I suppose if there had to be one trainer that the non-horse racing world hadn’t heard of thrust into the spotlight in a challenging and difficult time for the sport, it’d be tough to pick a better candidate than Larry Jones.
One of the great acts of the year by a trainer happened on Derby Day. Jones’ filly, Eight Belles, had just died on the track in the most dramatic death in the history of the Kentucky Derby. She had finished second, and was put down before Jones could even get to her, her front forelegs freakishly shattered as she was galloping out. There’s an image I have of Jones, himself, sprinting on the Churchill Downs track, trying to get to the ambulance to get to his filly.
When reporters got to Jones back at the barn he was upset and angry, and stormed into his barn, according to several accounts. You can’t imagine all that a trainer has tied up in a filly like that. Not only is the professional side of it, and she was a magnificent filly, every bit as worthy of the top males in her class, but there’s the emotional side of it. Jones, like all trainers, invests a great deal of time in his horses. Unlike most, he even rides them to get a feel for their training.
He grew up around quarterhorses and rode a horse to the country store as a boy to buy candy and sodas. Jones was a farmer first in Western Kentucky.
If horse racing needed anything in the aftermath of that accident, it was horse sense.
And Jones’ great act for the sport was this: With the national media sitting around the Churchill Downs press center working to put the whole thing in perspective, here came Jones, somber, up to the front to stand in front of some of the nation’s largest newspapers to try to explain to the country how a loss like that felt to someone on the inside of horse racing. I don’t think many trainers would have done it. I think most would have thought about the negative onslaught of reporting coming their way and run away from it.
Jones sat there and emotionally, a couple of times tearfully, answered the questions as best he could. And he kept answering them, in round table discussions and in national settings. When the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals charged jockey Gabriel Saez with abusing the horse, Jones said it was ludicrous. And it was.
People blamed the track, and Jones said it wasn’t the track, and it wasn’t. Horses have been running on God’s dirt for a long time. Since the first one struck its hoof to the ground, in fact.
I’ll leave you with some words of Jones on the first Saturday in May, and a feature I did on him in Derby week 2007, when he was getting ready to saddle his first Derby entrant.
“It’s the unfortunate side that every now and again you’re faced with, it’s something that — it’s unforeseen, you know, this is the bad part. I did get to see my son yesterday, and I got to see my daughter today, but I got to see Eight Belles every day. She was our family, she’s been with us for a year — they a lot of great footage with Jeannine Edwards (of ESPN) today, and I guess it will be my last ride on her.”
Jones then started to choke up, and shed a tear or two before composing himself and going on.
“Losing animals like this isn’t fun,” he continued. “This is the unfortunate side, I don’t know what to say — we’re heartbroke. We’re going to miss her.”
Column: At home in the saddle
April 30, 2007
“Just a second,” Larry Jones says, cutting off an interview on a cool, wet morning outside his barn at Keeneland.
He ducks inside, grabs a pitchfork and wades into the bedded straw in the stall of his Kentucky Derby colt Hard Spun.
“Get back there,” he tells Hard Spun, pushing the colt’s neck back with one hand while scooping up a forkful of manure and straw with the other. Coming out, he explains, “If I don’t get it right away, he’ll start walking through it first thing.”
Let’s just say that’s not the kind of interruption you’d encounter with Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas. But you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Jones.
The first look most people get of Jones is memorable. At age 50, he still gallops many of his own horses, and he cuts an unusual figure with his 6-foot , 180-pound frame in the saddle.
Jones admits he gets a few “one at a time, please” looks from the horses, but riding horses was one of the reasons he left his family farm just outside Hopkinsville, Ky., for the thoroughbred training business, and he isn’t about to stop. He didn’t learn the business as an apprentice, but through an old-fashioned work regimen.
It’s not unusual to see Jones walking horses himself in the shed row, bathing them, putting on bandages or pulling them off. When Hard Spun, one of the top contenders for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, vanned to Churchill Downs from Keeneland yesterday, it was Jones behind the wheel.
Unlike most of his colleagues at this level, Jones has no corporate logos in his barn or on his clothes. He wears a Stetson when he’s not in his riding helmet, but only because he wants to, not because he’s paid to. He picked bright orange silks because, “When I played basketball at Hopkinsville High School we were the Tigers, and I just looked so darn good in that orange and white that I had to stay with it.”
