Thursday, March 19, 2015

H Allen Jerkens: Humble Greatness

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla., March 20, 2015—The news that The Chief passed away yesterday was not unexpected. I asked his son how his dad was doing when I saw him in the Gulfstream paddock last Saturday. “He’s in rough shape,” Jimmy Jerkens said.

Infections at the age of 85 are not trifling things, and while he died in a hospital in South Florida, it could not have been more appropriate that the news was broken to me via a New York Racing Association press release.

He loved New York and he loved New York racing. Oh, he spent his winters in South Florida but most years, the glory years, he came for the season and not a reason. He knew the horses needed some down time. So do legendary horsemen.

Then, when he returned to New York in the spring, his horses would run right off the television screen.

You likely will read this everywhere so you might as well read it here, too. The sport will never see his kind again.

The Charleys, the Woodys, and now the Chief; they’re all gone. They’re part of racing’s past, a legacy that will not be shared someday by the successful corporate trainers that dominate today’s national stage.

Losing the Chief is more than the end of an era. A sport struggling to maintain its relevancy lost more than that yesterday. This wasn’t death by a thousand tiny cuts, something the game has struggled with; this is one giant loss.

Better still, the loss of a giant.

The Chief was a giant in ways that fans and bettors could never know no matter how many glowing words were written. It’s about how one feels when in the presence of dignity, of humble greatness.

At once, Jerkens appreciated the adulation for all his hard work and dedication, but he was uncomfortable in spotlights.

Everyone knows that he did not abide by the term Giant Killer, a paean to all those upsets his horses pulled, beating great horses with good ones; developing good horses into great ones.

As a young reporter, I was one of the privileged, after having been given a tip by a legendary turf writer who it was my pleasure to work with and learn from.

“If you’re ever in Allen’s barn at feed time, stick around, you’re going to see a show,” Bill Nack told me.

One morning I got that chance and the image is as alive now as it was back in the day. The mash that the Chief cooked up smelled so sweet you wanted to dive into the tub right along with the horses.

All sheds come alive at feed time. But the Chief’s horses acted like they were at some equine rock concert, practically running through the webbing to get at that feed tub. If they could, and if smoking were allowed, they would have flicked their Bics and hope for an encore.

Allen enjoyed nothing more than watching his horses satiate themselves or just enjoy acting like horses. “Why is that horse in that round pen next to the barn?” a naïve city-bred reporter asked.

“Because they need to have some fun, too, relax, roll over on their backs, expend some feel-good energy, just be horses.”

The reporter never asked why his Belmont barn was round, but eventually he figured it out. It was because on very cold or otherwise intemperate mornings, the horses could get some exercise jogging around safely inside the barn.

For the Chief, it was always about the horses, but he was a friend to every manner of racetracker.

A good friend, Jack Shelley, loved horses and loved The Chief, hanging around Jerkens’ barn whenever he had the chance as a teenager. He might not have invented the nickname but Jack was the first one I ever heard refer to H. Allen Jerkens as The Chief.

One morning I got a glimpse into how the Chief spent his down time. Never one to fuss, Allen’s idea of a good time was spending time with his friend Adolph Schultz, “Shultzie” as he called him.

When the barn work was done on Sunday mornings, the Chief went over to Schultz’s who would fix breakfast for the trainer and his “fourth son,” Jack, who brought a reporter along one morning.

The only rule was that breakfast had to be over in time to watch “Honeymooners” re-runs. He knew the dialogue the way some people recite from “the Godfather.” As familiar as he was with it, he laughed every time Art Carney spoke. Not long after he would take a nap.

The Chief and Liz attending Hall of Fame ceremonies in 2008

Jack and Shultzie had a horse or two with the Chief and once I broke from professional decorum, run down to the winners’ circle, and get into the picture with a friend.

The Chief was as proud of those moments as he was when he twice beat Secretariat with Onion that summer in Saratoga, or that fall at Belmont Park with Prove Out or any race he won for Jack Dreyfus.

And maybe those three times he beat the mighty five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso, with Beau Purple.

But he always seemed to take a special pride in his sprinters, horses like Kelly Kip, Duck Dance, the filly Classy Mirage.

Then Beau Purple was a speedball, too, and Never Bow was a fast horse; won Hialeah’s Widener on one of my first trips to Florida. Onion was a fast horse, of course. The Chief used demon speed to slay all those giants.

I once told him a story about how he made me a hero one day at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn.

“Chief, remember when you won the Interborough with Red Belle?” The Chief just smiled a knowing smile. I told how I feigned illness, collected about $40 at lunch time, then took two subway lines and a bus to the spanking new Aqueduct by the bay.

The filly went wire to wire--what else?--and paid $7 to win. I spread the winnings around the cafeteria the next afternoon. If only that small score had come prior to school elections; I might have had a whole different career courtesy of the Chief.

As it turns out, I’ve had fun and got to meet an idol. As all racetrackers can attest, you marveled at his displays in horsemanship but, of greater significance, how he took his trade but never himself seriously.

The Chief was a friend of the little guy, and other little guys who couldn’t secure a winning mount, and the Chief would always save a live one for a jock that needed a payday or a head start. He always put you “on the lead,” as the racetrackers say.

