Now that the Triple Crown run is over and more than five weeks have passed since the Eight Belles tragedy, I thought it would be a good time to pick the brain of Larry Jones. Thought of by many as not only one of the most talented, but most respected trainers in the sport, Jones gave his take on a few different topics, including Eight Belles, Big Brown, medication issues and this year's Triple Crown.
JS: Now that some time has passed since the Eight Belles tragedy, have things gotten any easier for you?
LJ: Yes, time heals a lot of things in life and it has gotten better. But it is a long ways from being forgotten. We still struggle with it all the time.
JS: Did the outpouring of support from people both inside and outside the industry help you get through it?
LJ: The support really did help a lot. We got hundreds of letters, cards and phone calls, most of them very positive. A lot of people in the business that I didn't even know and I figured didn't even care about me personally came to offer their support. That meant a lot. It was good. You're always going to have a few bad people pointing fingers, but it's that way in every walk of life.
JS: Did the test that proved Eight Belles was steroid-free give you any kind of vindication?
LJ: Yeah. It made a lot of people get off of me. I knew from the start we had done right by her and we went into the race good. The accusations hurt, but this proved that we play the game on the level.
JS: In hindsight, would this tragedy ever make you think twice about entering a filly in the Derby again?
LJ: No. This injury had nothing to do with her being a filly. There is nothing I would do differently. She came into the race perfect. The same thing can happen to any horse galloping in the morning. It was just a very unfortunate situation.
JS: Switching gears a little, I happen to think medication violations are one of the biggest problems in Thoroughbred racing. Do you agree?
LJ: Let me first say that medication issues have changed a lot in the last 30 years - for the better. Kentucky had major medication revisions about five years ago when the Horse Racing Authority took over. They changed a lot of rules and it's getting better all the time. Thirty years ago you could walk into a pharmacy and buy steroids over-the-counter with no problem. That is a felony today. Most people outside the game don't know that. Medication testing has gotten a lot better too. In the 1970's when I first started training Thoroughbreds, there were horses running on all kinds of stuff that you would never even consider today, stuff like elephant juice. That kind of stuff is far behind us today.
JS: With that being said, is there still room to improve?
LJ: It can get better. One of the biggest things I would like is for every state to get on the same page with medication rules. We need a national committee in charge of this. I want to know what is not allowed in New York is also a not allowed in Kentucky, is not allowed in New Jersey and so on. It's going to take somebody stepping up to the plate to say, ‘this is how it's going to be.'
JS: Maybe the June 19 Congressional Subcommittee hearing in Washington D.C. will be the first step. If so, can you take some comfort in the fact that the Eight Belles tragedy was the catalyst for this?
LJ: Absolutely. I believe the good Lord would not have taken this horse away without something good coming from it. She did not give her life for no reason. Even though the PETA people were barking up the wrong tree, I would like to think this was the catalyst that will bring about change.
JS: As a trainer, does it bother you when you see some of your peers repeatedly getting away with medication violations?
LJ: It really does. It aggravates the heck out of me, especially when they take away some of my big clients. They want to win so badly that they will push the envelope so hard just to get results. It's very annoying.
JS: Do we need stricter penalties for offenders?
LJ: I'm very much in favor of harsher penalties. As far as I'm concerned , it should be three strikes and you're out. Now, I do know that accidents happen. There are some instances where trainers are giving horses medication that is legal to train with and illegal to race with. Sometimes that can get mixed up. But for repeat offenders, it should not be tolerated. My hope is that when these rules finally get in place it will increase win percentages even more for someone like me, who has never had a violation.
JS: Switching gears again, it seems that many people were turned off by the things Rick Dutrow Jr. said during Big Brown's run through the Triple Crown. As a fellow trainer, do you have an opinion?
LJ: Those type of comments do not draw my attention favorably. Rick is entitled to say what he wants, but John Servis is a friend of mine and I didn't appreciate his comments about Smarty Jones. As far as I'm concerned, (Servis) did a better job with Smarty than Rick did with Big Brown. And (Dutrow's) comments came back to bite him in the butt.
JS: Several people have said that Dutrow's comments made them not want Big Brown to win the Triple Crown. What about you?
LJ: I was rooting for us not to have a Triple Crown winner. He is a very nice horse but the connections rubbed people the wrong way. Plus, I didn't agree with him being compared to Secretariat and horses like that. I think if Big Brown would have raced against Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun last year he would have found things are hell of a lot more difficult than he did this year. Put it this way, he's a talented horse, but I've trained horses that raced against tougher, in my opinion.
JS: A lot has been made of why Big Brown lost the Belmont. What is your opinion?
LJ: It's not my deal to second guess somebody else's horse. I wasn't around the horse so I don't know. Maybe he just had an off day. I can't blame the jockey for the loss though. He is a push button horse and just didn't have it that day, for whatever reason.
JS: What about easing the horse in the stretch?
LJ: I don't think he should have done that. I think he should have allowed the horse to finish the race on his own terms. It was not handled well. But then again, not a whole lot was handled well through this run. It was par for the course with these connections.