It’s fitting that Jones would talk about his old school. He’s as old-school as they come.
Some of the earliest horseback rides he remembers are to a general store a mile from his childhood home in Herndon, Ky.
“We had a post office and a four-way stop and a population of 150 if you counted the dogs and cats,” he said. ” I used to ride my pony up to the country store there, and they still had hitching posts. I could tie him up, and I was big league. I hate to date myself, but I could get a 6 ½ -ounce Coke for a nickel and a string of malted milk balls for a penny, and for six cents I was in business.”
Now he’s in business for a whole lot more. Hard Spun, who will make his final Derby tune-up this morning under jockey Mario Pino, can win a much bigger prize than candy and Cokes for the veteran who until a year ago was based at Ellis Park in his home of Henderson, Ky.
Jones has built his stable, now at around 60 head, on an ability to spot the horse that others might have missed, get him for a price and train him into a winner. His first stakes winner, which came only four years after he started training, was purchased for just $800.
“I’d brag about that,” he said, “But my wife won a stakes race with a $100 horse.”
His wife, Cindy, is accomplished in horse racing herself. She’s a full partner in the operation, and Jones credits her as much as anyone else for his success.
Jones had worked with horses on the family farm but wanted more.
“When you’re young, you’re infatuated with speed,” Jones said. “Some love cars. I loved horses. Everybody said thoroughbreds aren’t like other horses. But they all have four feet and they eat.
“We started about as low as you can start in this game. My first horse was an $800 horse. The first year I trained, my earnings for the year were $3,300. The next year was just over $7,000, then it was $11,000. The first three years I trained, we didn’t earn much over $20,000 total. It’s kind of hard to stay at it like that. But each year you had something keep you going.”
Jones might not
have gotten this close to Derby Day had he not moved his operation to Delaware Park last year. It was there that he met Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm. Porter had been looking for a new trainer for some of his horses, and he got the recommendation of Jones from the trainer he had been using, John Shi rr effs — who had stabled next to Jones when the Shirreffs-trained Giacomo won the Derby in 2005.
He knew that he had a good one as soon as he saw Porter’s Hard Spun, he said. Although his trainer might come from humble racing beginnings, Hard Spun might have the best blood-lines in the Derby. He is a son of Danzig out of the mare Turkish Tryst, a daughter of the Alydar stallion Turkoman.
Jones proved he wasn’t afraid to take risks with the colt earlier this year when he decided Hard Spun didn’t like the surface at Oaklawn Park and yanked him out of Arkansas to run in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park.
He then planned to run Hard Spun in the Blue Grass Stakes. But he worried the horse might not like the surface at Churchill and took him for a workout there. Satisfied with Hard Spun’s work, Jones decided to pass on the Blue Grass and train the colt up to the Derby.
“We’ve been lucky; we really haven’t had any pressure from anybody,” Jones said. “Whenever we’ve gone to the sales or our breeders are raising them, they may have that dream of the Derby, but they’re not breeding to the stock that you expect to get you there. So until I picked up Mr. Porter, we really didn’t have anybody with any realistic visions of being here. And as long as it’s a real wide dream, it doesn’t matter. It’s like daydreaming.”
Now it’s close to reality. He’s come close to the Derby with two horses, but both had injuries that cut short the chase. With earnings of $2.8 million last year and nearly a million this year, he knows he’s doing something right.
Mike Pressley of Evansville, an owner who has horses with Jones, said all of Henderson is rooting for him.
“He’s a hero around here,” Pressley said. “They should have a plaque for him at Ellis Park. One thing he has always told me is that sometimes you get chicken, and sometimes you get feathers. A lot of people here are hoping he gets chicken on Derby Day.”
Jones was the first trainer based at Ellis to win a Grade I race. But he said he doesn’t allow himself to think about much more.
“If this sucker hits the wire in front, then that’s when you tell people to please just pack me down there, even if I’m dead, and get me down there for the picture,” Jones said.
Until then, he’ll be the guy riding into the sunrise every morning.