SARATOGA SPRINGS The melancholy isn’t supposed to happen until the end.
Allen Jerkens eagerly tells of how he watched the 1973 Whitney from the infield, where he saddled Onion because of the massive crowd, and how he fully expected to see Secretariat a length ahead once they came back into view from behind the toteboard.
He describes how “your foot jiggled a little on the bottom” of the track when they walked across, indicating that the “sunshiney, brilliant day” was fool’s gold.
It had rained the day before, and off that vital piece of evidence, he and jockey Jacinto Vasquez launched their strategy to give Onion his best chance to maybe pull off a huge upset over the Triple Crown winner.
The 146th Saratoga Race Course meet begins on Friday, and the grounds were bustling on Wednesday with the usual rush to get the beautiful old Spa ready for her closeup.
There’s fresh paint on the expansive staircase inside the clubhouse, new dormitories for the backstretch workers on the Oklahoma, and the picnic table population has multiplied, Tribble-like. TVs fresh out of the box are everywhere.
There’s that familiar, involuntary bounce in your step.
For a change, the races won’t start without a twinge of sadness, though.
Each race called by beloved announcer Tom Durkin will be one race closer to his Aug. 31 retirement, and the backstretch is already missing some other familiar souls, trainers Joe Aquilino, Dominic Galluscio and Tom Voss, who all died within a span of less than three months this year.
It’s a joy to listen to Jerkens — the Chief — recount the ’73 Whitney, except for the fact that he does it over the phone from his home in Florida, where he will stay for the duration of the Saratoga meet.
Health concerns and old age make long-distance travel too daunting for him and his wife Elisabeth, so they’ll stay down south, where Jerkens has 14 horses stabled at Gulfstream Park. Out by Clare Court or the seven-furlong chute, your eye reflexively seeks out his crisp white hat with the wide band, and it isn’t there.
So you call.
“Everybody asks me how I feel,” he says. “ ‘Like an old man.’ How am I supposed to feel?”
“Yeah, he misses it,” says his son, Jimmy, who took on House Rules and Classic Point from his father’s barn when he decided not to come to Saratoga.
“But he always was practical and realistic about things. Usually when he makes up his mind about something, he’s pretty final about it.”
For the record, the Chief is 85. Also for the record, he was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1975, and has been responsible for some of the biggest upsets in racing history. But you knew that.
He had two heart valves repaired and a pacemaker installed in 2008 and, upon release from the hospital, went straight to the barn at Belmont to check on his horses.
He may not be here physically, but he’s here. They’ll give the meet-leading trainer the award named after him, most likely to Todd Pletcher, when it’s all over on Labor Day.
“Actually, I vividly remember the first time I met him,” Pletcher says with a laugh.
Pletcher was fresh out of college, had just started working for D. Wayne Lukas at Belmont Park in 1989, and was sent to Jerkens’ barn to gather a horse who had been sold to one of Lukas’ clients.
“I walked into his barn, and I had this image of Allen Jerkens, this legendary trainer,” Pletcher says. “I kind of walked in, the shedrow was kind of a mess, so I walked down to the feed room, because I didn’t see anyone, and there was this man, in shorts and no shirt, sitting on a bucket chopping carrots. I said, ‘Excuse me, uh, is Mr. Jerkens here?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, waddaya want?’
“He’s just a tremendous role model for everyone who trains. He’s so passionate about the game, passionate about his horses.”
“He’ll talk about something that happened 45 years ago like it happened 45 seconds ago,” says trainer Al Stall Jr., who has been stabled next to Jerkens at Saratoga in recent years. “I’m a student of the game, so I’m always all ears when he’s around.”
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has Jerkens’ Barn 7 now, tucked back in a shady spot at the end of the row across the road from Clare Court.
There have been a few years when Jerkens stayed at Belmont Park and shipped up, but for the most part, he has been a fixture here for over four decades.
“This’ll be the first time in a long, long time when he won’t have a starter running in his name,” Jimmy Jerkens says.
The Chief was almost skunked last year, but pulled out a win in the final days with Go Unbridled in the Saratoga Dew, her first victory since winning the same race the previous year. The crowd loved it.
“He’s a legend; everybody roots for him,” McLaughlin said. “Last year’s moment, when he won and the crowd was clapping … we were all clapping on the backside, too. It was very happy, but also very touching to see the crowd give him a big round of applause, because he’s special for all of us who know him.”
“He’s a tremendous person besides being arguably the greatest trainer we’ve ever seen,” Pletcher said.
The Chief is loath to draw attention to himself, but “it’s always nice to talk about the horses.”
So here’s what happened at Saratoga on Aug. 4, 1973 (as if you didn’t already know):
“I said to Vasquez, ‘Do you want to try to open it up?’, and he said, ‘No, the track is too slow.’ He stayed three-wide the whole way and knew he would see Secretariat on the inside. When he did, he made it tighter on him.”
“Brilliant ride …”