Hats Off to Larry

The morning of the Kentucky Derby, in a corner of Barn 43, all was right with the world. Larry and Cindy Jones were still beaming over the impressive victory of Proud Spell in the previous day’s Kentucky Oaks. Their African Gray parrot, Buddy, was whistling up a storm outside his cage in the office. Proud Spell was having her picture taken with several visitors. And in the next stall, Eight Belles was awaiting her chance at history in the Run for the Roses.

Some seven hours later, the Jones’ world came crashing down when Eight Belles, after finishing a gallant second to Big Brown, shattered both her front ankles while pulling up and had to be euthanized on the track.

The joy of Proud Spell’s magnificent victory had been short-lived, dimmed by the shadows of Eight Belles’ tragic death.

Larry Jones never could have imagined that a Kentucky Oaks victory and a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby would become a prelude to a nightmare.

The firestorm that followed hit Jones as if he had been kicked in the gut by one of his horses. Volatile protests by PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) were directed not only at Thoroughbred racing, but at Jones, his jockey Gabriel Saez, and owner Rick Porter. Then came the demonstrations and the volumes of hate mail, followed by PETA’s attempt to have animal cruelty charges filed against Jones. Proud Spell’s Kentucky Oaks had quickly become a distant memory. “It seems like decades ago,” Jones said at the time. “Our enjoyment lasted only one day.”

A month later, one of Jones’ horses, Stones River, was found to have an excess amount of the bronchodilator clenbuterol in his system. Jones was convinced the horse had been tampered with, due to the timing of it and the fact that he was the only one in the barn who administered clenbuterol. Then, two of Jones’ horses, including his pony, Pal, were let out of their stalls and were found wandering about near the barn. Pal had been poisoned with a toxic agent that caused severe blisters in his mouth and on his tongue. A recently fired employee was suspected in the incident.

The once cheery, good-humored world of Larry Jones was now spiraling downward into the darkness of hatred, revenge, and ignorance. The year that had started with great promise quickly was unraveling and there seemed no way to stop it.

Jones had relied heavily on his faith after Eight Belles’ death and its aftermath, as he tried to get his life back to some sense of normalcy.

“Nothing has ever hurt me more,” he said at the time. “This is the greatest tragedy of my life.”

It reached a point where he became reluctant to open his mail, not wanting to subject himself to the cruel and hateful things people were writing.

Jones reappeared on the national scene on June 28, saddling Proud Spell in the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I) and Solar Flare in the Suburban Handicap (gr. I). At the end of the day, it was apparent Jones’ bad luck was not over.

Proud Spell had a disastrous trip, getting shut off on the inside and hitting the rail, then racing erratically down the stretch. She managed to finish second behind the up-and-coming star Music Note, but as a final indignity, was disqualified and placed third, returning with several cuts near her coronet band. Solar Flare appeared to have the Suburban won in deep stretch, but let the longshot Frost Giant, whom he had passed, come back and beat him by a half-length.

After the race, Jones sat on the back of his pickup truck outside the detention barn. When someone commented, “Rough day,” Jones, with a smile on his face, replied, “The Derby was rough. I got two horses walkin’ around in that barn over there, and that’s the most important thing to me right now.”

With his priorities in order and his ordeal behind him, Jones set his sights on the second half of the year. On July 12, Proud Spell won the Delaware Oaks (gr. II). Two weeks later, his latest acquisition, Kodiak Kowboy, won the grade II Amsterdam at Saratoga. Even Stones River got in the act by winning the Nick Shuk Memorial at Delaware Park on Aug. 2, the same day Shytoe Lafeet won the West Virginia Senate President’s Stakes at Mountaineer Park.

A week later, Maren’s Meadows upset the Monmouth Oaks (gr. III) with a wire-to-wire performance. Then came Jones’ most important weekend, in which he sent out Proud Spell against Music Note in the Alabama Stakes (gr. I), a race he considered a championship showdown. Down in New Jersey the same day, Cindy saddled the promising 4-year-old Honest Man in the $300,000 Philip H. Iselin Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth to determine the colt’s status in the older horse division.

