By Derek Simon
Last year, when Todd Pletcher entered the winner’s circle following Unitarian’s resounding triumph in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, Jerkens, himself, was there to greet him.
“Jerkens is one of the greatest of all time and a tremendous person and a tremendous leader for the trainers as a group, and it’s a real honor,” Pletcher said.
Nicknamed “The Chief” and “Giant Killer,” Jerkens is best known as the man who beat Secretariat — twice. Competing in an era when good horsemanship wasn’t measured in cubic centimeters, Jerkens believed that “doing right by the horse” (a popular catchphrase of today) was allowing them to run.
“The biggest change in racing is that people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t run horses very often,” Jerkens once said. “It used to be that if a horse was sound and hadn’t lost any weight from his last race and was feeling well, and if a race came up, you would run them. Now people for some reason think they shouldn’t run. I can’t understand it. I’ve had a lot of horses in my life who won real big races close together. What’s going on? It’s a fallacy.”
The H. Allen Jerkens Stakes will be contested for the second time on Saturday, but, this time, the legendary trainer won’t be around to present the trophy to the winner. Jerkens passed away on March 18, 2015 — less than two months after the inaugural running of the race bearing his name. But, just like last year, Pletcher is back with another top contender — Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Charming Kitten.
“I’m going to venture to say he’ll be the only horse in the race with a two-mile win under his belt,” Pletcher said. “I hold the race in high regard. Like I said last year, [there are] a lot of big races at Gulfstream and that’s one I’d love to win.”
In his last start, Charming Kitten won the Grade III W. L. McKnight while recording a race-best +4 late speed ration (LSR).
“He ran great in the McKnight,” Pletcher said. “He seems like he came out of it even better. He’s a solid, honest horse and it’s great to know that he’s got a win at two miles. We’re looking forward to defending our title.”
Of course, as is often the case in turf races (and especially long turf races), there is very little pace for Charming Kitten to run at, which makes St. Albans Boy an interesting alternative.
Ridden by well-known “gate jockey” Paco Lopez, the six-year-old gelded son of Giant’s Causeway is Grade III-placed at 1 ½ miles and looks like the only horse with any inclination to be on or near the pace early.