As trainer Jimmy Jerkens navigates the backstretch at Saratoga Race Course every morning, and when he gazes at the track in the afternoon, there are constant reminders of his greatest loss. His father Allen, a legendary conditioner and his hero, died last March at age 85.
"It hits you. It's sad," Jerkens said. "He was a loving father."
Jerkens cannot help but recall his father's Hall of Fame career throughout the prestigious summer meet. The training title is named after Allen, a sign of the enduring admiration and respect for him in this hotbed of Thoroughbred racing.
And as Jerkens prepares Tri-Bone Stables' hard-knocking Effinex for the $1.25 million Whitney Handicap (gr. I) coming up Aug. 6, veteran fans will remember the Whitney that helped solidify his father's reputation as a giant killer, when Onion toppled mighty Triple Crown winner Secretariat on Aug. 4, 1973. Remarkably, he later brought down Secretariat with Prove Out in the Woodward (gr. I). And in the 1960's, he saddled Beau Purple to defeat Kelso three times.
Jerkens, an assistant to his father before he went out on his own in 1997, knows exactly what his father would have done as he readies Effinex, a 5-year-old son of Mineshaft , for the 1 1/8-mile Whitney.
"As far as his training methods, horses have changed so you have to temper it a little bit. We tweak it here and there," the son said. "But his way of getting horses ready for long distances is the way to go."
Allen won 3,859 races and more than $103 million in purses. Jerkens was like a sponge whenever he was around him.
"I hung on every word. Growing up, I thought he was the best ever and I firmly believed it," he said. "Most kids try to pull against their parents a bit as far as their beliefs, but I always believed in him."
Jerkens insists on giving the 40 or so horses under his care—24 are stabled at Saratoga this summer—the hands-on attention his father would have given. He marvels at rivals who oversee vast operations.
"I don't want to turn horses down, but at the same time I don't want to have numbers I'm uncomfortable with," he said. "I'd rather see everything myself and act accordingly."
Allen's horses were known for their staying power. Effinex is very much in that mold. He placed second to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) last year. He won three graded stakes races, including the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, to be honored as the Horse of the Year among New York-breds in 2015.
Jerkens said of his prospects in the Whitney, headlined by overwhelming favorite Frosted , "He has to run the race of his life and the others have to stub their toes to get it done."
But don't think Effinex isn't some kind of runner. On July 9 he become the first repeat winner of the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) since Allen accomplished that double with Devil His Due in 1993-94.
Yet another reminder for Jerkens of what once was.