By Paul Volponi
The white placard hanging outside Barn 30 along the Belmont Park backstretch reads: H. A. Jerkens Racing Stable. The H. stands for Harry, but it is seldom used. Allen Jerkens trains racehorses here. His workers call him, "The Chief."Jerkens, 73, has long been recognized for his ability to get inside a horse's head. His conditioning has catapulted several runners with a strong foundation of talent past some of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time. The likes of Kelso, Buckpasser, Secretariat and Forego have all tasted unexpected defeat through his charges.In this year's Belmont Stakes, Jerkens will saddle Puzzlement. The 3-year-old son of Pine Bluff is another from the mold of Jerkens runner with a strong foundation of talent. Though Puzzlement's first real test for class came in the Peter Pan (gr. II) on May 25, a race in which he finished second, one length behind the victorious Sunday Break, the bay colt has been impressing Jerkens for some time now."He's always been willing to go," said Jerkens of Puzzlement. "At the start, I worked him with some pretty nice horses. He'd run up in between them, taking a lot of dirt in the face. But he'd keep on going."Puzzlement's owner Joseph V. Shields Jr. has watched Jerkens scale mountains with his stock before. The Shields-owned Wagon Limit defeated Skip Away in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park at odds of 34-1.Unraced as a 2-year-old, Puzzlement took three starts to break his maiden at Gulfstream Park this year. The colt's three Florida races all came in March, spaced an even 14 days apart. He broke poorly from the gate in his first two races, costing him dearly. But he has seemingly overcome that fault under Jerkens' steady tutelage"In Florida, he got shut off pretty good in the stretch one time. He had every reason to check out, but he didn't," recalled Jerkens of his tenacious runner.In the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan, Puzzlement finished gamely through the stretch to the outside of Sunday Break. He raced the final three-eighths of a mile in .38 flat. Steady indeed. He also finished five lengths ahead of Essayons, a colt he had dead-heated with in victory at Aqueduct at the same distance, 23 days prior. Jerkens believes that both Sunday Break and Puzzlement "ran big" in the Peter Pan.The influence of Jerkens on racing, and on Belmont Park in particular, goes well beyond victories achieved on the racetrack. Jerkens is also recognized as a man of character and a teacher, who inspires others to help themselves.New York trainer Leah Gyarmati learned almost everything she knows about horses from Jerkens. She galloped horses for Jerkens regularly in her teens, until she went off to college, earning a degree in theology from Samford.Upon her return, Jerkens urged her back into the saddle. When Gyarmati lost 30 pounds on a diet of fruits and vegetables, Jerkens named her on a horse in the afternoon. She enjoyed a good career as an apprentice rider, and now trains her own stable."He's the most powerful man on the racetrack," said Gyarmati of her mentor. "Not because of what he can do for you. But what he can inspire in you to do for yourself."Two of Jerkens' four children -- Steve and Jimmy -- have become successful trainers on the New York circuit after starting out in their father's barn. Many who have come through the barn talk about a sense of family that exists there. They include trainer Michael Hushion, who apprenticed under Jerkens for seven years before going out on his own, and Ralph Theroux Jr., jockey agent for Jean Luc Samyn, who started with Jerkens as a teenager during the summers.Jerkens has also been exceedingly loyal to his steady exercise riders, giving them mounts in the afternoons on the runners they know best. Noel Wynter rode the race of his dreams on Put It Back, winning last year's Riva Ridge Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day.Jockey Ray Ganpath arrived in New York with little fanfare after a standout career in Trinidad. So far Jerkens is the only trainer to give him a leg up. "I think he's one of the few trainers around who will give you a shot," said a grateful Ganpath.Jerkens has taken the Peter Pan-route to the Belmont Stakes with stretch runners before. Virginia Rapids took the Peter Pan in 1993, and Best of Luck scored in the stepping stone event in 1999. Neither were spectacular two weeks later. Virginia Rapids checked in fifth after trailing the field of 13 through the first half mile. Best of Luck closed to be fourth, also after being far back early on.Despite an illustrious Hall of Fame career, Jerkens has never captured a Triple Crown event. What would a win with Puzzlement in the Belmont Stakes mean to the trainer?"It would be icing on the cake," said Jerkens.