H. Allen Jerkens (1929 - 2015)

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Mar 19th, 2015

H. Allen Jerkens (1929-2015)
© Sarah K Andrew
by Mike Kane (Thoroughbred Daily News)

Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, a living legend during a large part of his distinguished career and a revered figure in racing, died at the age of 85 Mar. 18 at Aventura Hospital and Medical Center in South Florida. 

Jerkens, who operated his stable until his death, entered the hospital on Feb. 28 with a severe infection. He is survived by his children: Allen, Steve and twins Jimmy and Julie, their spouses and children. Steve and Jimmy are trainers. His wife, Elisabeth, died in August 2014. 

Known affectionately as "Chief" and the "Giant Killer" for upset victories over the likes of Kelso and Secretariat, Harry Allen Jerkens was born Apr. 21, 1929 in Islip, NY, on eastern Long Island. He was a widely respected and beloved horsemen who trained in his own name for 65 years and decades played in touch football games on the backstretch. A large man who could be gruff and wanted things done a certain way in his stable, he was soft-spoken to the point of seeming shy and often shed tears when his horses won races. 

Although he never won a Triple Crown or a Breedersí Cup race and rarely ventured too far from New York or his winter base in Florida, he is regarded as one of racingís all-time greats. Through seven decades, he competed against the giants of the sport, from the likes of Hirsch Jacobs, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Sylvester Veitch, John Gaver, Max Hirsch and Woody Stephens to D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher. 

Jerkens began his training career as a teenager in the 1940s, handling horses running in the name of his father, Joseph, a former Austrian cavalry officer whose principal business was a riding academy on Long Island. His father made him wait until he turned 21 in April 1950 to take out his license and he went out on his own when owner Larry Gottleib offered him some horses to train. Jerkens recorded his first official win less than three months later when Populace prevailed July 4 at Aqueduct. Easementís victory Mar. 6 at Gulfstream Park was his final triumph. According to Equibase statistics, he ranks 11th in victories with 3859, and 14th in purse earnings, with over $103.7 million. 

In 1975 at the age of 45, he became the youngest flat trainer elected to the National Museum of Racingís Hall of Fame and held that distinction until 1998 when Bill Mott--also 45 but three months younger--was enshrined. The youngest trainer to enter the Hall of Fame was steeplechase star Daniel "Mikey" Smithwick. 

Jerkens won his lone Eclipse Award as the nationís leading trainer in 1973, the year he defeated Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Secretariat twice, with Onion in the Whitney S. at Saratoga and with Prove Out in the Woodward S. He was the leading trainer in New York four times and won or shared the Saratoga training title four times. In 2009, the New York Racing Association announced that the training title at Saratoga would be named in Jerkensí honor. He was a five-time winner of the New York Turf Writers Associationís award as outstanding trainer. In 2001, he was honored by the National Turf Writersí Association with its Mr. Fitz Award. His acceptance speech for the Mr. Fitz was classic Jerkens: "Thank-you." 

At the top of the list of the outstanding horses that Jerkens trained is Hall of Famer Sky Beauty, who swept New Yorkís Triple Tiara races for 3-year-old fillies in 1993. She was Jerkensí first and only Eclipse Award winner when she was voted champion older filly or  mare in 1994. The daughter of Blushing Groom (Fr) out of the mare Maplejinsky was herself elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Jerkensís resume of stakes winners also includes Caress, Classy Mirage, Devil His Due, Dixie Flag, Kelly Kip, Missyís Mirage, November Snow, Passing Shot, Sensitive Prince, Shine Again, Society Selection and Virginia Rapids. 

During the 2013 Saratoga season, the 40th anniversary of Onionís stunning victory over Secretariat in the Whitney, Jerkens was interviewed a number of times about upsetting the Triple Crown winner. He talked about the conditions of the track, the way the race developed and how he received some nasty letters from fans. 

"Itís nice to be part of history, like Upset beating Man oí War," he said. "Iím not saying itís the same, but itís almost the same as that. Well, it was at the time anyway. It really shocked everybody." 

Jerkens, who dared challenge Secretariat with a a Jack Dreyfus-owned sprinter that had never won a stakes race, recalled Onionís one-length victory under jockey Jacinto Vasquez briefly quieting what had been a raucous crowd. 

"It seemed like they were kind of stunned and then there was a lot of noise because they were twittering about it, ĎHow the hell did this happen?í" he said. 

At the age of 44, Jerkens was a seasoned, highly respected and successful trainer less than two years away from being elected to the Hall of Fame. His record included three victories over the mighty Kelso by Beau Purple in 1962; a win by Pocosaba over three-time female champion Cicada in 1963; and Handsome Boyís win against Buckpasser in the 1967 Brooklyn H. A month after the Whitney triumph, he beat Secretariat again in the Woodward. 

