How Allen Jerkens Beat Secretariat Twice

It was 60 years ago on July 4th that “The Giant Killer” was born when Allen Jerkens stunned the racing world by upsetting the great Kelso in the Suburban Handicap with his recent acquisition Beau Purple, the first of numerous Jack Dreyfus-owned horses under the name Hobeau Farm who would upset so many champions and future Hall of Famers. And then came the coup de grace in 1973 when Jerkens did the unthinkable by defeating Secretariat twice with Onion and Prove Out. The story is long, but needs to be told in its entirety. ~ Steve Haskin

How Allen Jerkens Beat Secretariat Twice

By Steve Haskin

Photos courtesy of Bob Coglianese/NYRA

Before we get into 1973 and Allen Jerkens’ two shocking upsets over Secretariat, as well his champion stablemate Riva Ridge, we have to tell just who “The Giant Killer” was, how he earned the moniker that he never embraced, what made him such an icon of the sport and youngest trainer ever inducted into the Hall of Fame, and finally how he accomplished such amazing feats training mostly obscurely bred horses and castoffs.

Jerkens surely was the most unconventional trainer of his time who was able to get allowance horses and claimers to win Grade 1 races and upsetting America’s greatest horses. Racing fans and opposing trainers got to know about Jerkens’ training methods and mindset how to prepare a horse for a race when he ran Beau Purple against the mighty Kelso in the 1962 Suburban Handicap.

To demonstrate just how unconventional Jerkens could be, he had taken over the training of Jack Dreyfus’ horses in 1962 and two months later found himself running against Kelso and Carry Back with a hard-headed speed horse named Beau Purple, who had been beaten 17 lengths in an overnight handicap in his most recent start. Beau Purple was an enigma in that he needed the lead, but didn’t want to be challenged.

Jerkens got a feel for him by breezing him three-quarters in 1:19, a mile in 1:45, and a mile and a quarter in 2:09. He knew he had to let him roll if he was going take on Kelso and Carry Back, so he put exercise rider George Wallace on him for his next work, because Wallace liked to go fast. Six days before the Suburban, Beau Purple worked six furlongs in a rapid 1:10 flat.

Two days before the Suburban, Jerkens sent Beau Purple out for a slow mile breeze, wanting to take some of the speed away. But the horse was feeling so good he went the mile in 1:37 and galloped out 1 1/8 miles in 1:50. That’s as fast as they run races and doing it two days before having to meet a two-time Horse of the Year and two-time classic winner.

“I said to myself, ‘If this sonofagun isn’t bothered at all by this work, he’s going to run the race of his life,’” Jerkens said years later.’” I came back to the barn later that afternoon and he was eating better than he ever did. Most horses with class will eat better when you work them hard, and the horses without class will back off their feed.”

Jerkens would go on to upset Kelso two more times. In those three races – the Man o’War, Suburban, and Widener Handicap – Kelso was even-money, 3-5, and 1-2, while Beau Purple paid $43.30, $12.60, and $8.70. The Giant Killer was born.

In addition to defeating the Kelso three times with Beau Purple and years later the legendary Secretariat with Onion (in the Whitney Handicap) and Prove Out (in the Woodward Stakes), Jerkens upset Buckpasser (7-10) with Handsome Boy ($12.60) in the Brooklyn Handicap; Riva Ridge (1-2) with Prove Out ($11) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; Forego (2-1) with Step Nicely ($17.40) in the Jerome Handicap; Cicada (2-5) with Pocasaba ($21.40) in the Black Helen Handicap; Numbered Account (4-5) with Blessing Angelica ($11.80) in the Delaware Handicap; Summer Guest (4-5) and Numbered Account (9-5)with Poker Night ($11.20) in the Top Flight Handicap; Numbered Account (3-10) with Poker Night ($8) in the Bed ‘o Roses Handicap; Malicious (7-10) with Winnie ($14.20) in the Gravesend Handicap; Wajima (3-10) with Group Plan ($14.40) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; Fanfreluche (3-5) with Taken Aback ($16.40) in the Spinster Stakes; Moccasin (2-1) with Mac’s Sparkler ($10.40) in the Columbiana Handicap; Straight Deal (6-5),  with Mac’s Sparkler ($9.20) in the Black Helen Handicap; Straight Deal (7-10), Gamely (9-2), and Lady Pitt (5-1) with Mac’s Sparkler ($18.80) in the Beldame Stakes; Temperence Hill (2-1) with Hechizado ($14.40) in the Brooklyn Handicap, and Skip Away (1-5) with Wagon Limit ($70) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Almost every one of the horses mentioned above that Jerkens defeated was a champion. And eight of the horses he defeated are in the Hall of Fame.

