Jilsie's Gigalo will never win championships or big money, but his trainer, Bill Jergens, can justifiably boast: "He's a poor man's John Henry." Few horses have worked as hard or have been as productive as Jilsie's Gigalo in the last three months. He is the winningest racehorse in America in 1990.
The 6-year-old, who is based in Delaware and makes occasional sojourns to Maryland, made his first start of the year on June 27. Since that date, he has won 11 races out of his 16 starts. The whole amazing streak is due to one decision -- a gamble, actually -- that Jergens took this summer.
Jilsie's Gigalo launched his career in the major leagues of the sport, Hollywood Park in California. He had raced creditably in low-level stakes competition, mostly at Calder Race Course in Florida. But this year he had been beset with physical problems and his owner and trainer had given up on him.
Jergens and his partner, Linda Krueger, own a farm in Ocala, Fla., where they prepare young horses for sales. But they occasionally race them, too, and they bought Jilsie's Gigalo hoping they could rectify his physical problems and cash in on some of his past class. To their amazement, his recuperation only took a few days.
"He was just body-sore, in his back, and so the veterinarian used acupuncture on him," Jergens said. "We worked him a few days later, and he went five furlongs in 58 1/5. It was the fastest that any horse had ever run at the training center in Ocala. I knew we had something."
But how could he best capitalize on what he had? Most tracks around the country offer a hybrid type of race called a starter allowance, which is open to horses who have started for a certain claiming price or less since a certain date -- i.e. for a price of $5,000 or less since Jan. 1. If Jergens could get away with running Jilsie's Gigalo for a cheap price just once -- without having another trainer claim him away -- he would have a meal ticket for months.
So Jergens shipped Jilsie's Gigalo to the track in Birmingham, Ala., and entered him in a $3,500 claiming race. Because he was dropping in class sharply and hadn't raced for months, any other trainer would have to fear that the horse might be suffering from dire physical problems.
Jergens tried to bolster that impression by wrapping all of Jilsie's Gigalo's legs in bandages. ("He didn't need them, but he had a lot of them that night.") He named a female apprentice jockey to ride, but didn't claim the seven-point weight allowance to which he was entitled, as if this were such a hopeless case that there was no point trying to take any edges.
When nobody at Birmingham put in a claim for Jilsie's Gigalo, Jergens had won his gamble. And when the horse sped to a 13-length victory and broke the track record, everybody else knew it, too.
The trainer collected conditions books -- the publications that list the conditions of eligibility for future races -- for tracks through the East and Midwest, looking for spots open to a horse who had recently run for a $3,500 price tag.
Jilsie's Gigalo went to Thistledown in Cleveland, and won there. He made a side trip to River Downs in Cincinnati, and won there. He came to Pimlico, where he faced a field that included horses who were solid $25,000 claimers, and won in a gutty performance that enabled Jergens to cash a healthy bet at odds of 7 to 1.
He would frequently find soft spots for horses "that have started for a claiming price of $5,000 or less in 1990" at Delaware Park, where he is stabled. He raced there five times in a 25-day period, with a side trip to Beulah Park in Ohio in between.
This might seem to be a grueling schedule, but Jergens said: "He's a $50,000 horse running against $5-10,000 horses. He runs fast, but he doesn't have to exert himself. He does everything so effortlessly that all the racing doesn't affect him much. It takes two boys and three men to walk him the next day. He's an energized horse."
Only when he loses his eligibility for starter-allowance races will Jilsie's Gigalo be reminded the game isn't always so easy.