He was 21 in 1950 when he saddled his first winner, at Aqueduct on the Fourth of July. Sixty-two years later, Allen Jerkens still was launching fireworks, taking Saratoga's Grade I Prioress Stakes with 39-1 shot Emma's Encore. In all that time between, his achievements and his aura made him an immortal long before he died Wednesday in Florida at the age of 85.
The man called "The Chief" saw most of the 20th century's great thoroughbreds and beat many of them. Jerkens' list of victims could fill a wall at the Hall of Fame, which he entered at 45, then the youngest trainer ever elected. In the '60s he knocked off five-time Horse of the Year Kelso three times, and he took down Secretariat twice the summer after his 1973 Triple Crown. "The Giant Killer" never lost his touch. In 1998, eventual Horse of the Year Skip Away lost to his 34-1 Wagon Limit in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
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Jerkens' 3,489 victories are 11th all-time, and his $104 million-plus earnings rank 14th. He amassed those stats without winning a Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers or Breeders' Cup. He had only one champion, the filly Sky Beauty in 1994, mainly because royally bred horses that cost seven figures rarely ended up in his barn.
His legacy stemmed as much from his personality as from his records. This revered figure was modest and shy, although once he got rolling he had a million horse tales. A hot-tempered bad loser and a taskmaster, he also was a brilliant teacher and a soft touch for racetrackers down on their luck. He was an equal-opportunity employer who put unproven jockeys on talented, improving horses.
"I've gone in a lot of races on the spur of the moment, and by then, the good riders are gone," Jerkens told the Daily Racing Form in 2010. "But I've had kids with me who galloped a horse every morning, and I thought the horse would go better in a race with them.'"
Hundreds of them won, which meant so much to those on their backs.
Besides supervising grooms nicknamed Train Robber, Hard Times and Paycheck, Jerkens mentored many future trainers, including his sons Steve and Jimmy, Mike Hushion, Tom Bush and Leah Gyarmati. Trainer Rick Violette played touch football with Jerkens on the backstretch and competed against him on the track.
"Allen Jerkens was larger than life, as a horseman and a human being," Violette said. "But to those of us who had the honor of knowing him, he was the kindest, most generous soul. He had so much knowledge and experience, and he was always more than willing to share."
Jerkens, who was born in Islip and lived in Bellerose Terrace, was the son of a former Austrian cavalry captain who "came to New York on vacation in 1908 and never left." In 1937, Joseph Jerkens opened a riding stable on Long Island, training jumpers and show horses. His 8-year-old soon learned to ride in fields and bridle paths along the Great South Bay and became a hands-on horseman.
"My father liked to patch up broken-down racehorses and have someone bring them back to racing for him," Jerkens said. Seeing them thrive again seemed magical to the son who blended his racing DNA with a relentless work ethic in a career that never will be duplicated.
Joseph Jerkens' horse sense originated in 19th century Europe, whose cavalry tradition went back thousands of years. Allen Jerkens absorbed those lessons and brought them into the millennium, yet another reminder that horsemanship is all about links in an endless chain.
One of the greatest trainers ever, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (1874-1966), gave Allen's career a nudge by sending him one of his first horses. A half-century later, in 2001, the National Turf Writers Association gave Jerkens the Mr. Fitz Award for "typifying the spirit of racing." No honor ever was more fitting.