(Be aware this is pretty long, what else is new. But it was the only way to properly tell the story of Allen Jerkens’ greatest year, which ties in to him being honored with a grade 1 stakes named after him)
Of all the stakes on NYRA’s calendar to change to the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, none would have made the Hall of Fame trainer happier than the King’s Bishop, named after a horse he trained and run at the track in which Jerkens scored his most memorable upset. And that same year he won a grade I stakes with King’s Bishop.
In fact, it was that year, 1973, that was the greatest of Jerkens’ career. No, he didn’t break any records and didn’t saddle any classic winners, or even any champions. So, how could “The Chief,” as he was affectionately known, have had the greatest year ever?
First, let’s establish the fact that Jerkens’ career has always existed in a different realm than other trainers. He rewrote the meaning of the word unconventional, and simply put, did things differently than anyone else. He had to, because his stable was unlike anyone else’s. It usually was made up of a ragamuffin group of misfits and castoffs, most of which were owned by his longtime friend Jack Dreyfus, who was every bit as unconventional as Jerkens. They truly were racing’s Odd Couple, but together they struck fear in every trainer and owner who sent a favorite to the post.
To give you an idea just how special a year 1973 was for Jerkens, consider this: When the year started, Onion had won only four-of-11 starts in allowance company; Prove Out had won only four races (a maiden and three allowance races) in 27 starts with Buddy Hirsch, finishing out of the money 17 times; Vertee had earned only $20,000 in his entire career; Poker Night had been running in $13,000 maiden claiming races; Step Nicely had broken his maiden in an $18,000 claiming race; and King’s Bishop was a solid stakes horse in the Midwest, trained by T.J. Kelly.
By the end of the year, all six horses had won the equivalent of grade I stakes for Jerkens.
The two defeats of Secretariat solidified Jerkens’ title as “The Giant Killer.” But there had been numerous other occasions where “David” had slain “Goliath.” In addition to defeating Secretariat at 1-10 and 3-10, Jerkens knocked off the mighty Kelso three times with Beau Purple. In those three races – the Man o’War, Suburban, and Widener – Kelso was even-money, 3-5, and 1-2, while Beau Purple paid $43.30, $12.60, and $8.70.
In the years to follow, Jerkens upset Secretariat twice, Buckpasser, Riva Ridge, Forego, Cicada, Numbered Account, Summer Guest, Malicious, Wajima, Fanfreluche, Moccasin, Straight Deal, Gamely, Lady Pitt, Skip Away, Gentlemen, and Temperence Hill. In all, he defeated eight horses who are in the Hall of Fame.
Jerkens has always said there is no great secret to upsetting champions. “Great horses benefit from their reputation,” he said years ago. “Trainers are scared off and the fields usually are small with little or no competition. They win a lot of races by default. Take Secretariat for instance, if he didn’t have a nitwit like me to put two horses in against him he would have won both the Whitney and Woodward by default.”
Jack Dreyfus once said of Jerkens, “Allen seems to know the horses’ feelings. He puts himself inside their head. It’s simply magnificent the things he can get some horses to do for him.”
That was never more evident than in 1973, when Jerkens’ horses tore up their past performances and rose to heights they had never before come close to attaining.
There certainly was no reason to think an allowance horse like Onion could even close to beating Secretariat in the Whitney.
“He had run well early in the year, but it looked like he was tailing off a little after Jorge Velasquez let him run off by nine lengths for some reason in an allowance race,” Jerkens recalled. “I freshened him a little and pointed him toward the Whitney. There were rumors that Secretariat was going to run, so I figured it would be a small field.”
While Secretariat was breaking track records in his works, Onion was breezing seven furlongs in a sluggish 1:31.
“We went up to Saratoga to work Onion the Sunday before the race, and I ran into (jockey) Robyn Smith,” Jerkens said. “She asked to work Onion for me, but I told her it was too important a work. “She said to me, ‘Why, do you think I’m going to mess it up?’ So I let her work him and he went a half in :47 flat. Two days later, we ran him in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race and he won by eight lengths in 1:15 1/5, breaking the track record.
“We blew him out another eighth of a mile after the allowance race, and another eighth the morning of the Whitney. I was hoping Secretariat would chase everyone away and we’d have a good chance for second.”
A record crowd turned out for the Whitney, and for the first time, NYRA opened the infield to the public. Only five went to the post with Secretariat the overwhelming favorite at 1-10. Although the accomplished grade I winner True Knight, owned by Darby Dan, was in the field, the crowd made Onion second choice at 5-1, demonstrating the respect they had for Jerkens.
Of course, the rest, as they say, is history. To what extent Secretariat was affected by the virus he was either incubating or already was showing symptoms of, we’ll never know for sure. The bottom line is that Secretariat couldn’t catch the pacesetting Onion, making several runs at him, as a shocked nation watched in disbelief.
