The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do
it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an
undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen.
The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these
characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them,
their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, and that at least most of them are
no longer with us. — Cot Campbell
You had to love Jimmy Jones. Like
a baby who first stares at you vacantly and then explodes joyfully into a
crinkly-eyed, big smile, so did Jimmy Jones engage you. In the first seconds of
contact, he seemed at the same time slightly worried, a tad solicitous, a
trifle wary, but searching hard for a reason to smile.
He was one of the "the Jones
Boys," one of the greatest horse-training teams in the history of the game. His
father was Ben "B.A." Jones, a big, beefy, gimlet-eyed man who brooked no
affronts and earned a reputation for being a first-class Midwestern saloon
Jimmy, on the other hand, was a
good-natured, roly-poly little fellow who exuded what appeared to be a
childlike innocence. He seemed intent on achieving the most pleasant possible
social intercourse with his fellow man, with a voice that was sifted through
gravel and a mind like a steel trap!
The Jones Boys came out of
Parnell, Missouri, and despite the substantial and inevitable degree of
sophistication that must have come simply from the glitter and glamour of
winning eight Kentucky Derbys, they remained "Parnell" to the core. The boys
left the country, but the country never left the boys.
They made their indelible mark
when they signed on as private trainers for the vaunted Calumet Farm, and they
quickly set about creating a dynasty that has never been equaled. Their names
are associated with the creation of such racing luminaries as Citation,
Coaltown, Ponder, Hill Gail, Pensive, Bardstown, Whirlaway, Armed, Bewitch, Tim
Tam, Two Lea, Barbizon, Iron Liege, Wistful, On-and-On, A Gleam, etc., etc.
Never has any other horse-training
feat equaled the skein of great horses turned out for Calumet by the Jones
Ben Jones (L) and Jimmy Jones (R) with Iron Liege after winning the 1957 Kentucky Derby
Much of the year they operated in
two divisions. In 1948 Jimmy had the Florida division that included Citation-a
horse who would make anyone's top-five-horses-of-all-time list. Jimmy actually
trained the horse, but when he brought him to Kentucky for the Derby, he had to
turn Citation over to his father, who was seeking to tie the record of Derby
Dick Thompson, with four victories in that classic. Being a good son (with
little choice in the matter!), Jimmy seemed good-natured about it at the time. But
in his later years his bitterness at this injustice surfaced, and he was rather
outspoken about it.
I loved Jimmy's recount of
bringing the mighty Citation to Louisville: "Coaltown was my father's horse. He
had Coaltown in Louisville while I had Citation in Hialeah. When I come up to
Louisville with Citation, some of them boys from Louisville started kiddin' me,
sayin', ‘What you doin' here?' I told them, ‘I come over to win the Derby!' They
said, ‘You won't see anything but a big brown hiney (Coaltown's); that's all
you'll see.' I said, ‘If he beats this horse, you just call me imbecile for the
rest of my life.' "
But my best story has to do with
an earlier time, the early 1930s in Chicago.
A Deal They Couldn't Refuse
The boys were training for Herbert
Woolf out of Kansas City. They had good, solid stock (they were a few years
away from winning their first Derby with Lawrin), and they were having a dandy
meeting at Arlington Park.
One steaming hot July day Jimmy
and Ben were driving down State Street in Chicago's "Loop." Jimmy was behind
the wheel, chattering away, while Ben stared stonily ahead.
A big black Packard touring car
with four male occupants pulled alongside. The thuggish-looking fellow in the
front gestured unmistakably toward the curb, and the Joneses pulled over.
"What the hell!" said Jimmy.
A big, swarthy individual emerged
from the back seat and sauntered over to the modest Jones vehicle. He had on
black pants, a bow-tie, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a sailor
Jimmy had the sickening feeling
that this man looked quite familiar.
The big fellow put a foot on the
running board, leaned into the car, and asked, "Which one of youse is the horse
Jimmy piped up, "Why, we both are!
I'm Jimmy Jones, and this here is B.A. What can we do for you?
"Well, my name is Al Capone. You
heard of me?"
Two quick affirmative nods.
