Photos courtesy of Horsephotos.com
Name: H. (Harry) Allen Jerkens
Born: April 21, 1929
Birthplace: Islip, N.Y.
Residence: Bellerose Terrace, N.Y.
Family: wife, Elisabeth; sons, Allen,
Allen Jerkens took out his trainer’s license as soon as he turned 21, and he only waited that long because his father forbid him to do so any sooner. He enjoyed solid success almost from the very beginning and won his first stakes race in 1955 with a horse named War Command, whom Jerkens had claimed for $8,000. Seven years later, he agreed to become the private trainer for Jack Dreyfus Jr.’s Hobeau Farm. Though Hobeau Farm didn’t always deal in the most fashionable of pedigrees, it did provide Jerkens with volume. And Jerkens certainly had a knack for getting the most out of his horses.
During those prosperous Hobeau Farm years, Jerkens became known as “The Giant Killer,” though he never much cared for that moniker. Perhaps that is because the nickname doesn’t do justice to his remarkable career that is now in its 64th year and still going strong.
In his barn today is Emma’s Encore, winner of last year’s Prioress Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course, and she is just the most recent in a long line of memorable Jerkens’ trainees that includes Hall of Famer Sky Beauty (champion older female of 1994), Beau Purple, Onion, Prove Out, Sensitive Prince, Devil His Due, Classy Mirage, Kelly Kip, Duck Dance, Virginia Rapids, Wagon Limit and so many more.
Make no mistake, though, Jerkens’s charges over the years have vanquished more than a few foes that appeared invincible. In 1962-’63, he sent out Beau Purple to defeat the redoubtable Kelso three different times — in the 1962 Suburban Handicap, the 1962 Man o’ War and the 1963 Widener Handicap. In 1963, Pocosaba took the measure of three-time champion Cicada. And in 1967, the Jerkens-trained Handsome Boy upset Buckpasser in the Brooklyn Handicap.
All of the above was a mere warm up for 1973, when the Jerkens barn conquered the mighty Secretariat not once but twice. Onion shocked the world in Saratoga’s Whitney Handicap when he defeated Big Red in that one’s first race after his incomparable 31-length Belmont Stakes score. (Jerkens nearly upset another freshly-minted Triple Crown winner in 1978 when Affirmed needed the entire Saratoga stretch to run down Sensitive Prince by a half-length in the Jim Dandy Stakes.) And later in 1973, in the Woodward Handicap, it was Prove Out’s turn to topple Secretariat, the horse that many consider to be the greatest of all time. With these victories still vivid in the minds of voters, Jerkens was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. At age 45, he was, at the time, the youngest flat trainer ever to be honored with enshrinement.
A giant killer though he may be, Jerkens has always preferred his “other” nickname, “The Chief.” And that handle is completely fitting because, despite a lack of bluster, Jerkens always seems like the guy in charge of things. Legendary are the Belmont backstretch touch football games of the 1980s and 1990s when Jerkens would play quarterback—for both teams.
He is one of those rare people who always comes off as the coolest guy in the room, even though impressing people is the last thing on his mind. In 2001 at the National Turf Writers Association awards dinner, Jerkens received the Mr. Fitz Award for typifying the spirit of horse racing. At a function notorious for long-winded acceptance speeches, Jerkens made his way to the podium and gave the following address, reprinted here in its entirety:
“Thank you very much.”
The assembled turf writers immediately rose to their feet as one and gave their taciturn honoree what was by far the loudest ovation of the night. The Chief, indeed.