We’re not supposed to root in the press box. We’re not supposed to cheer in the winner’s circle. These are the rules, and they are good ones.
Saturday was not necessarily a day that lent itself to cheering, one of those days in which the electrons seemed all out of order. Hot, hot, hot: Saturday was hot. Would Belmont race or wouldn’t it? It would, and across the racing town square that Twitter has become, people wondered why.
The Belmont backstretch was cooler than expected mid-morning, but still, barns seemed to have gotten an early start, and by the time I stopped by Allen Jerkens’ barn, the place was deserted. Horses in their stalls, parking spaces empty. The Chief had gone home but would be back later to saddle Emma’s Encore in the Grade 3 Victory Ride.
I had a new camera and Saturday was its test flight, except that it barely got off the ground. I’d forgotten the new memory card, and the camera didn’t perform as I’d expected, despite expert photographic advice proffered before the fifth race.
Three races of failed photo experiments left me grousing, so as the horses entered the paddock for the Victory Ride, I pulled out my reliable point-and-shoot…except that its reliability relies on being fully charged, which it wasn’t. Even the most trusty of machines can’t charge itself.
So, on to camera #3 of the day, the iPhone version, which is fine in a pinch and good conditions, but not so much on a humid and hazy afternoon.
There was good news: that oppressive heat that had been predicted never quite developed, and the clouds kept the day comfortable. I’ve spent many days at the track in conditions far worse: the 2007 Travers and 2008 Belmont come to mind.
But the endless camera travails meant that once again, I had missed the Chief and his assistant Fernando Abreu: no paddock “good luck” for them and the filly they got over the winter, from a brand-new client who had called him out of the blue.
So I stood by the finish line, iPhone camera poised, hoping that the day might not be a total photographic loss, snapping (clicking?) as the horses approached the wire, and it wasn’t until I had lowered the camera that I realized that the horse charging down the outside was Emma’s Encore.
I raised my hands above my head…and quickly lowered them. There’s no cheering in the winner’s circle. That’s the rule, and it’s a good one…but it doesn’t apply to connections, and when Abreu walked down to get his filly, he celebrated enough for both of us.
The Chief had watched the race on television from the paddock, as he often does, then slowly made his way to the track. And you’re probably not supposed to kiss the winning trainer, either…but if no one’s ever said that, it’s not a real rule, right?
“I saw her break [on the television monitor], and then I couldn’t find her because I didn’t have the energy to walk out here,” he said. “I finally made it. I thought I was going to pull a Walter Brennan. Remember that movie? He died when he got to the winner’s circle.” An inveterate movie buff, whose knowledge of film is nearly as exhaustive as his knowledge of horse racing, was referring to Brennan’s 1938 movie Kentucky.
Emma’s Encore ran four times for Jerkens at Gulfstream, winning twice; he took a shot with her in the Gulfstream Oaks, but she finished last.
“She showed class [at Gulfstream] and then we made a mistake and ran her in [the Oaks]. It looked like this was a mistake, too, till now.
“It’s amazing, because I didn’t have anything else and the lady sent me this filly and she turns out to be good.”
Owner Brenda Mercer sold a half interest in Emma’s Encore to Peter Berglar after her maiden win in February. “I guess he’s pretty happy now, too,” said Jerkens. “I know I am.”
The win was Jerkens’s first in a graded stakes race since the Grade 3 Westchester in April 2010, which he won with Le Grand Cru. Emma’s Encore paid $80 to win.
“I was being optimistic when I picked this race. We’ll probably think about the Prioress; we’ve had a little luck in the Test Stakes, too,” said the Chief. Jerkens won the Prioress with Classy Mirage (1993) and House Party (2003); he won the Test in 1992 with November Snow, in 2004 with Society Selection, and in 2006 with Swap Fliparoo.
The 83-year-old Jerkens told me last week that going to Saratoga wasn’t as much fun anymore, not as much fun as the years he’d go up there with a loaded stable and take down the training title. But Saratoga wouldn’t be Saratoga without him at his shady barn at the edges of the backstretch, and maybe now, he’s looking forward to going back to the place that honors him with an eponymous training title.
Tonight, Jerkens will be honored by his peers; his grace, generosity, and wisdom will be acknowledged, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. He eschews such pomp; at a similar event three years ago, he uttered three sentences when brought to the microphone: “Racing is going to be OK. The best horse still wins. Racing is still racing.”
Yes, racing is still racing, as long as the Chief still gets to the winner’s circle, as long as he’s got a filly that makes him smile the way he did on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s so nice to win one,” he said. “We hadn’t been doing any good at all lately, so this really helps a lot.”