By Bill Heller
Ask anyone in Thoroughbred racing to name the savviest trainers in the history of the sport, and you may hear: Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Woody Stephens, Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera,D. Wayne Lukas, John Nerud and, certainly, Allen Jerkens.Jerkens has never saddled the winner of a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race, yet he's still training winners and winning stakes at the age of 79, 34 years after his induction into the Hall of Fame. At the time, he was the youngest trainer ever enshrined.Known as the ‘Giant Killer' for his historic upsets of Buckpasser, Kelso and Secretariat, and as the "Chief" for his incredible horse knowledge, Jerkens was honored by the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST) with a Lifetime Outstanding Trainer award at a benefit dinner in Sands Point, Long Island on May 28th this year.Rather than being passed by time, he has adapted. Though he doesn't own a computer, he has a cell phone and a website, www.AllenJerkens.com.
His beloved wife Elisabeth was asked how her husband continues to maintain a national presence. "He's very disciplined," she said. "He does everything at the same time, and his memory is excellent." Asked if he ever amazes her, she said, "All the time."
Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron recently began the country's first jockey school in Kentucky, and you immediately took in one of his students, jockey Robbie Davis' daughter. Why? Chris just called me up. I always admired him and his riding, and he always tried to help the game, too. And Robbie Davis, I always liked him, too, and rode him. I didn't think it would hurt. She's willing to work, too. She has to get strong. She gets on two or three horses every day. She started in January.
Throughout the last couple of decades, you've repeatedly used low-profile jockeys who exercised horses for you in the afternoon in races such as Filiberto Leon, Ray Ganpath, Shannon Uske, Leah Gyarmati and Andrew Lakeman . Why? A lot of times they started out on horses that they were taking a special interest in. They were coming back in the afternoon and taking them out to graze. Like Lilah (a top filly). Uske rode her - she was a filly that tied up a lot - she used to take her out in the evening and ride her around bareback and she got to be pretty good. Every once in a while, I get the feeling that the horse is going to do especially good with somebody that's used to them and getting on them every day. It doesn't always happen. It's always fun to have somebody who really takes a great interest in the horse. Leah used to ride for you, then she earned a Doctorate in Theology. When she returned to say hello at Saratoga, you got her back on a horse that day and she became a jockey and now a successful trainer in New York. What happened that morning? Well, she had been riding a little bit. She was always one of the best in the morning, anyway. I said, "I'm going to breeze this horse." She says, "You don't want me to breeze him, do you?" I said, "You won't have no problem because he's a free-running horse. You won't have to push him or anything." (Jerkens laughed) It was a horse named Chief Master. He was a good horse. You still love what you do?
Oh, yeah. We try. I always like to see horses do the best they can, naturally. And to get anybody to give you the horses to train, if they don't run good they're not going to give them to you. They don't want to hear about you being in the Hall of Fame or whatever you ever did. It doesn't matter. You just have to keep on going. If you don't keep on going, you're not going to stay in the game. And I have to pay more attention to it than I used to. I used to play polo and everything else, take a little time off. But I have to keep reminding myself all the time: who I'm going to run and when I'm going to run. Otherwise, it gets out of your mind quicker than when you were young.
Do you still go back in the evening to check your horses and see whether or not they've eaten?
Oh, yeah. The only time I won't go is if we plan to go out later and somebody (else) wants to do it for me. It's kind of important to me. Once a week or twice a week, I'll have someone else to take care of things. It's not only because I don't trust anybody else to do it. It's whenever you look at them it reminds you of what you had in mind. If you see one that leaves their oats that particular night, then you say, well, probably it's because the vet gave him a build-up shot that day and he's going the other way. Every once in a while, horses do change. There's always a reason why things happen. Every once in a while, they'll just not eat. I remember Spite the Devil. I was worried about him ‘cuz' he wasn't cleaning up his feed, and I was wondering whether we should run him and he won that big race (the Empire Classic) and he won it two years in a row. If you don't have the experience, a lot of things worry you more. If you haven't been through it for years and years and years and seen the results – both ways – then you would worry. Guys who first start training would worry more about it than I would because I know I can overcome it in some other way. Just like training; a horse might work faster than you wanted him to, so then maybe you turn him out in the pen for two days in a row and let them relax and try to compensate for it. You can't always. But … the same thing when they work too slow. Then maybe you might go out - I‘ve done it a couple of times - even the same morning and work them a little bit again to try to have them do what you wanted. If you don't keep reminding yourself and if you don't stay at it, I don't know how you can do it. ‘Cuz' a lot of smarter people than me, they can do it without. Well, look at these guys that have so many horses. They have to depend on other people to have the same ideas that they do. Otherwise they wouldn't able to be so successful.
You seem to always have an incredible relationship with your horses. People have even called you part horse.
