Taketa finds comfort at the track

Jerry Taketa continues his work with the same smile

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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photoJerry Taketa, left, works with Sam Tilden, an assistant horse trainer, setting up a jockey Taketa represents at Portland Meadows. Taketa was a jockey years ago, and now works as an agent for jockeys.

(/The Columbian)

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PORTLAND — For 67 days, the routine has gone unchanged.

Jerry Taketa wakes up in his Vancouver home, says hello to his wife Charlynn, heads to work at the Portland Meadows race track, then returns to his spouse before telling her good night.

This, more or less, has been the ex-jockey’s ritual since 1989. Thing is, for the past 67 days, Charlynn has been dead.

“I still can’t believe that she’s gone, because whenever I look over at the chair in the family room, I figure that she’s going to come home,” said the 69-year-old Taketa, who was married to Charlynn for 22 years. “I was 101 percent sure that something like this would never happen to me. But it did.”

On August 11 of this year, Charlynn Taketa — known to most as Lynn — died after a loose horse at Portland Meadows kicked her in the face. The 62-year-old was leading her thoroughbred named Caballito de Mar to a hot walker, when a second horse struck with its hind legs.

Jerry, who was just a few feet away when the accident occurred, dropped to his knees and screamed while wiping blood from Lynn’s face. Less than a minute later, she was gone.

Doctors insist that she did not feel any pain, but the same can’t be said of her widower. From the second they began dating in 1982, Jerry and Lynn went together like mint juleps and the Derby.

Her first win as a trainer came with him as the jockey, and Jerry constantly marveled at the “big words” his wife used when describing horses. But his fondest recollections of Lynn were born away from the track, such as fishing with her, scarfing candy apples with her at the fair, or laughing as their corgi, Abigail, gave Lynn’s face its nightly tongue bath.

Still, while those precious moments can do well to fill a memory bank, they’re not nearly as effective in filling a void.

Lynn left horse racing in 1992 to focus on her picture-framing business, but the desire to shape stallions and fillies never left her. So last fall, 18 years after retiring from training, Mrs. Taketa came back to Portland Meadows.

Talk to Jerry for so much as 15 minutes and it’s clear that Lynn engulfs his thoughts. He asks questions like “why did she have to do this to me?” and “why did she have to get kicked?”

But one query he has yet to make is: Why did she have to return to racing?

“No, if this was what was going to make her happiest, then this is what she was going to do,” Jerry said grinning. “This past year at the race track, she was just tickled pink. It improved her life 100 percent.”

Jerry can relate to the joy of the sport. He has jockeyed in more than 17,000 races, won about 1,700, and once rode Chinook Pass, the 1983 Eclipse Award winner for sprinting.

Perhaps that is why the morning after Lynn’s death, just as he has done every morning since, Taketa sauntered into the most supportive setting he knows: the track.

Friends of his were stunned — not simply because of his decision to return to work, but because of his astonishingly cheery disposition around the stables.

Granted, this was Jerry Taketa — the 69-year-old who still trick-or-treats with a mask on because he’s 5 feet tall and “loves candy,” who gets chewed out by trainers because he laughs even when finishing dead last, and who has what Caballito de Mar owner Harry Cravas called “one of the finest personalities in the world.”

But still ... the day after his wife died?

“It was remarkable,” said trainer Sam Dronen, Jerry’s close friend. “I know it was devastating to him. Every day he and Lynn would come in giggling with each other. But the next day, he’s on TV giving an interview, and he’s telling jokes. It was unbelievable. I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Jerry, who now works primarily as a jockey’s agent, says that being around the racing folks he calls family is the best way for him to get through this, that sticking to his routine is the only way to keep his mind focused.

And these days, that routine includes one extra step.

Every morning, Jerry ambles over to Caballito de Mar, feeds him carrots, wraps his arms around his neck and whispers “Mom says hello,” or “Mom loves you,” or “Mom is always watching.”

“I’d like to think he can understand me,” Jerry said.

The Portland Meadows race season opens today, and Wednesday, Caballito de Mar will make his fall debut. Cravas says that every time his horse takes the track, he will be running in Lynn’s honor.

Jerry, of course, will be on hand, soaking in the Meadows ambiance he has enjoyed every year since 1967.

He will then return to his house, rub the jewelry box containing Lynn’s ashes, pat the two pictures of her resting on top, and say good night.

A lifetime’s worth of memories in that Vancouver home. And yet, people wonder how he keeps smiling.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4258 or email matt.calkins@columbian.com