By Anthony Stabile
In my fifteen-plus years covering this amazing sport, there have been some emotional days. Breeders’ Cup day 2001 at Belmont, held about 20 miles away from where the Twin Towers had stood less than two months earlier, quickly comes to mind.
On that day, the pride and patriotism of the pre-race festivities and exciting finish of the Classic, when Tiznow did it for America were mixed with some trepidation and nervousness as military men escorted media members up to the press box where snipers lined the roof. Throw in the incident the delayed the start of the day, one that eventually cost the filly Exogenous her life days later and you figure you’ve run the gamut of emotions that horse racing can illicit.
I felt that way until about 8:45 p.m. on March 18th when I found out that Harry Allen Jerkens passed away. That’s when I felt an incredible sadness, one that I never thought I could feel for someone that doesn’t, has or will one day share my last name.
I can’t tell you I remember the first time I met Allen because I was in a stroller but I spent more time at his barn growing up than I did at any other, including my own father’s. At my Dad’s barn I was expected to actually do things. Set feed, roll bandages, fill water buckets, clean webbings and cross bars, screw-eyes and all because my Dad could be a little cuckoo about his barn.
But at Allen’s barn I mostly just talked and listened to him or pushed the wheelbarrow of feed around during afternoon feed-time every now and again. It was during one of those feed-times that I experienced one of the most memorable moments of my life.
It was July of 1989, right before Saratoga, and Allen was in a better mood than usual. He rarely stopped talking during feed-time but he still moved with a purpose and got the job done. On this day, he floated over the ground with a curious smile on his face.
I questioned him as to why he seemed to be happier than he normally was and got nothing but a look that said “I know something that you don’t know,” so I pressed on and pestered him until he broke. He stopped, looked at me in his white tank top, navy cotton shorts and straw and said “Son, there is nothing like the ------- ----.”
I had heard plenty of nicknames for private parts but not that. My father screamed at him but Allen chuckled and reasoned that it was better if I learned about sex from them than from my idiotic friends and some video in school, so on that day, horses were replaced by the birds and the bees.
There were countless other reasons to hang around with the Chief besides that and an occasional can of beer, which is like gold to a teenager. The football games he’d put together were immeasurably tough and fun, he knew more about movies, both old and new, than most critics on T.V. or in the papers and you almost always found your way to one of his favorite restaurants, King Umberto’s, by the time the sun went down.
But if I’m being honest, one of the reasons I loved being around Allen was that you never knew when a legendary Jerkens explosion would occur. I’ve seen some people flip out in their day, but just like he was with training racehorses, he was the best at it.
One day, after he had just run a maiden in a two-year-old filly stakes that Eddie Maple got into more trouble than a porcupine in a balloon factory, I pulled up to the barn with the owner of the filly and another owner we had lunched with during the day. We could hear Allen screaming and kicking things out of frustration. He was so mad he flung a feed tub against the wall that missed hitting me in the head as I walked into the barn by less than a foot. He apologized a million times later on but at no point cared that the other owner was George Steinbrenner. That’s how much he cared about winning.
Sure, he loved winning for himself. You don't win as many races as he did, over 3,800, without having a strong sense of self but he cared much more about his owners. As revered and successful as he was, Allen always wanted to do better for his clients and was the reverent one. I never once heard Allen refer to the owner of Hobeau Farm, one of his oldest clients, as “Jack.” It was always “Mr. Dreyfus” though he could have called him anything he wanted to.
He didn’t like to ship horses much, so he didn’t, but when he did send one to the Meadowlands or Monmouth it was my Dad who often saddled them. When Allen did make the trip over the George Washington Bridge for a stakes race, we’d go along. And while most guys of his stature would be rubbing elbows up in the Pegasus room eating and boozing for free all night, Allen would hang with me and play the races while drinking a $2 beer and eating a burger. Allen was as old school as it gets.
Allen, like most people in my life, always tried to get me to lose weight and we took more than a few walks around the Belmont main track One day, he stopped me at the quarter pole and shook his head.
“Imagine winning the Derby and Preakness, getting to here with the lead and still having to deal with THAT?!” referring to the final two furlongs of the Belmont Stakes. “And they wanna know why no horse has done it for a bunch of years.”
Since that day, the Belmont Stakes has been my favorite race of the year and I have an appreciation for it that most reserve for the Derby. Allen never won a Triple Crown race or Breeders’ Cup race for that matter, or the race he probably wanted to win the most, the Travers at Saratoga.
Though Allen didn’t win it in five attempts, his son Jimmy won it in his first try with Afleet Express back in 2010. When I ran into him at Belmont that fall and we spoke about the feat, he said “better him than me.” While most parents would feel that way, it meant more coming out of his mouth knowing how competitive he was.
Perhaps the only thing that matched his competitiveness was his compassion. If he could help you, he would, whether you were looking for work or a struggling rider who needed to win a race. He was the kind of guy who would find you a job if you didn’t have one for you and rode some of the worst riders in the history of the sport to try and get them rolling. I can’t count how many apprentice riders won stakes races for him.
I could sit here for hours telling Jerkens stories but frankly I’ve cried, something Allen would often do in the winners’ circle, enough for one night. It’s hard for me to say goodbye because I never thought this day would come. He was the type of person that I thought would never die.
There is probably someone waiting for him outside the gates to help get him in. I hope there is cold beer, a big field to play some touch-football on, a giant screen for him to watch his black and whites on and plenty of horses to train.
I hope there is all of that and a ------- ----.