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Home Stretch

A year after his favorite filly, Eight Belles, was euthanized at the Kentucky Derby, top trainer Larry Jones makes a run for the Triple Crown with another contender. Is this really Jones' final ride?

Author RACHEL STURTZ Photography DAYMON GARDNER

LARRY JONES should be celebrating. He should be throwing his Stetson up in the air as gamblers pass by and pat him on the back and a broadcaster announces the results of a horse race in Arkansas on one of the 10 tiny TVs above the betting counter at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots. He should let his wife, Cindy, hug him and he should raise his hands in victory for just a fraction of a second because Ultimate Beauty, one of his many three-year-old fillies, has just won a race — and a $36,000 purse — at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. But by the time Cindy turns from the TVs, Jones is halfway across the room, heading out the glass doors and into the bright Louisiana morning to saddle up Shytoe Lafeet, who is about to tear up the turf right here in New Orleans.

Jones lets others celebrate for him. He just doesn’t have the time.

Or, come to think of it, the energy. Last night’s three hours of sleep in a horse trailer ain’t cutting it. When your stable of 45 horses is spread out between Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas and Delaware, and you’re a hands-on horseman and trainer, you do a lot of driving; on a good night, you get to sleep in the trailer. Jones, who is 52 years old, reckons he hasn’t slept more than four hours a night in the last three months, and he’s been nursing the same cold since early January. To make matters worse, a horse head-butted him last week, breaking his nose and gashing his lip. On this sunny morning in New Orleans, Jones looks about how he feels.

The hours are nothing new. Jones has been working this way for the past 30 years to become one of the greatest and most respected horsemen in America. He can build a $10,000 horse into a $400,000 prizefighter, and his roster of stakes winners has included Honest Man, Hard Spun, Proud Spell and Eight Belles, the filly whose tragic turn at last year’s Kentucky Derby shocked the world and still haunts her trainer. Now that he’s decided to retire, he’s got one last colt vying for the Triple Crown.

Jones drinks a shot of coffee from a Thermos cup while he goes over today’s walking list — Cindy’s daily schedule for the groomers and exercise riders to gallop, bathe and walk the 28 horses in the barn. He has the profile of the last remaining cowboy: white leather chaps over jeans, a matching vest over a polo shirt, a riding helmet where his Stetson usually sits and, occasionally, a smile. He’s known for that smile, which favors the right side of his face, and blue eyes that lock on yours when he asks how you’re doing.

Jones’ is a true rags to riches story, starting out with an $800 horse in 1981. Now, he’s bringing a top thoroughbred, Friesan Fire, into this year’s Derby season. He’s at the top of his game. And after the Breeders’ Cup in November, he’s retiring.

GROWING UP a farmer’s son in Kentucky, Jones inherited his father’s connection with animals. “My father could teach a dog to write its name,” he says. “But I knew how to listen to horses.” A year after he bought his thoroughbred, he earned his trainer’s license and bade farewell to the farming life. When he needed help in his horse barn, a petite blond show rider named Cindy walked through the door with a smile and called him and the animals “sweetie” and “honey.” He married her that year. They were so poor Cindy cried the day Capt. Bold, the horse she galloped, ate its ice boots. Luckily for Capt. Bold, he became their first stakes winner and paid her back.

A quarter century later, gamblers bet on horses for the sole reason that Larry Jones trains them. That’s the burden a trainer bears when he’s making his third pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby in three years. Jones has two second-place finishes under his belt — Hard Spun in 2007, Eight Belles in 2008.

“I’ve dealt with quite a few trainers, but I’ve never come across anyone as hands-on as Larry,” says Rick Porter, who owned Eight Belles and owns Old Fashioned, who was a Derby contender before breaking his leg during a race in April. “He’s just short of a horse whisperer. He gallops all of his horses to get a feel for them and work out their inefficiencies.”

Earlier that day at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds, at 5:30 a.m., Jones is in the barn tending to 28 horses in need of 30 minutes of exercise each, followed by a bath. Other trainers — some older, wisecrack-ier, and less hands-on — stand on wooden steps to see over the fence at the mile-and-a-quarter dirt track, clock their horses and chew tobacco. Fillies gallop past, hooves tearing into the dirt, nostrils motorboating in rhythm. The trainers describe Jones as a hardworker and a “knocker,” a reference to his bowlegs. “Larry couldn’t catch a greased pig in an alley,” says one, which sends the others into hysterics.

While they laugh, Jones gallops past on Friesan Fire.

If the Derby were tomorrow, Friesan Fire would be among the favorites to win. But that can change in an instant. Old Fashioned was another favorite until he broke his leg. Guys around the barn like to say that thoroughbreds are like strawberries — they can spoil overnight. Maybe they get injured, psyched out or just end up “running like dogs,” as Jones says. Even when you think you know, and a race turns out well, wait 30 seconds. You never know.

Eight Belles, Jones’s top filly, ran the Kentucky Derby in 2008 and crossed the line in second place. A quarter mile after the finish, she collapsed. No one knows how or why — heck, no one had seen anything like it before — but when she stumbled, she shattered both front ankles. She was euthanized on the track. Jones was devastated.

“It wasn’t pretty, bless her heart. There was nothing anyone could do.”

Eight Belles’ stunning demise earned the enmity of animal activists, who launched an all-out attack on the man who “let his horse die.” Some dropped off death threats right at the stable office. Others wrote venomous articles in local papers.

“People who love animals know that they are like your children,” Cindy says. “You make their bed, you wash them up, you clean their wounds.”

“I’m tired of losing them,” Jones adds. “That’s why I just bought a parrot — they live to be 75 or 80 years old, and I don’t figure I’ll make it to 125.”

JONES PULLS OUT a ledger and points out the birthdates of each of his four children and six grandchildren. “This is so I can pretend to know how old my grandchildren are,” he says. “This is why I’m retiring. We haven’t had a family Christmas in eight years.”

By 5 p.m., he’s wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, Stetson and shined cowboy boots. His plate-size buckle reads COWBOY UP! Racing attire.

Out of the gate at the Fair Grounds, Shytoe takes the lead, going out hard and fast, and passes the half-mile pole a fraction faster than Cindy had estimated. Jones ribs her gently. It looks like another winning race in the books, but as Shytoe rounds the final turn, the pack closes in. Another horse cuts in front, slamming into Shytoe and jockey Mario Saez. She stumbles, regains her footing and finishes fourth.

“Well, sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield,” says Cindy, relieved that Shytoe wasn’t hurt. “This time, we were the bug.”

As Jones steers the pickup truck back to New Orleans, Cindy makes an announcement from the passenger seat. “I’ve begun turning our old saddles into stools,” she says, as she turns around smiling, giddy at the prospect of making something other than a walking schedule. “You can saddle right up to the counter. Our grandkids love them.”

Jones parks in front of the barn. He’ll work until midnight packing up a trailer, and begin another very long day at 4 a.m. He cuts the ignition, wipes his brow and turns on that grin while he looks over at Cindy.

“They’re the most comfortable stools I’ve ever been on,” he says. “I think I could sit on a stool like that all day.” And for now, we pretend to believe him.

RACHEL STURTZ, who still hopes to win a trifecta, is a writer in New York City.

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