Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
To get to the training track from Barn 56 at Belmont Park, you have to cross a strip of asphalt that is infrequently referred to by its proper name, Assault Road. The clockers’ stand is maybe a hundred yards to the north, on one side of a large-ish parking area where agents and jockeys and trainers often stop and do business.
But if you walk out of the barn on its east side and look south, you’ll see a gently sloping horse path wending in between the barns, bordered by decades-old shade trees and white fences. Devoid of automobiles or golf carts, traversed only by horses and the occasional chicken, the scene is pastoral, almost old-fashioned, which is appropriate, because it’s the perfect setting for trainer Jimmy Jerkens.
A few days before the Kentucky Derby, Jerkens, 50, came out of the barn and delivered the painful news that Quality Road would not be making the trip to Churchill Downs. Having had a scheduled workout twice postponed because of a quarter crack in his right front foot, the colt was simply not ready to run a mile and a quarter against the best horses in the country (well, some of them). As far as Jerkens was concerned, time had run out and that was that.
Being as it was his first ever Derby contender, another trainer might have gone ahead, figuring the injury would be manageable by post time. Horses get but one shot at the Derby and a lot of folks would do just about anything to get there with a horse as swift and talented as Quality Road.
Indeed, had Jerkens gone ahead, Quality Road may well have overcome his hoof problems and won the race. He’s that good.But winning the Derby under those kinds of circumstances would have meant losing something more important.
When he went out on his own in 1997, Jerkens had the greatest role model a new trainer could ask for – his former boss and father, Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens, arguably the most respected, if not revered, trainer alive.
Known for springing giant upsets of some of the world’s most legendary Thoroughbreds, from Kelso to Buckpasser to Secretariat, he was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 1975 at age 45, then the youngest trainer ever so honored. In the ensuing 35 years he’s saddled dozens of stakes winners, including Devil His Due, Missy’s Mirage and Sky Beauty, the nation’s top older female in 1994.
“If you ask me,” said Jimmy Jerkens, “he’s had two Hall of Fame careers – one before he was elected, and one after.”
|Jimmy Jerkens and Quality Road
But success isn’t just measured in numbers; it’s measured by the respect commanded from people for doing the right thing, which is what Allen has always done. I don’t know if Jimmy has ever consciously asked himself “What Would Allen Do?” when it comes to training horses, but every action that he’s taken has reflected the qualities and ideals that Allen has upheld for all these years.
Allen would never have pushed to get Quality Road to the Derby if he wasn’t right; Jimmy did exactly what his father would have done.
A long time ago, Billy Turner, who trained 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, once said: "Allen is the kind of guy who will be the first to fold his tent if everything isn't right, wait, and then beat them all later."
It may be too early to speculate, but don’t be surprised if Jimmy Jerkens and Quality Road end up in – and are favored to win – the