SARATOGA SPRINGS On Friday, the son held his father’s jacket, empty but for a hanger.
On Saturday, the father, 1,500 miles away, burst at the seams.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens stood in for his 85-year-old dad — the Chief, Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens — as NYRA honored him as one of three recipients of the Saratoga Red Jacket Walk of Fame.
Jimmy did his best, but he’s his father’s son, with no taste for public spectacle, and said a few economical but meaningful and heartfelt words before an abrupt ‘Thank you’ to cede the stage to the ever-more voluble D. Wayne Lukas and Tom Durkin.
Then on Saturday, he paid tribute to his dad in the best way possible, anyway.
On the track.
On the stretch of Saratoga Race Course where the Chief beat Secretariat over four decades ago, and where he was still winning Grade I’s as recently as two years ago.
Jimmy Jerkens got both of his horses into the photo finish for first place in the 145th Travers, won by V.E. Day in another thriller, over Wicked Strong.
In south Florida, where the Chief is (mostly) retired, the tube was tuned to NBC for the Travers.
A crowd of 46,557 was in full throat, and a national TV audience was treated to another fantastic finish in the Travers, but no one could’ve been rooting to a fuller capacity than the Chief, who for health reasons is missing Saratoga for the first time in over six decades.
“It really was exciting and shocking,” he said by phone shortly after V.E. Day beat Wicked Strong by a nose. “It was almost like when we beat Secretariat. Incredible. You go from thinking he got beat, then you win.”
The Chief, of course, upset Triple Crown winner Secretariat with Onion in the 1973 Whitney at Saratoga, one of a few highlights NYRA showed on the infield video board during the Red Jacket Walk of Fame ceremony before the races on Friday.
He doesn’t travel from his home near Gulfstream Park anymore, so it was left to Jimmy, on the eve of saddling two horses in the $1.25 million crown jewel of the Saratoga meet, to represent him at the Red Jacket event.
Another highlight they showed was Emma’s Encore winning the Grade I Prioress just two short years ago, and it brought a chill up my spine to see the Chief’s long-time assistant, Fernando Abreu, slap palms, pause with a gleam in his eye, then hug his boss.
“It’s unfortunate he couldn’t be here, this was his whole life, obviously,” Jimmy said as he accepted his father’s red blazer. “He lived and breathed it for a long, long time and made a lot of friends. All through his enormous success, he was always able to help the little guy along the way, and I always thought that meant more than anything. Thank you very much.”
The Chief was conspicuous by his absence on Saturday, as he has been all meet.
It didn’t take long for that question to come up at the post-Travers press conference.
“Everybody misses him, not just me,” Jimmy said. “He was such a mainstay here for so many years. I’m glad I’m stabled over at Oklahoma, because every time I go over to the main track, I’ll start thinking about him.
“I guess I got a little weepy watching that infield show, and Fernando and my dad were hugging after Emma’s Encore won. Then I had to go up to the microphone about 30 seconds later, and I could barely talk.”
The Chief, whose wife, Elisabeth, died three weeks ago, watched the Travers with his daughter, Julie.
He was so intent on Wicked Strong that there was a moment of deflation when some other mud-caked horse came up on the outside and barely caught him at the wire.
“What a thrill. It is incredible,” the Chief said. “I didn’t realize it was his horse until my daughter was jumping up and down and telling me, ‘No, it’s Jimmy’s horse!’
“I almost wasn’t sure, because it was so close. I didn’t want to yell yet. It was very close. What, two inches?”
The Chief hasn’t lost anything off his fastball.
While many were in love with the speedster Bayern in the Travers, he wondered why no one was bringing up the fact before the race that Bob Baffert’s colt was picking up eight pounds off his spectacular Haskell win.
“Two, three pounds, that’s not much, but eight is different,” he said.
I guess that red jacket will make its way to Florida eventually, and maybe he’ll even try it on.
Or maybe it’ll stay on the hanger.
Either way, “All’s well that ends well,” the Chief said cheerfully, and we hung up.