Hail to the Chief

I’ve been writing for weeks about the major BEST fundraiser last night, always with a tinge of envy, knowing that the ticket price was out of my reach, regretful that I wouldn’t be able to attend.

Around midday on Wednesday, I got a call from the folks at the Belmont Child Care Association, who told me that they had an extra seat at their table, and asking if I could join them.

Um…could I join them?

To quote Marv Albert, “Yesssssssss!”

The event, hosted by Backstretch Employees Service Team and the New York Racing Association, honored Allen Jerkens with a Lifetime Outstanding Service Award. Held at the gorgeous and historical Hempstead House, part of the Sands Point Preserve, it raised funds for BEST’s programs through ticket sales and a silent auction, and a terrific band played as we sipped cocktails on the long lawn, stretching down to the water.

Among the guests: Bobby Frankel; Jan Rushton; Tom Durkin, who served as master of ceremonies; Charles Hayward; Alan Garcia; Tom Albertrani; Letty McLaughlin; Tracy Pletcher; Leah Gyarmati; Angel Cordero; Mary Ryan; Jimmy Ferraro; Dinny Phipps; Ramon Hernandez (really funny—his wife, too); Michael Iavarone; and Rick Dutrow. Others, too, I’m sure, that I didn’t recognize, and of course Cate Dolan and Rich Cristiano, BEST executives, were present, as was Lynne Veitch, my host at Belmont on Monday.

I sat with folks from Anna House: Donna and Stuart Chenkin, who run the BCCA; Herb Oster, a BCCA board member and partner in Team Five Star Stable; and Michael Dubb, without whom Anna House would not exist and part-owner of Oprah Winney and many other New York horses. Their generosity made it possible for me to attend the event, so I was particularly happy to see that Michael won two races Thursday at Belmont.

Leah Gyarmati, who began working for Allen Jerkens when she was sixteen, spoke first, attributing to Jerkens the “power to change people’s hearts.” She spoke of his ability to make her and many others believe in themselves, not only on the track but in other areas of their lives, saying that he would always find a place for people in his stable. This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard this said of Jerkens; the Chief has a reputation for giving a leg up to those who might need a chance, and for his patience, for sticking with jockeys, grooms, and riders and giving them a chance to learn.

Durkin then took the mike, recounting a story of observing from the top of Belmont a shirtless man, on a really hot day, pulling up weeds nearly a mile away. It was, according to Durkin, Jerkens, out getting dandelions to feed his horses as treats, and Durkin used this observation as a metaphor for Jerkens’s attention to detail and willingness to work hard to make people’s lives just a little bit better. From this simple image of a man in a field, Durkin recounted Jerkens’s many accomplishments: He was inducted into the Hall of Fame forty-five years ago, then the youngest person to be inducted. He’s run 160 stakes winners. He’s a two-time Eclipse award winner. He beat both Secretariat and Buckpasser.

Surpassing these achievements, though, Durkin stressed, is Jerkens’s work in improving the lives of people on the backstretch. According to Durkin, those dandelions Jerkens gives his horses are symbols for the hope he inspires in those who work for him, for the opportunities he gives them, and for his encouragement. And on that fairly sentimental note, Durkin ended, as the room rose in a standing ovation.

In typically laconic fashion, Jerkens kept his remarks brief: “Racing is going to be OK. The best horse still wins. Racing is still racing.”

My guess is that he’s a man of few words in most circumstances; given that it was nearly 10 pm, he was probably thinking of his alarm going off the next morning and eager to get himself home.

Not so eager, though, that he wasn’t willing to talk for a few minutes to a big fan, to someone who’s loved Teammate and Miss Shop and maybe most of all Society Selection, and who is now attached to a lesser known Jerkens filly, Duchess of Rokeby. He smiled when I mentioned her name, and with the gallantry of an old-school gentleman, invited me back to visit her anytime, even offering the barn and stall number.

Were I to show up at his barn some morning, here or in Saratoga, I doubt that he’d remember me…but I have no doubt that he’d pretend to. At the end of a long night, ready to go home, Jerkens was still handing out dandelions, even to perfect strangers.

9 thoughts on “Hail to the Chief

  1. This was a great read ! I have always believed there are great human characters in the racing game, and this account details just that.

  2. Glad you had a great time-sorry i won’t see you next Thursday.Our winner from 2 weeks ago came last in one of the races that Michael Dubb. From 1st to worst!

  3. Had the pleasure of working for the Chief up at the Spa some summers ago- the most compassionate man on any backstretch in America-unforgettable experience!!

  4. From Allen Jerkens’ website;Trainer Allen Jerkens broke the 30-second record for acceptancespeeches at the 42nd annual National Turf Writers Association awardsdinner Oct. 24. After a brief, “Hello, thank you, good-bye” that provedhe is more comfortable around horses than in front of a podium, Jerkensreceived a standing ovation from the 230 guests.my appreciation and respect for this trainer grows every day. I hope he gets more champions before his training career is over [if it will ever be over.] He’s great. He’s one of the few guys who’ve been there and SEEN it. I’m enormously jealous of you seeing this! I’ve never been brave enough to actually talk to him.

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