In 1973, Jerkens may have had, in his own way, the greatest year ever by a trainer. When the year started, Onion had won only four-of-11 starts in allowance company; Prove Out had won only four races (a maiden and three allowance races) in 27 starts with Buddy Hirsch, finishing out of the money 17 times; Vertee had earned only $20,000 in his entire career; Poker Night had been running in $13,000 maiden claiming races; Step Nicely had broken his maiden in an $18,000 claiming race; and King’s Bishop was a decent stakes horse in the Midwest, trained by T.J. Kelly.

By the end of the year, all six horses had won the equivalent of Grade I stakes for Jerkens, defeating future Hall of Famers Secretariat twice, Riva Ridge, Forego, and Numbered Account.

Jerkens has always said there is no great secret to upsetting champions. “Great horses benefit from their reputation,” he once said. “Trainers are scared off and the fields usually are small with little or no competition. They win a lot of races by default. Take Secretariat for instance, if he didn’t have a nitwit like me to put two horses in against him he would have won both the Whitney and Woodward by default.

“The way I figure it, great horses don’t win all their races while at the top of their game. It’s physically and mentally impossible to keep them at that peak. But they’re good enough to win a lot of races when they’re only 80 percent. If you can catch them at that time with a horse who’s 110 percent you have a shot to beat them. But you don’t have a prayer unless your horse is extra special on that given day, and you can catch a great horse going the other way.”

What Jerkens neglected to say was that there was no trainer in the country who was better at having a horse extra special and 110 percent on a given day.

Jimmy Rhodes exercised horses for Jerkens for nearly four decades, and had been around great horses, having exercised and broken Nashua and Bold Ruler for Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

“Allen is always doing something new,” Rhodes said back in the late ‘80s. “Just when I think I know what he’s going to do with a horse he goes and does something else. I know one thing; I wouldn’t want to have to train against him. To beat Allen, you have to be at the top of your game.”

Longtime assistant trainer Andy Descernio, who rubbed Bold Ruler for Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and had been around horses like Gallant Fox, once said, “I’ve only worked for two trainers on the racetrack, and like Sunny Jim, Allen has that special touch. And he’s always coming up with new things.”

Stable agent Bill Stone had worked with Max Hirsch and Bert Mulholland and said Jerkens was one of the best horsemen he’d ever seen. “He has a God-given sense about him,” he said. “He can do anything with a horse – take a sprinter and stretch him out, get a cuckoo bird and calm him down, buy or claim a cheap horse and make a stakes winner out of him. He just makes horses happy.”

The great Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton said of Jerkens, “In order to get on with horses one must think like a horse, Jerkens not only studies and understands each of his horses, he handles them with sympathy, and in fact is devoted to them.”

Chicago Dave, who had worked for Jerkens off and on over the years and been with Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Woody Stephens, and Jack Van Berg, called Jerkens, “The last of the real horsemen. He perceives things others just don’t see. In the springtime, he’d pay old drunks to go out and get a wheelbarrow full of dandelions, because they have a natural remedy in the roots that keeps horses healthy. Who knows what Allen could have achieved if he went out and bought horses at the sale like Lukas.”

