The unforgettable legacy of The Chief

H. Allen Jerkens died on March 18, 2015, after a career in which he trained the winners of 3,859 races, including more than 200 stakes races

Rarely do people leave such an indelible mark on the world as Allen ‘The Chief’ Jerkens. The American Hall of Fame trainer was renowned as much for his humanity as for his extraordinary horsemanship, as TRC contributor Daniel Ross discovered when he spent a few hours with him in 2011. Here, one day after the second anniversary of his death at the age of 85, we present a rare insight on the great man in a profile Ross wrote after that unforgettable experience.

Revered by everyone

The only two times I met The Chief were in late 2011, when I was at college in New York. For a class, I had to choose a subject for a profile. A friend of mine, an exercise rider at Belmont Park, suggested that I should write about The Chief and said that she would introduce us.

I knew about The Chief by repute, both his achievements and a certain volatility. My friend said that all would be okay, “as long as you don’t annoy him.” But I spent one morning and one afternoon with The Chief, and those few short hours have stuck with me to this day for the simple reason that his was some of the best company I’ve enjoyed.

A gifted raconteur with an encyclopedic memory. Someone revered, it seemed, by everyone we encountered around the track. The profile I wrote follows below. I hope it does justice to his memory.

 

It’s 6.30 on a cool and overcast fall morning. Allen Jerkens, who two days ago won the John Hettinger Stakes with a 4-year old filly called Go Unbridled, leans against the rail surrounding Belmont Park.

At 82, Jerkens cuts a robust figure, a shade over six feet tall and thick around the middle. He suggests someone who in his prime could probably have turned their hand to most sports successfully. Like this in-between fall morning, the halcyon summer days seem distant, but not too far distant.

Today, Jerkens wears a brown trilby, brown woolen pants, a white shirt and a green blazer. A web of purple and red broken veins criss-cross both cheeks. His smallish eyes, sunken in a large slab of a face, always seem to be watching, deceptively alert. At this moment, they follow one of his horses that canters past.

A wiry man with large glasses approaches on a bicycle.

“Hello Chief. If someone was going to beat me I’m glad it was you the other day,” he says. The man is Pat Kelly, the trainer of Spa City Princess who finished second to Go Unbridled in the John Hettinger. He calls Jerkens The Chief. Everyone calls Jerkens The Chief. Even when he calls up to enter one of his horses in a race, they put the name of the horse, then the jockey, then The Chief, where the trainer’s name should go.

“Thank you. They ran well,” says Jerkens. His eyes are on his horse the entire time. The exercise rider has slowed it down from a canter and turned it around to come home.

“Hell, I just took a shot. I really wanted to run seven and a half furlongs Thursday. The race didn’t go. I was surprised when they didn’t run the grass race on Saturday,” says Kelly (the John Hettinger was switched from the grass to the dirt the morning of the race. After a deluge, the grass was deemed too dangerous).

A man who hoisted the bar aloft to Olympian heights for future generations to clear ...

Jerkens doesn’t initially respond. His eyes remain on his horse. It’s unclear whether he heard what Kelly said. “I was surprised when they didn’t run the grass race Sunday,” Jerkens says, eventually. “I couldn’t figure it out ‘cos it didn’t rain the day before.”

As his horse exits the track, Jerkens shuffles over to the green and beige golf buggy that passes as his main mode of transport around the stable area. He clambers in and sets off towards barn 19, where his horses are stabled.

Kelly turns, grabs his bicycle, and pedals alongside. His horse hasn’t even completed its warm-up jog, let alone any of its faster work. He should stay to observe, but seems eager to continue the conversation with Jerkens.

“It was a late decision. We had a lot of rain before then,” continues Kelly, weaving at the side to match the slow pace of the golf buggy. “They never should have run Friday. They tore it to pieces when they ran. They didn’t have the sprinklers on, though.”

“Yes they did. Yes they did,” corrects Jerkens, and for the next few minutes, the gulf buggy and the bicycle slowly wind their way along the tree-lined path, white wooden horse barns with large windows either side. Jerkens and Kelly have the dynamic of apprentice and master, with the older, cannier trainer unfolding a lifetime of learning to the green-behind-the-ears upstart.

Only, Pat Kelly is no upstart to this game. He hails from a racing family dynasty, and has been training successfully in his own right since 1977, with a slew of big wins to his name.