“Onion was a better horse than people think,” Jerkens said. “What really disappointed me was that the following spring he bowed a tendon and was never the same, It was unfortunate because I really believed he was going to be a top handicap horse that year.”
The Whitney was the only stakes Onion would ever win. After bowing following two impressive allowance wins, he returned to the races, but could only manage three victories in 12 starts. He lived out the rest of his days as a pensioner at Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm in Ocala. Onion’s name will forever be linked, not only to Secretariat, but to Upset and Jim Dandy. It was this trio that became a part of Saratoga lore, giving birth to the terms “Graveyard of Favorites” and “Graveyard of Champions.”
Earlier that year, Jerkens won the Widener and John B. Campbell Handicaps with Vertee, whose sale later in the year enabled Jerkens to purchase Prove Out from King Ranch.
One of Jerkens’ greatest training jobs that or any other year was with Poker Night, who rose from the depths of the claiming ranks to become one of the top fillies in the country, knocking off several champions along the way. After running in five claiming races for Maje Odom at 2, she was sold to Jerkens (who had carte blanche from Dreyfus to buy any horse he wanted), winning a pair of allowance races early in her 3-year-old campaign. Jerkens then pulled one of his unorthodox, but brilliant moves by entering her, not only against older fillies and mares in the Bed o’ Roses Handicap, but against the great Phipps filly Numbered Account.
“I bought Poker night from Maje for $25,000 because she was by Poker and I thought she might make a good grass horse. I looked at her and I liked her angle; she just appealed to me. I’m not good at picking out fat yearlings from their angles, but she was 3, and when she walked out of her stall, I knew I wanted to buy her. I bought her in February and won with her five days later. She was doing so well and eating so well, we just ran her in every race that came along.”
Poker Night not only defeated Numbered Account in the Bed ‘o Roses, she came back against older fillies and beat Numbered Account again, as well as the previous year’s Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama winner Summer Guest, by four lengths in the Top Flight Handicap. She went on to win such top stakes as the Interborough and Hempstead Handicaps, and finished first in the Ladies Handicap, only to be disqualified, and was second in the Beldame twice.
When Step Nicely was a 2-year-old, Jerkens did not exactly look at him with instant reverence. However, he had no way of knowing at the time that a tiger lurked inside that little black frame.
“He was another of my favorite horses,” Jerkens said. “He finished in the money even when he wasn’t doing good. As a 2-year-old, he would throw all his exercise riders off. He just didn’t want to train. I ran him for an $18,000 claiming tag because I didn’t think he was that good, but he was a feisty little guy.”
Jerkens worked with him, and he wound up winning the Cowdin Stakes, beating Stop the Music and Linda’s Chief at odds of 16-1. He also placed in the Champagne and Garden State Stakes to Secretariat. The following year he upset Forego and Linda’s Chief in the Jerome at odds of 7-1, covering the mile in 1:34 flat. Also in the field were Our Native, winner of the Flamingo, Ohio Derby, and Monmouth Invitational; My Gallant, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes; and the Jersey Derby winner Knightly Dawn. Jerkens felt he should have finished ahead of Secretariat in the Wood Memorial.
“Secretariat lugged in on him all the way down the stretch, and beat us a half-length for third,” Jerkens said.
An ankle injury kept Step Nicely out for most of 1974, but he returned as a 5-year-old, winning the Roseben, Westchester, and Excelsior Handicaps. In 48 career races, Step Nicely brought back a check in 44 of them, while racing against the likes of Secretariat, Forego, Wajima, Linda’s Chief, and Stop the Music. He eventually was retired to pebble Hill Farm in Ocala.
But arguably Jerkens’ greatest training job was with Prove Out, a regally bred colt whom he had purchased privately from King Ranch for Jack Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm. Prove Out was born for greatness, being by the classic sire Graustark, a son of the legendary Ribot. His dam, Equal Venture, is a half-sister to Triple Crown winner Assault. Equal Venture’s broodmare sire is Equipoise, and Prove Out’s fourth dam, Masda, is full-sister to Man o’War.
But Prove Out had bad ankles and other problems, and his trainer William J. “Buddy” Hirsch could do little with him. By August of his 4-year-old year, he had won only four races (a maiden and three allowance races) in 27 career starts. Of those 27 starts, 25 were in allowance or maiden races, and in his only two ventures into stakes company, he finished well up the track. The longest distance he’d ever won at was 1 1/16 miles, and that came in his maiden victory.
Jerkens, however, had his eye on Prove Out for a while, recalling the promise he had shown at Santa Anita at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. Jerkens and Hirsch were good friends, and one day Hirsch approached Jerkens and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m hustling you or anything, but that horse I saw you looking at is coming up for sale. He’s a little raunchy and Mr. Kleberg (King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg) is mad at him and wants to sell him.”
