SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Whenever possible, trainers try to keep their good horses apart, especially if they have different owners. Jimmy Jerkens decided he couldn't do that for Saturday's Travers Stakes, and his pair couldn't have been any closer at the wire.
When 19-1 shot V.E. Day surged late to nose out Wicked Strong in the final jump, Jerkens became only the second trainer, along with Nick Zito in 2004, to finish 1-2 in Saratoga's marquee event.
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"It's never ideal to run horses together, but you can't slight either one," Jerkens said. "They pay enormous bills for training these horses, and how do you deny one of them to run in a race like the Travers when it looks like they have the horse?"
As it turned out, both Magalen O. Bryant, who owns V.E. Day, and Centennial Farms, which campaigns Wicked Strong, did, and they scooped up $900,000 of the $1.25-million purse.
"It was kind of weird," Jerkens said, "but it was a great weird."
It was the second time in five years that Jerkens won the Travers by a nose, and his career-best day may not have been as emotional as the one before. Before Friday's races, the son of 85-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens accepted a Saratoga lifetime achievement award for his father. Allen's wife, Elisabeth, Jimmy's stepmother, died recently, and for the first time that anyone can remember, the venerated man known as "The Chief" isn't at the Spa. He stayed down in Florida to train his small stable.
"Everybody misses him, not just me," Jimmy Jerkens said. "He's been such a mainstay here for years. [Friday] I got a little weepy watching the video of him celebrating a stakes win up here. Then I had to go up to the microphone 30 seconds later and could barely talk."
Allen Jerkens was born in Islip, and his father, a former Austrian cavalry captain, owned a riding academy on Long Island. Allen saddled his first winner at age 21 at Aqueduct on the Fourth of July, 1950, and he's been creating fireworks ever since. He earned the nickname "The Giant Killer," which he dislikes, for upsetting three all-time greats: Kelso (three times), Secretariat (twice) and Buckpasser. Two months after Big Red's incomparable Triple Crown sweep, Jerkens knocked him off with Onion in the 1973 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.
Jimmy Jerkens, 55, was born in Bay Shore and lives in Merrick. He spent 20 years assisting Allen before going out on his own in 1997, and he couldn't have had a better mentor. Jimmy is especially pleased that V.E. Day is his father's favorite type of horse.
"He's a big, strong colt that looks like he wants to go all day," Jimmy said. "Since he started training, my father just eats those kinds of horses up.
"I was talking to him Friday, and he said, 'You know what? I think V.E. Day will come running. I really believe he will come running.' "
As usual, father knew best.