Update on the Chief

We walk into his room and he has his back to us; he’s sitting in a chair, reading the paper, the sun streaming in the window in front of him. His eyes are on the newspaper, but right next to it lies the Aqueduct condition book.

“Good morning, Chief.”

He pushes his chair back and turns around; we hadn’t told him we were coming and for all we know he doesn’t want to be disturbed, but ever the gentleman, he welcomes us warmly, turns away from his paper, and sits quietly. After you’ve talked to him a few times, you learn that the silence means only that if you wait long enough, or ask the right question, the stories will start.

On this day, the Chief is offering opinions. On Calder, which he likes: “It’s a nice little track,” he says. “I like racing there.” On Tampa Bay Downs, which he thinks will continue to ascend in the racing world, given the growing importance of its stakes races and the quality of its turf track.

On politics and the elections, he is clearly non-partisan, praising and criticizing both Democrats and Republicans.

On Saratoga: “There was nothing better than a Saturday at Saratoga,” back when there was no racing on Sunday. Thinking about this, he looks straight ahead, and a slow, charmed, charming smile comes across his face.

On Thanksgiving, which this year irritates him with its placement, because it may well disrupt his plans to get to Florida. “You can’t travel for the whole week, because the planes are too crowded, and then it’s December.”

I tell him about Jessica Chapel’s Saturday post, about a New York Times article in which jockey Robyn Smith names her track-record-setting ride on Jerkens’s Beaukins as one of her favorites. That smile comes back, and off we go, as he tells story after story about Smith.

The jockey, he tells us, used to save the corn from her dinner to bring back to Beaukins at the barn. Recalling a ride in which Smith beat Mike Hole, the Chief is transformed, launching into an impersonation of the late jockey: “ ‘I had plenty of horse at the 3/8 pole, but I couldn’t get past her, Chief….she wouldn’t let me past her!’ ” The smooth cadences of his voice are gone, replaced completely with Hole as interpreted by Jerkens; though born in England, Hole, channeled through the Chief, is pure New York.

At Saratoga, the Chief’s barns, over the years, have been near the pony track, the small training track at Clare Court over which Jerkens’s horses regularly gallop. It is known to be a half mile, an assessment that the Chief long ago called into question while clocking a horse. No way that horse went a half-mile in that time, Jerkens asserted. It’s not a half-mile track.

Yes, it is, Chief.

No, it’s not.

So Jerkens and Robyn Smith get in her Jaguar and drive around the pony track…and the odometer tells him that it’s 4/10 of a mile long. Once again, the Chief has made the right call.

Jenny Kellner brings us news of his racing plans; the Chief is supposed to go home this week, where he’ll continue to rest and recuperate, with plans to go to Florida later this month. He’s itching to get to the barn and hopes to make an appearance there next weekend, though he’s smart enough to know that he’s got to take it easy. “Maybe just for an hour or so,” he says. It won’t be long enough, for him, for the horses, or for the folks who have missed him these last weeks, but it’s a start.

4 thoughts on “Update on the Chief

  1. Thanks you for the story. Allen Jerkens is a one of a kind man. He’s so very quiet until… If you can get him going he’s a font of stories, many of them very funny.

  2. I remember Beaukins!! I worked at Hobeau Farm in the early 80’s, and he lived in a large pasture next to my barn. His buddy was Onion! Used to feed them every day, and generally took care of the “Boys” while I was there.

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