They come to a fork in the road and Kelly weaves left. Jerkens keeps rolling slowly forward, pumping air into the gas pedal with his right foot. Pump pump pump. Pump pump pump. On the adjacent dirt path that connects the track to the barns, a couple of horses, heads bowed and tired after exercise, turn to watch the buggy roll past.

During his career, Jerkens has achieved so many notable feats. His horses have dented the gilded reputations of some all time greats - Secretariat, Kelso and Buckpasser included. He has won numerous training titles and annexed goodness knows what number of prestigious races, many of them multiple times.

He is also an innovator, able to reshape the mold. But he stayed true to his core principles — of exacting the very best from each and every horse in his care — even as racing became a big-numbers and high-turnover industry. In Jerkens, horse racing has a man who has hoisted the bar aloft to Olympian heights for future generations to clear.

The years that would shape the young Jerkens

Harry Allen Jerkens was born April 21, 1929. He grew up in Islip, Long Island, with three sisters and a brother. His mother was a schoolteacher, but it was his father, Joseph, an ex-Austrian cavalry captain, who would exert the greatest influence on the young Jerkens.

Joseph had a riding academy on the south shore of Long Island. When he was old enough, young Jerkens would help his father in the mornings before school. Rising early to grab coffee en route, they arrived at the barn by 5.30. He helped his father feed and water the horses, and was always home for school by eight. “Whenever my father wouldn’t take me with him, I would throw a tantrum,” he says.

These were the years that would shape the young Jerkens as a horseman and as a competitor. As a former military captain, Joseph was meticulous in caring for his horses – even taking injured ones to swim in the nearby Great South Bay, the ice-cold salt water as good a tonic as any veterinary treatment. This attention to detail rubbed off on the young Jerkens.

More than just a diligent work ethic, Joseph was to hone the competitive edge already embedded in his son. In a children’s class at a show one day, Jerkens misjudged a jump completely, rescued himself and carried on to finish third, pleased with the result. “Course, my father came along and said to me, ‘if you didn’t have such a bad performance you would have won.’”

By the time he was in his late teens, Jerkens had been going steady with Ann, his childhood sweetheart, for a number of years. They were together when his mother died when he was 15. They married when he was 20 and Ann 19. One year after that, his father died.

For a teenage boy with a hot temper and a precocious self-belief, growing up in the shadow of an indomitable ex-cavalry captain proved challenging. But the lessons his father instilled in those formative years were to become the foundations of his training career. “It still gets me when I think that he never saw how successful I became.”

Jerkens’ first winner was on July 4, 1950, at Aqueduct racetrack. And, while that first year proved slim pickings, he managed to foster a small but loyal band of owners thereafter, including Eddie Seinfeld. Seinfeld bought cheap — claimers mostly — but expected big rewards.

Perhaps as important as this regular supply of horses was the patience Seinfeld accorded Jerkens. Young, ambitious, mercurial as a Thoroughbred, Jerkens foundered slightly under the demands of running a stable: a staff whose livelihoods depended upon him, feed merchants and farriers to pay, a house and wife to support.

Seinfeld appreciated this situation, and more importantly, was sympathetic to the young trainer.

“He knew how to handle me at that stage of the game. We had such a good relationship. When things didn’t go right, I would rip and tear. He would say, ‘why do you blow so hot and cold?’ We would argue for a while, but he would never play it back when I was wrong. He was perfect for a guy starting out. I gave him a good honest effort, too.”

Rather than ride the horses beneath the shed row, limited to just walking or jogging, as every other trainer was, Jerkens decided one year to change his hours of operation ...

From 1950 until 1959, the year it closed for redevelopment, the old Jamaica Racetrack was Jerkens’ headquarters. They were good years. He and Ann moved to a house in nearby Huntington, and, until the birth of their first child, Ann worked at an insurance company. During this time, Jerkens’ unconventional approach to training bore early fruits.

During the grim winter months when racing in New York slows to a thin trickle after the annual exodus south to Florida, Jerkens remained in New York.

When the freezing skies and the thick snowdrifts descended upon the city, the tracks in the early mornings were often frozen, unfit for exercise. Rather than ride the horses beneath the cover of the shed row, limited to just walking or jogging, as every other trainer was, Jerkens decided one year to change his hours of operation.

