Commentary

The magic is still there!

Updated: August 9, 2012, 2:03 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Allen Jerkens is an old man and he's always been on the eccentric side, and that seems to be all that matters to the vast majority of people who own good racehorses. When perception faces off with reality at the racetrack reality never seems to win. And that can be the only reason one of the greatest trainers ever has only 15 horses in his barn.

With most everyone thinking the game has passed him by, the 83-year-old Jerkens did some of the finest work of his career last Saturday. He took a horse that cost $2,000 at the sales and couldn't finish better than fifth in three starts in the maiden ranks for other trainers and won a Grade I race at Saratoga with her. Emma's Encore's win in the Prioress at Saratoga was her second straight stakes victory.

He may be old and rumpled and he doesn't know any sheikhs. But he can train a race horse. There was a time when that mattered more than it does now.

"Like the old days," Jerkens said afterward.

In the old days, Jerkens was among the most respected trainers in the sport. He rarely got to work with fashionably bred animals or pricey yearlings but his horses always overachieved. That's how he kept beating Kelso, Secretariat, Buckpasser and the rest. And he always had a barn full of horses.

But the racetrack evolved over the years and an old-school trainer like Jerkens, who has been in the Hall of Fame for 37 years, got forgotten in the transition. It became a place for horse trainers that doubled as CEOs, guys who ran giant stables and could wine and dine and schmooze owners. That was never Jerkens. He was always all substance, no style.

"I just got back from Saratoga and I was surprised to see that he just has just 10 or so horses in his barn," said Emma's Encore's co-owner Peter Berglar. "He deserves to have more horses. There are a lot of people who seem to think he is too old and his eye isn't that sharp anymore. I think he proves every day that he still has it."

Jerkens has only had 70 starters this year and has managed to win 10 races, four of them with Emma's Encore. Last year he won only 13 races. And hasn't broken the 50-win mark since 2005.

Jerkens doesn't get many chances anymore with the type of horse that can win a major stakes, but when he got Emma's Encore he did the type of work that proved he remains among the best there is. After racing for trainers Alice Cohn and Don Combs, Emma's Encore made her first start for Jerkens at the Gulfstream meet in February. After finishing third in a $50,000 maiden claimer, she won two straight and would later finish second in an allowance race at Belmont.

With his filly ready for the next level, Jerkens entered her in the July 7 Victory Ride, a Grade III stakes at Belmont. Sent off at 39-1, she closed from fifth and won going away. But it was easy to write that race off as a fluke. She got a perfect trip behind a torrid speed duel and the front-runners collapsed late.

The Prioress is where she proved herself. The pace was more reasonable and it was a Grade I event. This time, sent off at 5-1, she won by a nose.

"From being around him and talking to him quite a bit he puts so much thought into details and how to train and how to figure out the horse," Berglar said. "He set up a training routine for her that has really kept her happy. It's unbelievable what he's done. You listen to him and when he talks about all the little details at first you think they aren't that important, but for him everything is important You put all those little things together and he gets results."

Jerkens knows that days like last Saturday will continue to be rare for him

"They'd rather take them away than give them to me," he told the Albany Times-Union. "They don't want any 83-year-old trainer."

That's their loss.

He may be old and rumpled and he doesn't know any sheikhs. But he can train a race horse. There was a time when that mattered more than it does now.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com