I wonder if he ever appreciated how fitting it was that he had such a deft hand with speed horses which often led the way to some of the greatest upsets the turf has ever known.

Thanks for the kindness and the great memories, Mr. Jerkens. You are loved by more people than you’ll ever know.

File Photo by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Saturday in the Parks

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 15, 2015—Despite the awful weather in Hot Springs and the glorious atmospherics in South Florida Saturday, it was an excellent day of racing in both spots. Let’s begin locally.

On its face, it didn’t seem to be much of a Saturday-type card at Gulfstream Park, until the racing started that is.

There were no graded stakes, in fact, there were only two 75-granders, the kind of stakes program that only Mr. Corrow could love.

But as long as there are maiden allowance types all over the program and gates full of turf runners, Gulfstream Park will always have an attractive Saturday card for fans and bettors alike.

Speed was on display in both of Saturday’s stakes events and a young female sprinting star may have been born, a filly named Taylor S. Inside speed was good here yesterday and Corey Lanerie and his mount took full advantage.

“I told Corey try to get [the lead] at all costs the first eighth of a mile,” said trainer Dale Romans post-race. “There was a lot of speed outside and I didn’t want her buried on the inside.”

So off she went in 21.99 and 44.76, getting the trip in 1:09.75. Another nice filly named Dogwood Trail had her in her sights at headstretch via a good trip from third but could not narrow the leader’s margin.

“Her pedigree says she can run long,” Romans added later. “She’s the real deal. She’s a very talented filly, maybe the most talented I’ve had.”

Fast Down Under

Renowned international handicapper Nick Mordin has always said that, on balance, the best sprinters in the world come from Australia. Well, say hello to my gelded gray friend, Power Alert.

In the co-featured Silks Run, the Brian Lynch owned and trained speedster not only proved his winning debut earlier this meet was no fluke, but that there indeed was more in the tank.

News Flash: Lynch and Julien Leparoux still haven’t reached the bottom.

“With our post outside we were able to control the race,” Leparoux said. “We were in the clear. He’s a nice horse and ran big.”

Julien Leparoux was very pleased
with Power Alert's run

“It was very exciting,” Lynch said. “I’m glad we gave him a little time in between races. This sets him up for opening weekend at Keeneland.”

Stalking the speed in hand from his advantageous position, Power Alert collared the speed, took command at headstretch, and never was seriously threatened in the lane.

“He won nicely and I don’t think [Julien] had to ride him too hard,” the trainer added. The final time for five furlongs over firm turf was 55.80 seconds. “I don’t think [the effort] taxed him.”

And that’s a good thing. The waters will get deeper in the Grade 3 Shakertown April 4.

Good Thing Gets Bad Trip, Wins Anyway: The wise guys bet early and often and the debuting Donworth didn’t let them down, although Joel Rosario almost did.

The offspring of Tiznow are not known for their precocity and Graham Motion isn’t exactly Todd Pletcher when it comes to saddling winning first-time starters.

Well, not only was Donworth bet into the teeth of a strong, uncoupled Pletcher entry including the fast Sir Alfred in the rolling double, but he opened 2-5 straight and stayed there until just before the horses entered the ring, eventually “blowing out” to 8-5 ante post.

He won by a neck but was much the best horse. (The chart footnote does no justice to the trip, so check the replay of Saturday’s ninth race from Gulfstream for yourself).

After breaking a tad flat-footed from the inside—not an easy assignment, especially at 7 furlongs or a mile here—Rosario quarter-horsed him up into a contending spot along the inside.

Approaching the far turn, Rosario was forced to check Donworth when heralded 7-pound apprentice Eric Cancel tightened it up on his rival approaching the far turn, causing Rosario to check out of what could have been a disastrous spot on the fence.

After regaining his stride and forward momentum on his own, Rosario angled Donworth out sharply from the 2-path at headstretch, set sail for Sir Alfred, and gamely wore him down by a neck in the final strides despite being herded. He galloped out nicely past the wire.

The almost black colt appeared is as big--perhaps even bigger--than Dortmund, and is from the Street Cry mare, Temple Street, got the distance in 1:23.75, showing talent and uncommon class in the process.

Cancel, despite bringing Sir Alfred out to meet Donworth in the final furlong, had the temerity to claim foul after appearing to be the perpetrator.

I wouldn’t be shocked—or maybe I should be—if the stewards took some action against the youngster for making a frivolous foul claim and riding a little carelessly. It’s more likely he’ll get off with a strong warning.

No Day at the Beach for Champion’s Return

Oh, there was plenty of water alright, but it didn’t appear to be to the liking of 2014’s three year old filly Champion Untapable.

To their credit, neither trainer Steve Asmussen nor jockey Johnny Velazquez would place heavy blame on yesterday’s second-place finish to Gold Medal Dancer on the wet surface though they did acknowledge it.

“The track was a little heavy and it was a bit of a concern coming off the layoff, being unable to get her up here and have a work over the track,” Asmussen said. “As long as she comes out OK, we’ll be happy with this effort.” As he should be.

