Around thoroughbred tracks, trainer Allen Jerkens has a nickname: the Genius. He is 100% embarrassed by it, but he deserves it. No man in racing has a better reputation for being able to persuade horses to run faster than they can; no man has won more big races with horses given less chance. An admiring Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew, says. "Allen has made great horses out of ones that shouldn't have been. I mean, horses that are bred to do nothing do everything when Jerkens gets 'em."
Now, suddenly, the 49-year-old Jerkens, who has been making do with do-nothing horses for 28 years, finds himself with his first full-blown Kentucky Derby contender. In fact, Jerkens not only is considered a factor in next month's Derby, but he may be the pivotal factor. He is the trainer of an undefeated (five wins) and somewhat mysterious colt named Sensitive Prince. Just when race fans were getting used to the idea that this year's Derby would run the gamut from A (Alydar and Affirmed) to B (Believe It), up jumps S—which could stand for Surprise.
There are doubters, however, who wonder if the bay colt can handle the Derby's mile and a quarter. But Jerkens-trained horses just can. "He's built and bred for distance, and he'll be trained for it," says Jerkens. Each of Sensitive Prince's five races has been longer than the last, up to a mile and a sixteenth, so he's building. But speed still counts and the Prince's (he has set one track record, tied another) is unquestionable. His sire, 1969 Derby winner Majestic Prince, prompted the same skepticism about his staying ability before he won the roses. Another question centers on Sensitive Prince's health. He had sore shins last year but daily 20-minute ice-water baths and liniment rubs seem to help.
The Prince is highly regarded in Derby figuring partly because Believe It seems to be faltering, having been defeated by Alydar in the Florida Derby and by the Prince, who had an eight-pound weight advantage, in the Fountain of Youth. But is it the colt who is highly regarded as a Derby prospect or is it Jerkens? Turner says, "Let's face it. If it weren't for Allen Jerkens, everyone would consider Sensitive Prince just another short horse that would wear down."
Rick Waldman, assistant to the general manager of the Fasig-Tipton Co., thoroughbred auctioneers, says of Jerkens, "He gets speed horses, then somehow stretches them out so they beat the others on the lead. He just gets a horse loving to run." Twice in 1973 Jerkens saddled horses that beat Secretariat. Onion did it in the Whitney Stakes in August, and Prove Out, at 16 to 1 the longest shot in the race, beat Secretariat the next month in the Woodward.
Sensitive Prince is owned by Joe Taub, owner of Cinzano, one of the horses involved in the still-simmering Belmont ringer case. Taub has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and he says, "My reputation stands by itself." Dr. Mark Gerard, the veterinarian who has been accused in the horse switch, helicoptered from Belmont to a New Jersey track last year to look at the Prince's shins. It was Gerard who recommended the colt rest after his only race as a 2-year-old. He did, on Gerard's Long Island farm. But Taub says Gerard has no ownership in Sensitive Prince.
Taub got into horses around the turn of the decade, when he retired, at age 40, from Automatic Data Processing, Inc., which he had helped found. But Taub wanted no publicity, and even now he declines to talk about the money and dealings involving Sensitive Prince. "If I had gotten him cheap, say for $10,000, I'd say," says Taub, "and if I had paid a lot, like $100,000, I'd say." In fact, Taub arranged for trainer Budd Lepman to buy yearlings for him at a 1971 Keeneland sale so his involvement with racing would not be publicized.
One of the three yearlings Lepman purchased was Sensitive Lady, for whom he paid $40,000, a stiff price in view of the record of her sire, Sensitivo: through 1977 he had produced 68 offspring that sold for an average of only $8,976. To nobody's surprise, Sensitive Lady didn't win a race, but Lepman had insisted all along her potential was as a broodmare because of dam-side lineage. Sensitive Prince was her first foal.
Even now it's hard to evaluate the Prince. While Alydar and Affirmed have faced each other six times (Alydar has won two, Affirmed four), Sensitive Prince has never looked at either. He may meet Alydar if Jerkens and John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, go ahead with plans to race in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 27. But it's also true that Jerkens, who went to the Derby in 1975 with a colt, Round Stake, that probably didn't belong in the race, is not stricken with Derby fever. And while the feeling has grown that Jerkens does not especially care to race 3-year-olds, Kentucky Derby or no, Jerkens denies it. "It's just that the 3-year-old year is the hardest time of a horse's life," he explains. "He's still growing."
Billy Turner doesn't doubt Jerkens. "Allen is the kind of guy who will be the first to fold his tent if everything isn't right, wait, then beat them all later."
Jerkens has an extraordinary talent for getting the best from horses like his friend the Prince.