And who knows what he might have achieved if he wasn’t dealing mainly with obscure pedigrees all those years. No one appreciated Jerkens more than Dreyfus. The two developed a longtime relationship that transcended the typical trainer-owner relationship. “Allen seems to know the horses’ feelings,” Dreyfus once said. “He puts himself in their place and they seem to know this and do their best for him. It’s simply magnificent the things he can get some horses to do for him.”

Now that you know Allen Jerkens let’s go to 1973 when he truly became “The Giant Killer.”

A Pearl Onion in the Whitney

Autographed original 1973 Whitney Stakes program.

The Whitney looked to be another procession for Secretariat, coming off his three record-breaking tour-de-force performances in the Triple Crown and an easy romp in the Arlington Invitational.

To run an average sprinter like Onion against him seemed like an extremely bold move even for Jerkens. But he knew how fast Onion was and if Ron Turcotte decided not to engage him early he could take them a long way having raced brilliantly a week before.

“Onion had run well early in the year, but it looked like he was tailing off a little after Jorge Velasquez let him run off by nine lengths for some reason in an allowance race,” Jerkens recalled. “I freshened him a little and pointed him toward the Whitney. There were rumors that Secretariat was going to run, so I figured it would be a small field.”

While Secretariat was breaking track records in his works, Onion was breezing seven furlongs in a sluggish 1:31.

“We went up to Saratoga to work Onion the Sunday before the race, and I ran into (jockey) Robyn Smith,” Jerkens said. “She asked to work Onion for me, but I told her it was too important a work. “She said to me, ‘Why, do you think I’m going to mess it up?’ So I let her work him and he went a half in :47 flat. Two days later, we ran him in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race and he won by eight lengths in 1:15 1/5, breaking the track record.

“We blew him out another eighth of a mile after the allowance race, and another eighth the morning of the Whitney. I was hoping Secretariat would chase everyone away and we’d have a good chance for second.”

Well, Jerkens was correct on all fronts. Secretariat did chase the top horses away with exception of the hard-knocking late closer True Knight and he caught an ill Secretariat at probably less than 80 percent, while he had Onion at 110 percent. And he was able to get Onion on an unchallenged lead. It all added up to one of the most shocking upsets of all time as Secretariat was unable to catch a tenacious Onion the length of the stretch. His illness proved to be so severe it forced him to miss the Travers and nearly the Marlboro Cup.

Watching the race at the three-quarter pole was Jerkens’ 14-year-old son Jimmy. “When they reached the three-sixteenths pole Onion was a half-length in front,” Jimmy recalled. “Then they were obscured by the tote board and when they reappeared 50 yards from the wire, incredibly Onion was still a half-length in front.”

“Onion was a better horse than people think,” the elder Jerkens said. “What really disappointed me was that the following spring he bowed a tendon and was never the same, It was unfortunate because I really believed he was going to be a top handicap horse that year.”

Onion began his 1974 racing campaign with two impressive allowance wins before his tendon injury, then was never the same, only managing one victory in his final 17 starts. The Whitney was the only stakes he would ever win. He lived out the rest of his days as a pensioner at Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm in Ocala.

The Unbeatable Horse

Meanwhile, far beyond all the hoopla, Allen Jerkens was quietly working on his new acquisition, Prove Out, a regally bred colt whom he had purchased privately from King Ranch for Dreyfus. Prove Out was born for greatness, being by the classic sire Graustark, a son of the legendary Ribot. His dam, Equal Venture, is a half-sister to Triple Crown winner Assault. Equal Venture’s broodmare sire is the great Equipoise, and Prove Out’s fourth dam, Masda, is a full-sister to Man o’War.

But Prove Out had bad ankles and other problems, and his trainer William J. “Buddy” Hirsch could do little with him. By August of his 4-year-old year, he had won only four races (a maiden and three allowance races) in 27 career starts. Of those 27 starts, 25 were in allowance or maiden races, and in his only two ventures into stakes company he finished well up the track. The longest distance he’d ever won at was 1 1/16 miles, and that came in his maiden victory.