Secretariatís biographer William Nack said the colt was sick the day he ran in the Whitney. To make matters worse, Secretariat was forced to run down down on the inside, which Jerkens and Vazquez had realized was the place to avoid. 
Afterwards, Jerkens was vilified for beating the mighty Secretariat. 

"I got some nasty letters from people that I had no right to beat a horse like that," he said, chuckling as he told the story. "One lady said, ĎI bet you feel real proud of yourself beating a beautiful horse like that. Itís too bad.í" 
Jerkens never felt bad about Secretariatís loss in the Whitney. 

"No, not a bit," he commented. "Hell, they won everything. They won the Triple Crown. My owner was buying oats, too. Thatís what I told everybody. I said, ĎMr. Dreyfus puts a lot of money into this game. He needs to win sometimes, too.í"

Jerkens won the final Grade I race of his career--and first since 2007--Aug. 12, 2012, when Emmaís Encore won the Prioress. The large crowd at Saratoga Race Course enthusiastically saluted yet another of his accomplishments at Americaís oldest track. After the trophy presentation, Jerkens was congratulated by Marylou Whitney, another Saratoga stalwart, who was in the winnerís circle to make the presentation for the next race, the Whitney H. Jerkens wiped away tears that afternoon. 

While Jerkens wanted to be a jockey, he grew too big for that profession. He did have a brief career as a steeplechase rider and said he was winless. He was an avid polo player throughout his life. 

Jerkens said he did not return to school after he turned 16--he galloped horses for trainer Steve Lawler that year--and went into business with his father at Aqueduct. The elder Jerkens could get stalls at Aqueduct because he supplied horses to the Sportsmenís Club of the Queens County Jockey Club, which owned the track at the time. The Jerkenses started with five horses, some of which they acquired in a sheriffís sale because the previous owners had not paid their boarding bills. Joseph Jerkens died in 1951. 

Through the decades, Jerkens had a reputation as a trainer who rewarded the loyalty and hard work of his exercise riders who were jockeys by giving them mounts in races on the prominent horses they worked in the mornings. Noel Wynter and Ray Ganpath each picked up their lone graded stakes victory on a Jerkens horse. And Jerkens was well-known for using female jockeys after the gender barrier was broken in the late 1960s. The first female rider to win a race at Saratoga was Robyn Smith on the Jerkens-trained Beaukins in 1971. Diane Nelson, Leah Gyramati and Shannon Uske all rode for Jerkens in New York. 

Gyarmati, now a successful trainer, was the divorced mother of a young daughter in the 1990s when she worked as exercise rider for Jerkens and was a jockey in the afternoon. Her first winner was aboard a Jerkens horse in 1997. Gyarmati told Daily Racing Form in 2013 that Jerkens is the reason she made racing her career. 

"I donít think I would have stayed on the racetrack if I had worked for anybody else," Gyarmati, said. "Thereís something about him that just inspires you. You want to impress him so badly, and when you do, thereís nothing like it. 

"I could win 10 races as a jockey for anybody else, but breezing one horse correctly for him in the morning and having him pat you on the back, or smile, or say that you did it right was 10 times more gratifying than winning races," she added. "I still feel that way. Even when I do stuff now, Iím hoping that he saw it. I want to know his opinion." 

Steve and Jimmy Jerkens also worked for their father before opening their stables. Successful trainers Mike Hushion, Chuck Simon and Tom Bush got their starts working for Jerkens. 

Jerkens had been a private trainer for Eddie Burke but was fired in the fall of 1961 and opened a public stable. He returned to New York from Florida in the spring of 1962 with 35 horses and had just won ameet training title when he met Wall Street investor Jack Dreyfus Jr. for what started a life-changing partnership. 

"I went to see him and he said he wanted me to train his horses," Jerkens said. " I said I didnít want to train for one person alone anymore. I had a bad experience with it. He said, ĎYeah, but Iíll claim horses and buy horses, just as if you had a public stable.í Thatís how I came to go with him. I had to tell all the other people I was training for, which was hard to do, but then he paid me a salary. That was the first time in my life that I had a salary and didnít have to worry about the bills. He paid all the bills." 

Jerkens was Hobeauís private trainer until 1980 when Dreyfus told him he could begin taking other clients. The relationship with Dreyfus, who raced under the name of Hobeau Farm, continued through five decades. Dreyfus died in March 2009 at the age of 95. Among the original group of six horses Dreyfus sent him was Beau Purple, the horse that was the foundation for the "Giant Killer" legend

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