He told his staff to arrive at ten, and, by midday, when the ground had thawed, he took his horses to the little three-furlong training track near to the much larger racecourse.

When racing resumed the following April, against fit horses that had spent the winter racing in the unspoiled Florida sunshine, Jerkens won the big race of opening day at Jamaica.

“It was unheard of to start at ten in the morning. Racetrackers are pretty stubborn about changing anything,” he says. “No one could believe it when I won the big race, opening day. They were dead shocked.”

When Jamaica closed, Jerkens took his operation to Aqueduct. In a rare misstep, he accepted a private training position for a prominent owner, Eddie Burke. It lasted a year.

“He didn’t do what he said he would do. He said he would claim a load of horses, but he didn’t. He said he would pay me a salary, but he didn’t.” But, rather than struggle to fill his vacant stalls, Jerkens quickly assembled a formidable team of horses. Within months he was the leading trainer in New York.

Enter Ramon Dominguez

“Hey, Ramon!” At barn 19, a horse just exercised is stripped of its tack and stands for a bath outside. Ramon Dominguez, the jockey who rode Go Unbridled on Sunday, shies from the flying suds and walks over to Jerkens, who parks his golf buggy.

“Hello Chief. Yeah, that was great.” Dominguez earned more than any jockey in the country last year. His roots are in Venezuela, and English isn’t his first language. When he talks, he looks past you, as though the words are forming just behind your head.

“Usually she doesn’t like to go in between, but she went in between them that day,” says Jerkens, animated of a sudden.

“To go around I would have had to go around the whole field. It was slow going there,” says Dominguez, looking over to the skyline behind Jerkens’ head.

“That’s why it’s always an advantage when you’ve got a horse running to have a jockey who’s been riding all day,” replies Jerkens.

“Chief, I need the name of the groom and the exercise rider,” says Dominguez, quickly changing tact. “Normally I split it two or three ways.”

“Fernando Herero, he’s my assistant. He’s got the names. The Bug Boy. We call the exercise rider the Bug Boy.”

Dominguez walks over to Herero, Jerkens’ assistant. Herero tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee not two weeks before in a basketball game. Not playing – watching. He bent down to catch a stray ball and his knee buckled beneath him. Now, half of his right leg is in traction, and he hobbles about on crutches.

Still, Jerkens would struggle to run the barn without him. He’s been there for over ten years. When Jerkens had heart surgery in 2008, Herero would visit him every day in hospital for instructions. In Jerkens’ absence, Herero runs the show.

With the names in his pocket, Dominguez walks back to the buggy.        

“Thanks again Chief,” says Dominguez. He marches off, ramrod straight, arms swinging like a soldier’s, to complete his rounds of the stable area.

The Chief and his jockeys

Jerkens’ relationship with jockeys is mixed. Of the current crop, Dominguez ranks right up there, as does Joel Rosario, one of the leading west coast jockeys. Corey Nakatani, he says, would be the leading rider in America, “if he stood long enough in one spot and shut his mouth.”

Julie Krone, arguably the most successful female jockey in America, reserves a special place all her own.

“She was great. Her enthusiasm and her horsemanship were - they helped her a lot. She was game. She had the courage of her convictions. I had as much confidence in her as anybody, and she would give her all.”

Nevertheless, when things don’t go as planned in a race, to be in the paddock in the aftermath is to witness a New Years Eve pyrotechnics display. Some jockeys whither before the onslaught. Others, like Cordero, switch off and nod their head and wait for Jerkens to simmer down. For all the plaudits afforded her, Krone certainly wasn’t immune from the wrath.

“Just look at those other trainers. They don’t say nothing to your face, then they don’t put you back on the horse. Not like I will…”

“I was fourth on a horse that probably should have finished second. I kinda screwed up,” says Krone, over the telephone.

“But he was so mad at me when I got back, and he was throwing has hands around so bad, I thought he was going to hit me. I ducked. I had that reflex where your hands go up to protect your head. I really thought he was going to hit me. Don’t you think that man isn’t capable of some incredible emotion.”

“But then I rode a horse for him four days later and that horse was 30-1, and I finished second,” Krone continues. “I got back and he was crumbling his hat, wringing it between his hands, because he can’t tolerate the joy of figuring the horse out and making it run well.”           