Jerkens, however, had his eye on Prove Out for a while, recalling the promise he had shown at Santa Anita at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. Jerkens and Hirsch were good friends, and one day Hirsch approached Jerkens and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m hustling you or anything, but that horse I saw you looking at is coming up for sale. He’s a little raunchy and Mr. Kleberg (King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg) is mad at him and wants to sell him.”

Hirsch, son of the great Max Hirsch, was a proven horseman when he took over the King Ranch horses following his father’s death in 1969.

Jerkens knew Prove Out came from families that were trained hard and felt he might respond to hard training, much like Beau Purple.

Jerkens had just sold Dreyfus’ Widener Handicap winner Vertee for a nice profit, and decided to take a chance on Prove Out, buying him for Dreyfus for $65,000. He began by concentrating on the colt’s ankles, tubbing them and poulticing them. He used a eucalyptus vaporizer to clear up his sinuses and applied linament to his sore shoulders. In short, he did everything he could to build him back up and alleviate any aches and pains that may have been bothering him.

Prove Out also had a bad habit of lugging in, so Jerkens put his best exercise rider, Jimmy Rhoades, on him to try to teach him to keep a straight course. Two weeks after getting him, Jerkens ran him in a seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 24. To prevent him from lugging in, he equipped the colt with a burr and put an inside cup on his blinker. Prove Out responded by defeating the quick-footed Cutlass and the 3-5 favorite Forego by 6 1/2 lengths in a track-record 1:21 flat.

But when Jerkens dropped Prove Out back to six furlongs in another allowance race on Sept. 1 at Belmont, he was taken too far off the pace and just missed catching Dr. Fager’s full brother Highbinder by a head in 1:09 4/5. Jerkens ran him right back nine days later in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race and Prove Out equaled the track record of 1:40 2/5, beating the top-class Halo by 5 1/2 lengths.

The nine-furlong Chesapeake Handicap at Bowie on Sept. 22 looked like an easy spot for the colt’s first stakes victory. He was in with only 111 pounds and was sent off as the 9-5 favorite. But all of Jerkens’ work seemed for naught when Prove Out lugged in again and hit the rail before retreating to a seventh-place finish.

Back in the Secretariat camp, Laurin and Tweedy had decided to point Secretariat to the mile and a half Man o’ War Stakes (then the premier fall grass stakes in the U.S.) on Oct. 8 and run Riva Ridge in the mile and a half Woodward Stakes following their 1,2 finish in world-record time in the Marlboro Cup, won by Secretariat in a spectacular 1:45 2/5, despite coming off an illness that kept him out of the Travers.. Secretariat had his first work on the turf for the Man o’War, breezing a half-mile in :48 around the dogs and then turned in a slow, easy mile in 1:38. Those were not the kind of works Big Red needed to get sharp for a race. In his mile work (Riva Ridge also worked that morning), Secretariat went around the turf course as if he were in a common gallop.

The Woodward was only two weeks after the Marlboro Cup, and after being drilled hard to make the latter and then setting a new world record, the Woodward was hardly the place for Secretariat to come right back and stretch out from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles. If the term “bounce” existed back then, Secretariat was a prime candidate to bounce big-time. But Laurin and Tweedy were determined to be represented in the Woodward.

When the weather forecast called for rain on Woodward day, Laurin and Tweedy decided to enter both Riva Ridge and Secretariat. If the track was fast, Riva Ridge would run, but if it came up sloppy, a surface Riva Ridge detested, they would substitute Secretariat. The track did come up sloppy and Riva Ridge was scratched the morning of the race, leaving an unprepared Secretariat to go 1 1/2 miles on an off track only two weeks after breaking a world record and having to go into the race off two slow works on the grass. It was a recipe for disaster.