Well, from the time I was a little boy, I always liked the horses. I wanted to be a jockey. Of course, naturally, I couldn't be. I rode in jumping races. Then I got to where I always thought I knew how to train them. Naturally, you make a lot of mistakes when you're young. You compensate. I mean you have to learn by your mistakes. There's a lot of trial and error. You have to be willing to take a chance. A lot of times, modern owners think that you have to be going into a race thinking you have to be the favorite all the time. But you can't be. Every once in a while, you have to try something. If it doesn't work out, then you have to rest your horse up and try it a different way. You can't be thinking just because the figures don't show it (that you don't belong). We won a lot of races where we had no business in the race, and a lot of times we looked stupid, too. But you've got to be able to go home and straighten it out. If you have the kind of owner that's always going to chastise you when you don't do the right thing, it's no good for them, and it's no good for you because you're not going to learn anything. You've had great success training first-time starters as far or even farther than the distance of their first race. Why do you do that?
I don't want them to get tired and a lot of times a slower work and going further works … I used to be successful doing that with babies that were running three furlongs. We used to breeze them half a mile in like :50, and then two days before the race, you'd send them a quarter of a mile as fast as they could go. So they would be both fit and sharp. So that's what you try to do. If you want a horse to win first time out, you want them to be dead fit for one thing. And then you've got to sharpen them up and make sure he gets away from the gate. But sometimes you can't go by the workouts in the paper (Daily Racing Form), because maybe you might have been intending to run him in a different race that didn't go, and then you come back to six furlongs. That's what happens a lot of times when you see the longer works. I intended to run him longer, and then that race didn't go, and then he went to six furlongs. It worked for Society Selection, who won her first start at two at Saratoga, then the 2003 Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park in her next start, and then won both the Grade 1 Test and Alabama Stakes at three at Saratoga. Did you have second thoughts about going into a Grade 1 stakes off a maiden win?
I wasn't thinking about running her and then, I don't know what it was, maybe that a lot of people in the barn thought she could win. I didn't see that. She never impressed me that much. But then she won nice. We tried to run in a non-winners of two and it didn't go. Then, I was awful proud of that, that she could win a Grade 1 mile race the next start. It worked out. Of course, Ray (Ganpath) was riding her. We worked her one morning a couple of times coming from behind. One time it worked out just perfect. We had the two horses in front of her and she slipped through between the two of them… she beat the champ that day, Ashado (eventual 2-year-old filly champion). So she wound up being a good filly. To win the Test and the Alabama. That's really good. Was she one of your best training jobs?
That was one of the best, I thought, when she won the Alabama. Uske was instrumental in that because we worked her a mile about four days before the Alabama and I wanted her to work even and go good at the finish. I was on the pony in the backstretch and I thought she was going to pick it up too fast. And just when I thought it, she must have thought it, too, and she slowed her down slightly, and then when she got into the stretch, she really let her go and she went the mile in 1:39 and did it the right way. It was perfect. If you see those two races (the Test and Alabama), she really had to be the best because she lost a lot of ground.Yet you haven't won a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race. Does that bother you?
Well, it doesn't bother me, but you just wish you have done it at least once.
You must have been thrilled when Miss Shop won last year's Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
We won that twice. We won another one (Passing Shot in 2003) with a horse that hadn't been a stakes horse until she won that race. We had tried to get Miss Shop stakes placed in one of those overnight stakes and she was fourth. And then she goes back to Saratoga and she wins a non-winners of two, and she comes back and wins the Personal Ensign. That was terrific. You almost won the Alabama again with Teammate who opened a clear lead in mid-stretch in 2006.
You talk about disappointments. I thought Teammate was home the day that filly of Shug's (Pine Island) beat her. Of course, she turned out to be great anyway.
Teammate ran well in last year's Spinster then didn't fire on the sloppy track at Monmouth Park in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. What happened?
She ran good in the Spinster, but she was never a big mud filly anyway. A couple of her bad races were in the mud.
Was the track changing as the day went on?
That's what happens in modern racing. You see, years ago, when it was mud, it was just mud and that was the end of it. Now they do all the floating and the sealing. So different horses have different advantages.
What's your opinion of synthetic tracks?
I've always said I don't like it. It doesn't make any sense to me. I figure if they spent that kind of money on the track to start with, they wouldn't have any problems. Besides, if it is great, then how long is it going to be great? Between rain and all that manure from the horses and everything, it can't stay good. The thing that proves to me that it can be done is Pennsylvania and New York and a few places race all the time and they still have a dirt track. So it can be done.
What are the best tracks for horses?
Look at Calder. They race year-round on their track. Belmont is good because you have the option. Gulfstream is good since they built the new track. It's been a little hard to figure out when it rains, but most tracks are fine.
Do you use the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga?
No. Every once in a while, I'll take one over there and work him. We try to time it right after it's harrowed. There are so many horses on it now. It's narrower than an average track so there's more holes, more footprints, in it.
As your career continues, do you ever think back how it almost ended several years ago in Florida when you nearly died from pancreatitis?
It was 2000. You're lucky. Not a day goes by that I don't see how lucky I am.