The most important lessons Chuck Simon learned as an assistant trainer to Allen Jerkens were not about horses—though those were plentiful. What Simon learned most were lessons about being a good person.
“Outside of my own father, he had more influence on me than any other person,” said Simon, who worked for Jerkens from 1994 through 1999, when he went out on his own as a trainer. “He rooted for everyone. Being around him made you a better person.”
Simon grew up in the racing community of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., working the backsides of both harness and Thoroughbred racetracks during the summer. Jerkens was one of his childhood heroes.
After graduating from the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program and discovering racetrack administrative work was not for him, Simon went back to the barns. He worked for some of the best trainers in the business—D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito, Tom Skiffington, and Peter Ferriola. But the job he wanted most was with Jerkens.
Simon said he’ll never forget the afternoon he approached Jerkens for a job. One of the Hall of Fame trainer’s assistants had found trouble and created an opening.
“Why do you want to work for me? You work for all those fancy trainers,” Jerkens asked Simon.
“I told him, ‘You’re right; these guys are TV stars, but all I want is to be a horse trainer.’ I guess I passed the test because he told me to be at the barn in the morning. He never told me what my job was.”
Simon was at Jerkens’ barn before dawn.
“Do you work here now?” Jerkens asked him.
“Yes,” Simon said. “What do you want me to do?”
“You know what to do,” Jerkens said and walked away.
Working for Jerkens was demanding. Every day the horses stood in ice, they were done up in four bandages, and they were grazed. Jerkens used to tell Simon that Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott had better horses so the only way the stable was going to win was to outwork them. No one minded the work, Simon said, because they felt as if they worked with Jerkens rather than for him.
“It was a unique barn,” Simon remembered. “Allen had a soft spot for the older racetrackers, the guys who had been around forever but no one else would hire. Maybe they liked to drink a bit too much or were past their prime, but he would have them hold horses for the farrier or put a horse in ice.”
If someone was having a bad day, Jerkens might slip him $50 and tell him to take the girlfriend out for dinner, according to Simon.
Jerkens also had a legendary temper. He hated to lose.
Simon remembered one winter at Gulfstream Park when nothing was going right with the stable. They had escaped South Florida that year with maybe two wins. When the barn relocated to Aqueduct, everything clicked and in short order Jerkens had 15 wins. Even on such a streak, if a horse lost Jerkens would go on a rampage through the barn, kicking buckets and screaming.
On one occasion he got into a fist fight with a groom. They cursed each other, and Jerkens hit him in the head with a water bucket.
“An hour later, Allen is in the groom’s room apologizing and gave him $100,” said Simon. “The groom had a horse in later that day and went to the paddock with his head wrapped like a mummy but wore it like a badge of honor, bragging to other grooms that ‘The Chief’ had hit him with a bucket.”
Jerkens took the losses so hard because he not only felt he was letting the owners down but that he’d let the horse down as well.
“Allen would get paranoid that he was screwing up the training of a horse,” Simon said. “He would say bizarre things like the game has passed him by, and he would wonder if anyone had ever been taken out of the Hall of Fame.”
Then, the barn would get a winner.
“He had this unbridled joy when he won a race. He was always so happy,” Simon said, adding that the joy extended to winners trained by Simon after he went out on his own and to other trainers Jerkens had mentored, such as his own sons Jimmy and Stephen, Mike Hushion, Leah Gyarmati, Tom Bush, and Andrew Lakeman.
“A day does not go by where I don’t think of something he taught me and something he said,” Simon said. “He treated me like family, and he was always willing to see the good in people. Anybody who has been in racing for the past 30 years has been touched in some way by this man.”