Jerkens, meanwhile, was angry and frustrated over Prove Out’s performance at Bowie. When one of his good horses ran that poorly, Jerkens took it personally and would often take drastic measures. In the morning, he equipped the colt with a severe run-out bit and turned it the opposite way. The bit had prongs that hit the side of the jaw, and Jerkens used it in the hope that during the race the burr would remind the horse of that bit hitting the side of his mouth and he would respond to it.

Jerkens decided to take a shot and run Prove Out in the weight-for-age Woodward, even though he’d have to pick up 15 pounds off the Chesapeake run the week before, concede seven pounds to Secretariat, and stretch out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles. Prove Out had never run farther than 1 1/16 miles. It also would mark Prove Out’s fifth start in five weeks since coming to Jerkens, who felt if the track came up fast and Secretariat should scratch then someone had a shot to get lucky or at least pick up a piece of the purse.

But it didn’t come up fast and Secretariat didn’t scratch. The day of the race, Jerkens and Dreyfus were hanging out in the picnic area behind the grandstand when they showed a replay of Secretariat’s Marlboro Cup on the closed circuit TV monitors. After watching Big Red draw off from the field, Jerkens turned to Dreyfus and said, “What the hell are we doing in this race?”

Jerkens had given Prove Out several three-mile gallops to build up his stamina and removed the blinkers for the race, feeling he didn’t need them going a mile and a half.

Secretariat, the 1-5 favorite, took over the lead from the 16-1 Prove Out shortly after heading into the backstretch and was able to slow the pace down. Around the far turn, with Big Red winging out there by two lengths, the crowd waited for the explosion that was sure to come. Secretariat had picked up the pace with a :24 flat quarter, with Prove Out and Cougar II lapped on each other. After another testing quarter in :24 2/5, Cougar II was done, but Prove Out wouldn’t go away. To the amazement of everyone, he came charging back along the inside and just blew right on by Secretariat as the crowd went silent.

Despite never even coming close to running this far, Prove Out came home his final quarter in a spectacular :24 flat, drawing off to a 4 1/2-length victory. Over a sloppy track that was not playing fast at all, Prove Out stopped the teletimer in 2:25 4/5, which still to this day is the second-fastest mile and a half ever run at Belmont. Only Secretariat’s out-of-this world Belmont Stakes performance was faster. Another unbelievable aspect of Prove Out’s performance was his running each of his last three quarters in :24 flat, a feat unheard of at that distance. To further demonstrate what a remarkable performance this was, it was projected that Prove Out would have earned a spectacular 131 Beyer speed figure.

Regardless of what cynics may say, Secretariat did not lose the Woodward. Prove Out won the Woodward, and on that day and in the subsequent Jockey Club Gold Cup it is my belief he was unbeatable. Although everything was against Secretariat, he still ran the mile and a half in 2:26 3/5, which would have equaled Gallant Man’s previous track record before Big Red shattered it in the Belmont Stakes. And he did finish 11 lengths ahead of Cougar II in third. If Prove Out had been trained by anyone else he would not even have been in the race and Secretariat would have won by 11 lengths, running the second-fastest mile and a half in Belmont history.

Once again Jerkens was in the right spot at the right time with the right horse.

Remarkably, Secretariat would come back only nine days later and set a new course record of 2:24 4/5 in winning the Man o’War Stakes by five lengths in his grass debut, defeating the top-class Tentam and Big Spruce. So, Secretariat had broken a world record at 1 1/8 miles, run the second-fastest mile and a half in Belmont history in the slop, and broken a turf course record at a mile and a half – all in the span of 23 days. If not for Jerkens, Big Red would have closed out his career unbeaten in six stakes following his Triple Crown sweep.