“I could explode once in a while, like I did with jockeys,” Jerkens admits. “They would say to me, ‘oh you did this, and you said that.’ I would say, ‘yeah, and you say that you’re better off with them other trainers. But just look at those other trainers. They don’t say nothing to your face, then they don’t put you back on the horse. Not like I will.’”

Praise for other trainers

Leaving the barn to make his way to the Belmont Park training track is a flashy chestnut colt called Rightfully So.

Rightfully So has a white blaze and eyes that swivel around their sockets in a way that spells trouble. His sire is A. P. Indy. A. P. Indy won the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the triple-crown, in 1992, and was trained by Neil Drysdale.

“There ain’t nobody better than Drysdale,” Jerkens says, seemingly out of nowhere (if you didn’t know the breeding of Rightfully So).

Jerkens is generous in his praise of other trainers. In his youth he watched the likes of ‘Sunny Jim’ Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsh, two Hall of Famers, two bastions of American horse racing. He studied what they did with their horses, sifted through the particulars to deduce what it was that made them so successful, that notch above the rest.

His mind shifts slightly to the recent Keeneland sales, where a number of Drysdale’s owners paid $1.4 million for a son of A. P. Indy. “I trained the mother of that yearling,” he says, before reeling off a string of statistics.

Jerkens remembers how much A. P. Indy cost as a yearling: $2.9 million in 1990. He recalls Drysdale’s Kentucky Derby winner of 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus, fetching $4 million in 1998. The numbers he conjures are bang on the mark. His mind is an Intel processor.

Just as potent is his eye for detail. While his brother can departmentalize every component of a car engine, Jerkens understands every component of a stable to determine what is working and what isn’t. It was through this ability that he saw the caliber of horse he trained rapidly improve as the 1960s came rolling around.

Slaying the giants

Wary after his previous stint as a private trainer, Jerkens was reluctant to accept an offer by Jack Dreyfus — a Wall Street Financier — to train predominantly for his Hobeau Farm operation. He agreed initially to take just six horses, and relented soon after. The partnership was immediately rewarded with a string of high-profile successes – and not a few shocks.

Beau Purple lowered Kelso’s colors three times, a remarkable achievement considering Kelso, a Joe Frazier of toughness and durability, is placed behind only Man o’ War,Secretariat and Citation in many lists of America’s all time great racehorses.

Beau Purple was a burly horse, difficult to get fit, and fragile. Injury had curtailed his career in previous seasons in the care of another handler, when he had raced only intermittently. With Jerkens, he flourished.

“I used to work Beau Purple hard. Of course, when I first had him I didn’t know him, and we started out going slow,” he says. Carefully, Jerkens turned the screws.

“One day, I gave him a real sharpener just two days before a race, but he went way too fast, and I thought I had cooked him. He licked the pan clean that night. Very unusual horse. He had an unusually high blood count.”

Like Eddie Seinfeld, Dreyfus enjoyed buying and claiming horses. But he also bred his own. His operation in Florida churned out top-class racehorses like a Ford assembly line. One such horse was Handsome Boy, who trounced Buckpasser in the 1967 Brooklyn Handicap at Belmont Park.

The grandstand that day heaved beneath a crowd eagerly anticipating another win for Buckpasser, already a household favorite thanks to a 2-year-old campaign that yielded nine wins, and a 15-race win streak that stretched between his 3 and 4-year-old years. In one of his races, betting was suspended, so bulletproof was his reputation.

In the Brooklyn, Handsome Boy shot immediately to the front. Around the home turn, he had opened up an eight-length lead. The crowd was eerily quiet, fearing the worst for their hero. Then, at the three-furlong pole, they suddenly came alive. Buckpasser began to eat into the lead of the tearaway front-runner.

But jockey Eddie Belmonte had kept enough fuel in Handsome Boy’s tank, and they drew away to win comfortably. The crowd was stunned into silence.

In the run-up to the Whitney, in an important workout, Secretariat went sensationally fast. “I thought it might set him back a bit,” he says ...

Arguably Jerkens’ best-known upset was when he sent out Onion to beat Triple Crown hero Secretariat the year of his 31-length Belmont Stakes demolition job.

Rather than rest Secretariat after his triple-crown exertions, the lure of a huge purse tempted connections to the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, a race he duly won. Then they geared him for the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.

Jerkens had been monitoring Secretariat’s movements closely. He sensed that the horse might be feeling the effects of a series of grueling races. Then, in the run-up to the Whitney, in an important workout, Secretariat went sensationally fast. “I thought it might set him back a bit,” he says. “He was an awfully strong horse though.”