“I was happy where I was,” Velazquez said. “Coming down the lane she was a little hesitant. It was her first time on a wet track but take nothing from the winner, she’s a nice horse.”

That she is, and trainer Donnie Von Hemel got excellent handling from Gold Medal Dancer’s rider, Luis Quinones, who rated his mount beautifully in front throughout. But it was the filly who lowered her body in deep stretch and wouldn’t let the champ by.

From her comfortable stalking position, Untapable was climbing soon after entering the backstretch and took a while to level off into a rhythm. At the three-sixteenths pole she was in gear, made a run, but could not get by the first filly to defeat her since the Hollywood Starlet in December of 2013.

“I just tried to get her to relax,” said Quinones. “She came out of the gates relaxed and I just let her do it. I said wait, wait, wait and when that other horse came to her, she wouldn’t let her by.”

“It's very exciting and the mare just ran a huge race,” said Von Hemel. “It was a team effort and I am thrilled to death. She fought off the champion and she showed a lot of heart.”

That she did. Looking forward to a possible rematch in the Apple Blossom.

Bets n’ Pieces: Race Day was a game winner of the Razorback, prevailing narrowly following a hard drive. “I thought Midnight Hawk might get by him a couple of times but he dug in,” said Pletcher assistant Adele Bellinger. “Johnny [Velazquez] gave him a beautiful ride…”

And, no, we didn’t bury Saturday’s lead. We will cover the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in Monday’s Week 2 edition of HRI’s Derby Power 10.

File Photo by Toni Pricci

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, March 13, 2015

The Racetrack Is Tough, Reality Much Tougher

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 12, 2015—If racetrackers listen carefully, they probably can hear “Wolfie” growling somewhere. Or is that howling, or scowling, snarling or grimacing.

The Wolf, also known a Richard McCarthy, a racetrack lifer, passed away in his sleep last week. I didn’t ask his lady, Louisa, his age, which I learned later was 68.

I only know that he was on the planet for a shorter period of time than I, yet another friend gone way too soon.

Those daggers he threw, like his attitude, were defense mechanisms that hid the sweet, loyal man beneath the gruff exterior: In that fashion, if there were a bellicosity match race, he and Paul Moran would have finished in a dead heat.

Believe it or not, Wolfie left the game in a better state than he found it. At once, happily but unfortunately, his illness separated him from the sport in the last few years, which was just as well given the current state of affairs.

The last time I saw the Wolfman, we were playing horses and swapping lies at the Saratoga harness track simulcasts, and he never wavered; he was just as cynical as ever.

Wolfie was a connoisseur of good food and drink, no surprise given his New Orleans roots. He came over the house one dark racing day and showed me how to make a rue after shopping for the ingredients together after the morning’s workouts.

He introduced me to my first single malt scotch and on winning days it was Macallan 18, not the every winter’s day 12-year-old variety.

He was a movie raconteur, loving nothing more than to find a diamond in the rough; he turned me on to “In Bruges.” He was the first to tell me about the very scary “Malky” Logan character in “Sexy Beast,” and one night we went into town to hear the best Swamp Rock band ever, The New Orleans Radiators.

But he saved his best work for the racetrack.

We met in the early 1980s and he brought two earnest skills to the game, first as a clocker, later rising to the rank of supervisor, and he ended his career as chart caller extraordinaire for Equibase at the New York tracks.

If he saw something he didn’t like, which happened often, at least in his view, you read about it in the chart footnote. When he wrote something like “was ridden out and finished well after the fact” you didn’t need to see a replay to know what he was talking about.

My personal Wolfie fave was “carefully handled to secure the place.” In any case, he raised the level of the chart footnote, a tradition his good friend and protégé, “Danny K,” has continued.

To my knowledge—and that’s neither non-denial denial nor left-handed compliment—he never put a workout in his pocket. I recommended him to the Newsday sports department and they hired him to provide his insights to Long Island readers.

It was heady times for racing in that era. At the time when Newsday made an ill-fated incursion into New York City, we had, in my opinion, the metro area’s biggest and best horse racing staff.

Talents such as Mark Berner, providing bettors with notable gallop-out times; Brad Thomas and Marc Siegelaub, who kept the horse racing pot boiling feverishly on a daily basis.

And the best reporters--Ed Comerford, who followed the prolific, legendary reporter/columnist Bill Nack, then dual Eclipse-winning wordsmith Moran, covering Thoroughbred racing by day--with the best racing-desk-man and NFL-Recap writer ever, Ed McNamara, cleaning up our copy by night.

It was a real privilege to be a part of that team.

But don’t take my word about Wolfie: Ask Andy Beyer about him, ask him about the runner-up in Swale’s 1984 Belmont Stakes, longshot Pine Circle, about who provided the workout info and what the exacta paid. Never mind Imus, it was Wolfie in the Morning.

Richard McCarthy was a horseplayer’s best friend long before that distinction became the fashion.

For all his bluster I never did hear him raise his voice in anger, although I’m sure he did. He was no saint, only a loyal friend to many who will be missed more than he could imagine.

See ya’, Wolf.

Written by John Pricci

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