"I like the races, make a bet or
two. Every time I go out to Arlington you guys seem to be winning all the
races. You must be good trainers," Capone said.
Now these were pleasing sentiments
for the big gangster to be expressing, but somehow neither Jimmy nor Ben sensed
that beneficial news would follow.
"I wanna cash a few bets, so I
might want to hook up with youse. You probably got a live horse or two left in
the barn. Maybe we could have some fun together, and I'll take care of you if
we do," Al continued.
Jimmy and Ben deduced that if the
"live horse" did not generate fun, indeed they might be taken care of in
Before they could respond, Al
Capone issued an invitation. "You come have dinner with me. We'll work it out. Tomorrow
night at seven at the Cicero Grill, down on Division Street. Unnastand?"
Capone grinned, nodded abruptly,
slapped Jimmy on the shoulder, and strolled back to his car.
"Oh, s**t," said Jimmy looking at
his father. "What're we gonna do now?"
"Hell, we're going to dinner," Ben
The next night the two horse
trainers arrived at the Cicero Grill, an establishment of rather modest
appointments. There were very few patrons, but the bartender seemed aware they
had not just wandered in off the street for a drink. He greeted them with,
"Jones? Go through that door next to the kitchen."
They did. They were the first
arrivals-save one-in a small private dining room, with a large table with
places set for eight. The only other occupant was a forlorn-looking man in a
seedy tuxedo. He was clutching a violin.
"What's happening?" Jimmy brightly
sought to break the ice (and perhaps learn something about the nature of the
evening ahead). The violinist shrugged unhappily and said nothing.
After about 15 minutes, a mild
commotion sounded in the main dining area of the Cicero Grill. The door burst
open, and in came Big Al, four of his staff, and, quite surprisingly, a very
rotund male child of about 8 years. He wore tight short pants. He bore a strong
resemblance to Al and was introduced as "my boy, Sonny."
With much backslapping and playful
punches, Al Capone jovially launched the social hour. Soon a surprisingly large
number of waiters for an establishment the size of the Cicero Grill were hurrying
in with drinks and antipasto for this strange assortment of dinner guests:
Capone and staff, two nervous horse trainers, a violinist, and a fat little
Jimmy and Ben had, of course,
discussed exhaustively what to do about Big Al's keen interest in their racing
stock. They had determined it was a no-win situation. If they complied with
Al's demand to cut him in on a juicy gambling opportunity, the best-case
scenario would be a nice "tip" if the horse won. However, victory was sure to
be followed by a request for another such opportunity, and on and on, ad
There was considerable downside
risk. If the horse did not win, and Big Al dropped a bundle, the relationship
would sour significantly, and who knew what ramifications such a failure might
It did not take a genius to figure
out that the boys were up the well-known creek and did not have a paddle.
Their game plan was to agree
vaguely to everything and then hope fate would somehow intervene before the
moment of truth. Perhaps some strategic stalling would temper Al's enthusiasm
for a gamble of this nature.
The business portion of this
night's meeting took place during the consumption of the antipasto, with Al's
promise that "some high-class entertainment" would follow. Surely this would
not be the violinist?
The "business" consisted of, "Now
you boys know how to win races. So next time you got something good, you call
me and I'll load up with the bookmakers. Unnastand what I'm saying?"
Jimmy and Ben indicated that they
With that, a very heavy meal
commenced, with Al and his boys-and the fat child-laying down a blistering pace
and admirable staying power. During dinner Al had signaled Lenny the violinist
to favor the group with some renditions, and the musician began sawing away
dolorously with a variety of sentimental selections.
In telling the story in later
life, Jimmy remembered the room had no windows, and because air conditioning
was rare in those days, the single, oscillating electric fan was badly
overmatched by the hot Chicago weather. The wine, lasagna, temperature, and the
nature of their predicament were combining to make the nervous Jones Boys
perspire heavily. If they had been racehorses, they would surely have left
their races in the paddock.
The meal finally ended. Thank God,
thought the guests; now this dreaded evening must soon be over.
At this point Al belched loudly,
scratched his stomach, reared back in his chair, and said, "Now youse are in
for a treat. Sonny has been taking singin' and dancin' lessons; I want him to
show you his stuff!"