In front of over 30,000 people, Onion, primed to run the best race of his life, proved too strong for the laboring Secretariat (suffering, it turned out, from a low-grade infection).

“My horse was really on his game that day. He was coming off a two-month lay-off, and he broke the track record only four days before the Whitney,” he says. “Of course, everyone was in a state of shock. But people forget that Secretariat busted out of the gates before the start of the race. That always seems to be bad luck when they do that.”

The mid-1980s marked a transitional period for Jerkens. In 1986, Ann died of cancer. He married his current wife, Elizabeth, a few years after that. Also in the mid 1980s Dreyfus offered Jerkens the option to go largely public again as a trainer – a proposition he accepted, but only after serious consideration.

Where an owner steeped in the age-old traditions of horse racing may have baulked at some of the methods Jerkens employed, Dreyfus, with an outsider’s perspective, saw only the results. They were a rare and perfect match.

The backbone of his success

Jerkens says that his years with Dreyfus were his most comfortable, but that throw-away line underplays a tireless fastidiousness towards his craft.

It’s the smaller, seemingly insignificant details that Jerkens sees. Like a teacher who spends the time learning what makes a child tick, Jerkens works with these smaller details to unravel the psyche of his horses. Once unraveled, it’s a matter of fitting things together. It helps too that his mind is constantly turning, constantly striving for a better way to do things.

There was the time he was given a horse to train that had a chronic bleeding problem. Without telling the owner — a horseman with particular opinions about training — Jerkens simply galloped the horse faster and faster each morning, getting her fit without her realizing that a race was approaching.

He never gave her a conventional workout, kept her stress levels to a minimum. She relaxed and thrived under this new routine. She won her first three starts for Jerkens, including a good race in Florida.

The owner never could understand why her weekly workouts were never published.

Then there was the time he had a talented horse who simply didn’t want to train anymore, let alone race. So one morning he told the exercise rider to canter the horse very slowly until he reached the furlong pole. There, he was to blow the horse out for one furlong.

He told the rider to throw ducks at him, yell at him, do whatever was needed to get the horse to go as fast as he could. Then, at the finish line, he was to slow the horse down as fast as possible. They did this for three days. On day four, the horse took off before the rider’s say-so.

The horse won its next race.

Jerkens is an avid reader. When he was younger, he read books about the long arduous heats that Thoroughbreds were put through before the turn of 20th century. They would race four miles, and the winners would progress to the next round held an hour later. Some horses would cover 12 miles in one day.

It shaped the way he approached the art of training.

Whenever he is unsure of something, he goes with his gut. It brings success more times than it brings failure. He is never boastful or presumptuous about this gift ...

As more and more trainers became more conservative in their thinking, asking less of their horses in the mornings, racing them less in the afternoons, Jerkens stayed true to the precedents of history. He trains them hard. He works them long. He runs them often.

But if a horse looks as though it can’t stand that particular style of training, he backs off and alters his approach to suit the horse. He has a great feel for how a horse is doing.

That innate sense of how a horse is feeling, that ability to read a horse’s condition from just looks, is the backbone of his success. Whenever he is unsure of something, he goes with his gut. It brings success more times than it brings failure. He is never boastful or presumptuous about this gift. Nor does he brag endlessly of his achievements.

Ask him what it was that set him apart from the other trainers when he started out and he will say something circumspect about the vitality of youth.

Ask him why his horses in particular beat so many great champions and he will pass it off as a series of lucky breaks.

He held the honor of being the youngest trainer inducted into the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame until trainer Bill Mott wrested that mantle from him. Ask him about the significance of his former title, and he will more likely reply with what a great trainer Mott is.

This afternoon, when Jerkens returns to supervise afternoon stables, he will head over to the far side of the racetrack and fill a red bucket with dandelions for his horses. No other trainers will be there - only Jerkens. He will then drive back to the barn and throw a handful of dandelions into the stall of each of his horses.

Someone once told him that he did this as much for himself as for the horses. Jerkens didn’t disagree. But it didn’t stop him going back that afternoon with his red bucket. It’s something he has always done, almost every afternoon. It’s something he does every day now, health willing.

It’s something he will probably do until his very last day as ‘The Chief’ of Belmont Park.

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