Prove Out wasn’t done with his assault on Meadow Stable superstars. For the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Jerkens breezed Prove Out a pair of slow miles, then breezed him three furlongs in :39 the Sunday before the race. The following morning, Prove Out worked a mile and a half in 2:39 3/5 with a final half in :49 1/5. Three days later, on the Thursday before the race, he galloped a mile and a half, after which he broke off into a dead run for a half-mile, which was timed in :47 2/5. He then galloped out an additional furlong in :12 3/5. There certainly was never anything conventional about Allen Jerkens. He was now about to take on Riva Ridge, who was coming off a track-record victory in the Stuyvesant Handicap under 130 lbs, which followed his strong second-place finish to Secretariat in the Marlboro Cup.

With all this bottom and sharpness in him, Prove Out went head and head with Riva Ridge in the Gold Cup through a seemingly suicidal half in :47 2/5. In Kelso’s five Gold Cup wins, he ran his opening halfs in :50 :50 2/5, :49 2/5, :49 1/5, and :49. When Nashua broke the track record in the 1956 Gold Cup he went his half in :49 1/5. Hall of Famers Damascus and Arts and Letters ran their halfs in :50 1/5 and :51 1/5, respectively. Prove Out and Riva Ridge continued to battle head and head, alternating leads six times, while opening up as much as 15 lengths on the field. They were still at it after a mile in a brutal 1:37 1/5 with half of the race still to be run. Once again, by comparison, Damascus ran his mile in the 1967 Gold Cup in 1:40 1/5. Arts and Letters went his mile in 1:40 4/5 in 1969. When Kelso set his track and American record in the 1964 Gold Cup, he went his mile in 1:38 2/5. Prove Out then opened a length lead passing the five-eighths pole, then two. By the half-mile pole Riva Ridge was spent, as the distance-loving Loud moved in for the kill. With Riva Ridge quickly backing up and Loud closing in fast, Prove Out, after such a long hard battle, had to be the next to fold.

So brutal was the pace that Riva Ridge would be beaten more than 33 lengths. When Loud, winner of the 1970 Travers and second and third, respectively, behind the great Shuvee in the 1970 and ’71 Jockey Club Gold Cup, came charging up to challenge nearing the quarter pole, Prove Out looked like he was cooked, but amazingly he still had something left and held his advantage. Loud had another chance to catch him when Prove Out veered in and bounced off the rail after turning for home. But, again, to the shock of everyone, Prove Out shrugged it off and spurted away from Loud. Somehow he managed to close his final quarter in an incredible :24 4/5, drawing away under a hand ride to win by almost five lengths, with Loud finishing 13 lengths ahead of the third horse. Prove Out’s time was 3:20 flat, and to this day only Kelso has run a faster two miles in this country.

So here was a horse who had won only four of his 27 starts and no stakes defeating four future Hall of Famers (Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Forego, and Cougar II) in a two-month period, setting a new track record at seven furlongs at Saratoga, equaling the track record at 1 1/16 miles at Belmont, running the second fastest 1 1/2 miles in Belmont history, and the third fastest two miles ever in the U.S., behind only Kelso. In those four races only Secretariat and Kelso had run faster than him, and the horse whose record he equaled at 1 1/16 miles was Forego.

With Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in the Whitney followed by Prove Out’s wins over Secretariat and Riva Ridge, Jerkens had pulled off the amazing feat of training two horses who each defeated two Kentucky Derby winners, with Onion also beating ’71 Derby winner Canonero II in a 1972 allowance race at Saratoga. Despite the defeat of both Meadow Stable champions to Jerkens-trained horses, or maybe because of them, owner Penny Chenery always maintained great admiration and respect for the astute trainer, even describing him as one of her “heroes.”

So that is how “The Giant Killer” was born and how he managed to defeat so many champions with a stable of unheralded horses, most of them with obscure pedigrees bred by Hobeau Farm. Who knows what he could have accomplished had he trained for major operations with classic-bred horses. It was extremely rare for Jerkens to have a horse in the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup. He was content to meet the nation’s top horses on his terms and with his guerilla tactics of surprise hit and run attacks. It is safe to say there has never been a trainer like Allen Jerkens and there never will be.


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