Jerkens knew Prove Out came from families that were trained hard and felt he might respond to hard training, much like Beau Purple.
Jerkens had just sold Dreyfus’ Widener Handicap winner Vertee for a nice profit, and decided to take a chance on Prove Out, buying him for Dreyfus for $65,000. He began by concentrating on the colt’s ankles, tubbing them and poulticing them. He used a eucalyptus vaporizer to clear up his sinuses and applied linament to his shoulders. In short, he did everything he could to build him back up and alleviate any aches and pains that may have been bothering him.
Prove Out also had a bad habit of lugging in, so Jerkens put his best exercise rider, Jimmy Rhoades, on him to try to teach him to keep a straight course. Two weeks after getting him, Jerkens ran him in a seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 24. To prevent him from lugging in, he equipped the colt with a burr and put an inside cup on his blinker. Prove Out responded by defeating the quick-footed Cutlass and the 3-5 favorite Forego by 6 1/2 lengths in a track-record 1:21 flat.
But when Jerkens dropped Prove Out back to six furlongs in another allowance race on Sept. 1 at Belmont, he was taken too far off the pace and just missed catching Dr. Fager’s full brother Highbinder by a head in 1:09 4/5. Jerkens ran him right back nine days later in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race and Prove Out equaled the track record of 1:40 2/5, beating the top-class Halo by 5 1/2 lengths.
The nine-furlong Chesapeake Handicap at Bowie on Sept. 22 looked like an easy spot for the colt’s first stakes victory. He was in with only 111 pounds and was sent off as the 9-5 favorite. But all of Jerkens’ work seemed for naught when Prove Out lugged in again and hit the rail before retreating to a seventh-place finish.
Then came the 1 1/2-mile Woodward Stakes. When the weather forecast called for rain on Woodward day, Lucien Laurin and Penny Tweedy decided to enter both Riva Ridge and Secretariat. If the track was fast, Riva Ridge would run, but if it came up sloppy, a surface Riva Ridge detested, they would substitute Secretariat. The track did come up sloppy and Riva Ridge was scratched the morning of the race, leaving Secretariat to go 1 1/2 miles on an off track only two weeks after breaking a world record and having to go into the race off two slow works on the grass. It was a recipe for disaster.
Jerkens, meanwhile, was angry and frustrated over Prove Out’s performance at Bowie. When one of his good horses ran that poorly, Jerkens took it personally and would often take drastic measures. In the morning, he equipped the colt with a severe run-out bit and turned it the opposite way. The bit had prongs that hit the side of the jaw, and Jerkens used it in the hope that during the race the burr would remind the horse of that bit hitting the side of his mouth and he would respond to it.
Jerkens decided to take a shot and run Prove Out in the weight-for-age Woodward, even though he’d have to pick up 15 pounds off the Chesapeake run the week before, concede seven pounds to Secretariat, and stretch out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles. Prove Out had never run farther than 1 1/16 miles. It also would mark Prove Out’s fifth start in five weeks since coming to Jerkens, who felt if the track came up fast and Secretariat should scratch then someone had a shot to get lucky or at least pick up a piece of the purse.
But it didn’t come up fast and Secretariat didn’t scratch. The day of the race, Jerkens and Dreyfus were hanging out in the picnic area behind the grandstand when they showed a replay of Secretariat’s Marlboro Cup on the closed circuit TV monitors. After watching Big Red draw off from the field, Jerkens turned to Dreyfus and said, “What the hell are we doing in this race?”
Jerkens had given Prove Out several three-mile gallops to build up his stamina and removed the blinkers for the race, feeling he didn’t need them going a mile and a half.
Secretariat took over the lead from the 16-1 Prove Out shortly after heading into the backstretch and was able to slow the pace down. Around the far turn, with Big Red winging out there by two lengths, the crowd waited for the explosion that was sure to come. Secretariat had picked up the pace with a :24 flat quarter, with Prove Out and Cougar II lapped on each other. After another testing quarter in :24 2/5, Cougar II was done, but Prove Out wouldn’t go away. To the amazement of everyone, he came charging back along the inside and just blew right on by Secretariat, as the crowd went silent.
Despite never even coming close to running this far, Prove Out came home his final quarter in a spectacular :24 flat, drawing off to a 4 1/2-length victory. Over a sloppy track that was not playing fast at all, Prove Out stopped the teletimer in 2:25 4/5, which still to this day is the second-fastest mile and a half ever run at Belmont. Only Secretariat’s out-of-this world Belmont performance was faster. Another unbelievable aspect of Prove Out’s performance was his running each of his last three quarters in :24 flat, a feat unheard of at that distance.