First, it was Honest Man’s turn, as he drew clear of the favorite, Grasshopper, to win the Iselin by 2 3/4 lengths, earning himself a possible berth in the Sept. 27 Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II).

Then it was the Alabama and possibly Proud Spell’s last chance to stamp herself as the leading 3-year-old filly in the country. When Music Note followed up her Mother Goose victory with a resounding 11-length romp in the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) in a sharp 2:01 3/5 for the 1 1/4 miles, she became the new darling of the 3-year-old filly division.

Proud Spell, having run the only dull race of her career in the Ashland Stakes (gr. I) over the Polytrack at Keeneland, did not have the Breeders’ Cup on her schedule, making the Alabama a must win. Music Note, coming off her spectacular victory at 10 furlongs, was made the 2-5 favorite in the five-horse field, coupled with stablemate Little Belle, who had beaten Proud Spell in the Ashland and was second behind Music Note in the CCA Oaks coming off a layoff. Proud Spell was next in the wagering at 9-5.

All week, the Godolphin brain trust had discussed whether to run Music Note in the Alabama or wait for the Travers (gr. I) the following week and try her against the colts. It wasn’t until the morning of the Alabama that they decided to stick with the fillies rather than run against 11 colts in the Travers.

It was the decision Jones had been hoping for. “I needed her to run in this race, where they could hook heads,” Jones said. “If they had voted for champion the day before the race, heck, Music Note would have gotten it, based mostly on one race. Proud Spell winning the Kentucky Oaks and beating Indian Blessing in the Fair Grounds Oaks was history; it meant nothing. So for Proud Spell’s sake, we needed to take Music Note on.”

Before the race, Jones gave Saez explicit instructions: “Do not let Music Note in front. I don’t care if you have to ride her all the way to the barn area, down Nelson Avenue, or what, she don’t get in front.”

Proud Spell had never been passed in the stretch. “When she puts that eyeball on you, you’re pretty much at her mercy,” Jones said. “She somehow can find it in herself to stay in front.”

What followed was one of the great battles in memory, the kind of which champions are made. 

Following a sluggish half in :50 3/5 and three-quarters in a snail-like 1:14 3/5, Proud Spell moved up to challenge Little Belle, whose lethargic pace did nothing to help Music Note, who was last in the five-horse field. With Proud Spell dogging her the whole way, Little Belle’s tactics made her stablemate’s job a lot tougher. Through a fourth quarter around the far turn in a sharp :24 1/5, Proud Spell cruised up to challenged Little Belle, while Music Note had to be pushed along by Javier Castellano in order to close the gap.

Both fillies went by Little Belle turning for home and the battle everyone had wanted to see was on. When Music Note moved alongside Proud Spell, Saez, after a pair of right-handed whips, switched to his left hand in order to let Proud Spell move out and look her opponent in the eye, as Jones had wanted. Once she did, she dug in and refused to let Music Note by. Saez, switched back to his right hand and gave Proud Spell several smacks over the shoulder. Proud Spell began to inch away, and although the margin was only a head, the issue was never in doubt in the final yards.

It was a shame either filly had to get beat. This was Music Note’s first time around two turns and her first gut-check. But in the end, it was the tenacious, battle-tested Proud Spell who prevailed.

“Hopefully, that will settle the Eclipse Award,” Jones said. “I just can’t see them settling it on an artificial surface and using that as the one-race measure. That’s why they have dirt horses and they have turf horses. And now you need a third kind of horse. I know we’re not looking to go to the Breeders’ Cup with Proud Spell.

“She wasn’t comfortable on the Polytrack at Keeneland. We work over the Tapeta track here at Fair Hill, and while it’s good for her to train on it, she still works slow, and had a slow work over it for the Alabama, considering the effort she put into it.”

After a tumultuous two months, Jones has been able to regroup and steer himself back on course. That familiar broad smile and the “good ‘ol boy” quips have returned. 

“Everything is going extremely well now; we’ve been very blessed,” he said. “It’s been one whale of a roller coaster ride, to be honest with you, but at least we’re back on the upside now.”




 

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