Al's boys signaled the waiters to
clear the table, and the guests-Jimmy and Ben-were told to move their chairs
back so they could better appreciate the visual nuances of Sonny's
presentation, which would take place on top of the dinner table.
Sonny did not suffer from stage
fright. With a boost from one of the adults, he scrambled enthusiastically on
top of the sturdy table.
Lenny and Sonny had obviously
"worked" together, and it was with seasoned teamwork that the two embarked on
"It's Only a Shanty in Old Shantytown." This old favorite brought so much
applause that it was followed with the popular "Ma, He's Makin' Eyes at Me." There
was a thunderous response in the private dining room, and the Jones Boys
carried their share of the load. After five or six other numbers, during which
Sonny had managed to break a major-league sweat (and so had the two honored
guests), Big Al jumped up and said-Jolson style-"You ain't seen nothin' yet! Now,
Angel, show ‘em the Lindy Hop and the Charleston." Lenny was beginning to
falter slightly, but not Sonny. This was his (and Al's) big moment, and by God
he was going to deliver the goods.
The entire Cicero Grill was
reverberating until about 10:30, when Al mercifully declared it was time to put
"my singin' and dancin' angel to bed." Goodnights were said with firm reminders
to the two horsemen that Al Capone would be awaiting their call with good news
of the upcoming score.
Race Day with Scarface
Day after day the Jones Boys
played their waiting game, hoping the problem would disappear. A week passed,
and they began to have high hopes that Al's lust for a score had been diverted.
Then, the dreaded call. "You boys ain't forgot about our project, have ya?" Al
"Uh, no, we're working on it. But
the situation has got to be just right. We'll be in touch, " Jimmy explained.
"Be in touch before the week's
over!" Al suggested.
The boys had a solid 3-year-old
filly named Missouri Waltz. She was worth about $10,000 in those Depression
days, which made her a pretty good horse. The two trainers owned her
themselves. So they decided that Missouri Waltz would be the vehicle that would
activate the project. They would run this nice filly in a $5,000 claimer. Missouri
Waltz should win easily. Of course, she would surely be claimed (bought), and
though that thought was abhorrent, the alternative was more abhorrent.
They found a race six days away,
phoned Big Al, and informed him of the play. Capone was very pleased. This must
have been a dull period in gangland activities in the Windy City, for the big
fellow seemed inordinately interested in what should have been a
"small-potatoes" undertaking. There were several subsequent conversations
before the big day.
Race day came, and the betting
public found it so strange that the canny Jones Boys would drop this filly so
drastically that they laid off her, and she went off at 7-2. She should have
Jimmy and Ben were sweating
bullets and not terribly enthused about watching the race with Big Al in his box,
about which he was most insistent.
But they did, and agonizing though
it was, Missouri Waltz waltzed home by five lengths and paid $9.40. Another
good fortune for the horse's owners was that other horsemen either shared the
bettors' suspicion or noticed Capone's involvement and were afraid to claim a
filly that afforded one of the juiciest opportunities of the Chicago summer
Capone had done most of his
betting with bookmakers around the country. He had done well, but more
importantly he looked and felt like a genius.
Big Al was most complimentary to
Ben and Jimmy Jones. "I knew you guys were good. You done fine! I tell ya what-you
come on over to the Cicero Grill on Saturday night, and we'll put on the
feedbag again. We'll get Sonny to put on another show for us, huh? And we'll
talk about where we're going from here! We're going to have some fun this
summer! And I'll have an envelope for youse."
Jimmy and Ben went back to the
barn. While the filly was cooling out, Ben, leaning pensively against the
railing in the shed row, called Jimmy over. "By God, I'll tell you where we're
going from here. Soon as there's an eastbound train, and it'd better be a night
train, we're taking the whole damned outfit to Latonia. We got to quit while
the quittin's good. I don't want no more of this, I don't want the envelope,
and I sure to God can't stand another evening with that little fat boy!"
The Jones Boys came back to
Chicago, cutting a wide swath when they did. But it was at a time when Big Al
was residing in a large concrete structure in Atlanta, as the guest of the
More of Cot Campbell's stories are included among a host of others in The Best of Talkin' Horses.