Racing Hall of Fame Trainer Allen Jerkens: The Chief

Allen Jerkens illustrious career spanned more than six decades.
Allen Jerkens illustrious career spanned more than six decades. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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.

H. (Harry) Allen Jerkens

Born: April 21, 1929

Died: March 18, 2015

Birthplace: Islip, N.Y.

Family: wife, Elisabeth; sons, Allen, Steve, and Jimmy; daughter, Julie

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 a remarkable career that lasted more than 65 years.

Emma’s Encore won the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes in 2012 at Saratoga Race Course, and she was just the most recent in a long line of memorable Jerkens’ trainees that included 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 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.

Jerkens (right) in the Saratoga winner's circle after Emma's Encore's Prioress win.
Jerkens (right) in the Saratoga winner's circle after Emma's Encore's Prioress win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

While a giant killer he may have been, Jerkens always preferred his “other” nickname, “The Chief.” And that handle was completely fitting because, despite a lack of bluster, Jerkens always seemed 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 was one of those rare people who always came off as the coolest guy in the room, even though impressing people was 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.

Fun Facts

  • His father was an Austrian cavalry captain.
  • Originally hoped to be a jockey.
  • Saddled his first winner on July 4, 1950 with Populace at Aqueduct.
  • In 1975, at age 45, he became the youngest flat-racing trainer inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.  (This record was later bested, by three months, by Bill Mott in 1998.)
  • Won Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in 1973.
  • Was leading trainer in New York four times between 1957 and 1969 (1957, 1962, 1966, 1969), then scored his fifth New York training title 29 years later in 1998.
  • Sired two training sons: Steven Jerkens and Jimmy Jerkens. Jimmy accomplished one feat his father was unable to manage: winning a Breeders’ Cup race. Jimmy did the trick twice—with Artie Schiller in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile and Corinthian in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
  • The Grade 1 King's Bishop was renamed in honor of Jerkens after his death in 2015. It is now the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes.

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