On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Eight Belles memorial ceremony at Churchill Downs where they honored the fallen filly and unveiled a plaque in the Kentucky Derby Museum garden. It was a touching ceremony in which over 200 people attended - some from as far away as Colorado and New York.
While the entire ceremony was well done, without a doubt the most poignant moments came from trainer Larry Jones, who fought his way through a five-minute speech in which he was on the verge of tears several times. If people didn't know it before, his love for Eight Belles was very genuine. Here is a clip of his speech.
After the ceremony, a couple of us were able to catch up with Jones for a candid interview, where he discussed many things, including his faith, his anger over the wrongful accusations following the tragedy and any regrets he might have. Below is a transcript from some of the interview - an interview in which I left knowing more definitely than ever that Jones is a stand-up, first class person and trainer.
On all the unexpected attention he has received this year:
LJ: "You don't know why some things happen in life, but they do. We're okay though. Hopefully we're going to be stronger because of it. (Her death) still tears me up today as much as it did the day it happened. I do feel that things are coming into order and many things in the industry will be better because of Eight Belles. It started out with accusations that we did something wrong, but over time it proved that we were doing things right, and some of the reasons that rules are changing now is because we showed you can run in the world's greatest horse race without all the performance enhancers. And if she can do it, there is no reason every horse can't do it. So if she gave her life to help equine health, then that's good. If that happens, I can rest peacefully knowing her life meant something. She has her place in history."
On his faith:
LJ: "I couldn't have gotten through it without my faith. The week after it happened I had to have a heart-to-heart with our creator. It all became easy after I spoke with him. It all became clear to me after he said, "She wasn't your horse Larry. She was my horse. You can trust that she didn't suffer and she didn't die in vain." That set old Larry back where he came from. My life changed after that. I knew everything happens for a reason and he has a plan. It won't ever all be revealed, but it gave me the comfort in knowing that this was out of my control. If I didn't have my faith I wouldn't have gotten through it. Luckily, closeness with death on a couple of occasions taught me that there is someone who looks out for us."
On his conversation with God:
LJ: "We were in a motel in Delaware about four or five days after it happened and the absolute worst thunderstorm came through. Cindy was asleep. I was reading the bible searching for answers and a clap of thunder came through so loud and I said, "Oh, you're awake." And he was there. And everything was okay after that talk. That thunderstorm was meant for me.
"I can tell people that horses talk to me. I tell them I understand what they say and they tell me I must be some kind of horse whisperer. They say, "You're gifted. That's great." But if I tell them God talked to me that night they say, "You're a nut." But it happened."
On the negative reaction from many people after the Kentucky Derby and how it has hurt him:
"We had tons of mail we opened we probably shouldn't have. People telling us how bad we were, how cruel we were for racing horses, and what we had done to this horse. Those letters really hurt. And I also listened to the radio the Monday after (the Derby) and heard people on radio saying they knew for a fact we injected her ankles (with steroids) on Wednesday. These people just don't understand. No vet even entered her stall that week and we could prove that they were lying. That hurt me personally. So then we had to defend ourselves. And we did.
"Did any of the other 19 (trainers) in the Derby voice-up and say," My horse wasn't on steroids?" They might not have been on steroids, but they didn't voice-up like we did and say it. I hated all the attacks, but I hated the attacks on Gabriel the most. Because I knew we'd be okay."
"The majority of fans were in my corner, but I still hate that even after we proved we were right and they were wrong, they still had issue with us. They started attacking our horses physically and that hurt me more than anything else they could have said. My pony got tampered with, a horse got turned lose, and after we proved we had no medications violations, then they said "Watch this sucker." And now we're dealing with (a medication violation). But there are evil people out there and I can't help it.
On racing her in the Derby:
LJ: "They said a filly shouldn't have been racing against the boys. But I'm not the one who invented this. It's been going on for hundreds of years. If she would have run 18th, 19th or 20th, no one would have been hanging me faster than me. It would have been a bad choice. But this horse belonged. She ran so gallant and I'm so thankful she did.
"I have a picture that a photographer sent me that shows her about five strides before collapsing and her ears were up. I knew she wasn't in any pain. Accidents happen."
On having a successful year while also dealing with the Eight Belles tragedy:
LJ: "The first four years of my career we didn't earn $40,000 total and I thought that was as bad as it could get. This year we have earned $5.3 million and the year's not two-thirds over, but this will go down as the worst year of my training career. It seems like I've made more people unhappy this year than ever before."