I’m not afraid to try things, but it’s one thing if you’re Allen Jerkens and you’re known for doing these crazy things but it’s another thing when you’re Leah Gyarmati,” she said. “I’m younger and not as well established so not as bold. Sometimes criticism gets to you and sometimes I think I’d be a better trainer if I stopped worrying and just did the right thing.”

But, as good as he was, Allen Jerkens didn’t treat wounded squirrels – a passion of Gyarmati’s over the years. People who find injured squirrels (usually having fallen out of the nest too early) bring them to her for rehab and, when they’re healthy, she releases them back where they came from.

Not so with Seamus, a blind rodent who lives in a large, well equipped cage in her racing offices, knows her voice when she approaches him and, like her two German Shepherds, will be a lifelong companion.

Several lives

Sometimes she takes in people.

NYRA Paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale recalled that, when she first came to New York from Maryland, where she worked for her trainer father, she galloped horses for Gyarmati. But the relationship was far deeper than employer and stable hand.

“She’s sort of my adopted mother,” Wolfendale said. “She made me feel welcome in New York - she was that personal friend I needed at the time.” Wolfendale is friends with Gyarmati’s 24-year-old daughter, Rachel, a college student, who lives with her mother in Forest Hills, N.Y.

Divorced, Gyarmati is comfortable with the single life.

“I don’t want to get married again, she said. “I have no desire to go home and answer to anybody else. I just want to be with people when I want to be with them.”

Wolfendale said that, in effect, Gyarmati has lived several lives, starting with academics, then returning to Hungary and finally the racetrack.

“She’s an incredibly smart woman and always levels with people,” she said. “She never talks down to people, no matter who they are and what their background is. She makes them feel important and welcome.”

Hardest part of the job

Wolfendale, who evaluates the appearance of a countless number of horses each day in the NYRA paddocks, pointed out that Gyarmati’s are always “very well turned out”.

The attention to detail is a mark of Gyarmati’s care.

The best thing about being a professional trainer, Gyarmati says in answer to the question, is “being around horses. The lifestyle is such that I am always around animals. It’s my own little world, I’m my own boss and the racetrack is full of interesting people.”

The hardest part of the job? The answer comes as no surprise.

“When horses get hurt, especially if it is catastrophic, it is hard for me to stomach. I think, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I asking them to do this.’ It’s tough.”

She also said the vicissitudes of the profession – the uncertainty where you can go from 50 horses to two overnight – creates insecurity and at times fear.

Trained by perhaps the master of self confidence and risk-taking in H. Allen Jerkens, his disciple, Leah Gyarmati, is slowly gaining security and comfort with her decisions.

But perhaps a little edginess in one’s attitude towards such an unpredictable profession is a strength, keeps one on their toes, guarantees diligence and thoroughness.

“You have to make a lot of decisions with other peoples’ money,” Gyarmati continued. “I feel bad when I know people have a lot invested and things don’t go right. I feel as though I didn’t deliver. Even though I know in my head that’s not so, I can’t help it - it just grabs you.”

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