Regardless of what cynics may say, Secretariat did not lose the Woodward. Prove Out won the Woodward, and I can’t think of any horse who would have beaten him that day. Although everything was against Secretariat, he still ran the mile and a half in 2:26 3/5, which would have equaled Gallant Man’s previous track record before Big Red shattered it in the Belmont Stakes. And he did finish 11 lengths ahead of Cougar II in third. If Prove Out had been trained by anyone else he would not even have been in the race and Secretariat would have won by 11 lengths, running the second-fastest 1 ½ miles in Belmont history.
Prove Out wasn’t done with his assault on Meadow Stable superstars. For the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Jerkens breezed Prove Out a pair of slow miles, then breezed him three furlongs in :39 the Sunday before the race. The following morning, Prove Out worked a mile and a half in 2:39 3/5 with a final half in :49 1/5. Three days later, on the Thursday before the race, he galloped a mile and a half, after which he broke off into a dead run for a half-mile, which was timed in :47 2/5. He then galloped out an additional furlong in :12 3/5. There certainly was never anything conventional about Allen Jerkens.
With all this bottom and sharpness in him, Prove Out went head and head with Riva Ridge in the Gold Cup through a seemingly suicidal half in :47 2/5. After six furlongs, Riva Ridge was spent, but Prove Out kept right on going. He covered the mile in a brutal 1:37 1/5 with half of the race still to be run. By comparison, Damascus ran his mile in the 1967 Gold Cup in 1:40 1/5. Arts and Letters went his mile in 1:40 4/5 in 1969. When Kelso set his track and American record in the 1964 Gold Cup, he went his mile in 1:38 2/5.
So brutal was the pace that Riva Ridge would be beaten more than 33 lengths. When the distance-loving Loud, winner of the 1970 Travers and second and third behind the great Shuvee in the 1970 and ’71 Jockey Club Gold Cup, respectively, came charging up to challenge nearing the quarter pole, Prove Out looked like he was cooked, especially when he veered in and bounced off the rail. But, again, to the shock of everyone, he shifted to another gear and spurted away from Loud. Somehow he managed to close his final quarter in an incredible :24 4/5, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. His time was 3:20 flat, and to this day only Kelso has run a faster two miles in this country (3:19 1/5 and 3:19 4/5).
In two races, Prove Out had demonstrated every aspect of greatness – speed, stamina, courage, fast-closing fractions, and class, defeating three future Hall of Famers – Secretariat, Riva Ridge, and Cougar II. By destroying Forego earlier, it means he defeated four Hall of Famers in three different races at three different distances in the span of two months.
Prove Out again showed his brilliance the following spring, winning the 1 1/4-mile Grey Lag Handicap by six lengths in a swift 2:00 1/5. But physical problems again caught up with him and he was retired to Gainesway Farm after three straight defeats.
Prove Out will not be remembered as a great horse, and in fact is only remembered at all because of his upset of Secretariat and possibly as the broodmare sire of the great Miesque. But he should serve as a reminder that greatness can emerge anytime, anywhere, and from anyone if they have the traier to bring it out. Make no mistake about it; Secretariat was beaten in the Woodward by an extraordinary horse, who, on that day and on Gold Cup day may very well have been unbeatable.
Finally, Jerkens’ last big horse in 1973 was King’s Bishop. Racing for Craig Cullinan as a 3-year-old, he won the Pontiac Grand Prix and Round Table Handicap at Arlington and the Michigan Mile and an Eighth at Detroit Racecourse. He then was sold to Mr. Richard DuPont and turned over to Jerkens. Earlier in the year, he had finished second to Key to the Mint in the Excelsior Handicap, and it was obvious he was a good horse, but Jerkens wasn’t satisfield with good. He decided to convert him into a sprinter.
“He was a very fast horse, but his wind was bothering him,” Jerkens recalled.
Dropping back from 1 1/4 miles in the Grey Lag Handicap, King’s Bishop set a new track record for seven furlongs at Belmont, winning the Carter Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths in a blistering 1:20 2/5, He added the Fall Highweight Handicap, defeating the speedy Shecky Greene, and was third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, in the Met Mile.
“Late in the fall he started having real bad problems with his wind and we had to retire him,” Jerkens said.
NYRA honored King’s Bishop by naming a seven-furlong stakes after him at Saratoga that grew to grade I status and for years has been regarded as the most prestigious 3-year-old sprint in the country, along with the Malibu Stakes run at Santa Anita in late December.
It can be said that no trainer has ever done so much with so little in a single year. Two years later, Jerkens became the youngest trainer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Although he came to detest the title, Jerkens will always be remembered as The Giant Killer. But in reality it is he who was the giant.