Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who died this week at 85, is best remembered for defeating great champions rather than training them. Indeed, only one in his plethora of stakes winners – Sky Beauty in 1994 – ever topped a year-end poll as divisional champion.
The magic of videotape has made Jerkens-trained horses like Onion and Prove Out, both of whom toppled Secretariat in 1973, a significant part of racing lore. Often referred to in the same vein, but less well known today, is Jerkens’ first killer of giants Beau Purple.
In a career largely built on his ability to slay dragons, Jerkens’ most effective weapon was arguably Beau Purple. He also came closest of any horse Jerkens trained to earning Horse of the Year honors. In fact, he was favored to do so.
The king of American racing in the early 1960s was Kelso, who won five straight Horse of the Year titles. He was seriously challenged for that award only twice, most notably by Gun Bow in 1964. Two years earlier, Beau Purple had an opportunity to snatch it away when Kelso endured a season that was less prolific by his standards.
Jerkens inherited Jack J. Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm stable, which included Beau Purple, in the spring of 1962. Previously trained by George Odom, Beau Purple had made most of his starts at that point in the season in allowances and overnight handicaps. His forays into stakes had not been overly strong: a 4 1/2-length win in the nine-furlong Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream Park was followed by a sixth in the Gulfstream Park Handicap and a ninth in the Carter Handicap.
Beau Purple literally knew only one way to win: on the lead. Give him an inch and he would take a yard (or a furlong as the case may be). The flip side to this one-dimensionality is that Beau Purple was likely to fold like an accordion when pressure was put on him.
As Charles Hatton observed in the 1963 American Racing Manual:
It is not unusual for horses to stop in a head and head duel. It is amazing when one or both does not, which is what made the dramatic race between Ridan and Jaipur in the Travers so singular. Perhaps it is simply that Beau Purple fights on as long as his facility for the conversion of oxygen into energy will let him sustain his maximum speed. He stays at his optimum pace, but has a shorter run than either Kelso or Carry Back. That is no disgrace certainly.
In his first stakes appearance for Jerkens, Beau Purple delivered a knockout blow to both Kelso and Carry Back, the previous year’s three-year-old champion, in the Suburban Handicap at Aqueduct while in receipt of 17 and 11 pounds, respectively. “Beau Purple came out of the gate in front and called a tune in waltz time,” according to Hatton, but did so stylishly in track-record time of 2:00 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles.
Ten days later in the Monmouth Handicap, also at 1 1/4 miles, jockey Bill Boland took Beau Purple out of his usual game plan and rated the bay son of Beau Gar. Although he made the lead at the quarter pole, he could not hold off the late rallies of Carry Back and Kelso, who finished one-two in that order.
As Hatton recounted:
Beau Purple beat himself in the Monmouth, squandering his resources when he completed the first mile in 1:34 4/5. An imbalance of red and white corpuscles was believed to explain his “short fuse,” and this was corrected before fall.
Reverting to his front-running ways for the 1 1/4-mile Brooklyn Handicap one week later, Beau Purple proved untouchable with a 3 1/2-length victory in which he shattered his own track record by three-fifths of a second. He crossed the wire in 2:00 with Carry Back five lengths behind in fourth.
Beau Purple’s next three starts were among his worst of the season. Beaten 19 lengths by Carry Back in an overnight handicap, he then lost the seven-furlong Roseben Handicap by 16 lengths. In his third meeting of the year with Kelso, in the 1 1/4-mile Woodward at equal weights, Beau Purple had every chance to steal the race. He was up six lengths after a half-mile in :47 1/5 and 2 1/2 lengths through six furlongs in 1:11 3/5, but ultimately faded to fifth after Kelso challenged him for the lead around the final turn.
The Woodward was only the second stakes win of the year for Kelso at that point, and he would next add the third of his five straight Jockey Club Gold Cups. After the Woodward drubbing, Beau Purple took a detour to Chicago for the 1 1/4-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup, which he won in his usual style by two lengths over a sloppy track.
One week after the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Hawthorne Gold Cup, Kelso and Beau Purple met again in the 1 1/2-mile Man o’ War over Belmont Park’s turf course. The field was one of the most sparkling of its day. Carry Back was returning from an excursion to France, where he had finished 10th in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Also in the field were Epsom Oaks winner Monade and French Derby hero Val de Loir, who had run second and third, respectively, in the Arc; T. V. Lark, the champion turf horse of 1961; and past and future Man o’ War winners Harmonizing, Wise Ship, and The Axe II.
Kelso was the even-money favorite and Beau Purple was 20-1. The latter was again left to his own devices and, as Hatton recalled:
…[astonished] the crowd and [simplified] the able Bill Boland’s task by darting to the front at the outset and defeating each and every attempt to bring him to grips.
Despite the [soft] surface, Beau Purple had virtually sprinted the full distance and set a new course record of 2:28 3/5, amputating three-fifths from Amber Morn’s challenging mark. His speed was electric in the going.
With that two-length victory, this time at equal weights, Beau Purple was all square with Kelso after four meetings. The fifth and Horse of the Year-deciding showdown would come 16 days later in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel over 1 1/2 miles on the turf. Much impressed by his tour de force in the Man o’ War, bettors at Laurel felt Beau Purple could do it again. They made him a slight 2-1 favorite over Kelso to carry off the national championship.
Having learned his lesson one too many times, trainer Carl Hanford instructed jockey Milo Valenzuela aboard Kelso to keep Beau Purple honest over the soft going. Kelso dueled Beau Purple into submission after seven furlongs, but wasn’t quite good enough himself to fend off the classy French import Match II in the stretch. Beau Purple wound up 11th in the field of 13, while Kelso’s second-place finish and later win in the 1 1/2-mile Governor’s Plate at Garden State Park clinched his third Horse of the Year title.
Beau Purple did not race again until the following February when he and Kelso met for a final time in the 1 1/4-mile Widener Handicap at Hialeah. Entering without the benefit of a prep unlike Kelso, who had taken the Seminole Handicap two weeks earlier, Beau Purple nonetheless proved up to the task. Sent to the front, he proceeded to set some of the slowest fractions in the history of the race as Valenzuela inexplicably kept Kelso off the pace against the wishes of Hanford. Beau Purple won by 2 1/4 lengths in what turned out to be his last race.
Jerkens reportedly returned to the barn rather than join in the winner’s circle festivities. He told the Thoroughbred Record:
I just got all broken up. I keep remembering when I was a kid, working with broken-down horses. I’ll never get used to winning races like this one.
“The Chief” might never have, but all of us who admired him sure did.
(Beau Purple photo: NYRA/Bob Coglianese)