After winning the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) May 2, Airdrie Stud owner Brereton Jones talked of the relationship his family has developed with trainer Larry Jones and his wife, Cindy.
“The Jones stable is a small family operation, just like Airdrie,” he said.
In the twilight of the following day, Larry Jones also spoke of family after Rick Porter’s Eight Belles, whom he had saddled to finish second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), had broken down and had to be euthanized.
“These horses are our family,” the trainer said.
And losing a family member is never easy.
Larry Jones wanted to grieve in private. But he understands the role the media plays. Despite wanting to be alone with his wife, family members, and the filly’s groom, Corey York, Jones agreed to speak to reporters in the press box nearly two hours after the tragic event had played out.
Many trainers, understandably, would have declined the offer to address the assembled reporters, but Jones said the filly had gained a number of admirers and wanted them properly informed. “You want to go off by yourself but you owe it to the sport; the public wants to know,” he said.
Jones tried to fight back the tears, without success.
At 6 a.m. the following morning, the first stall by his tack room was closed, an Eight Belles sticker attached to the old, wooden door. Jones’ pony, Pal, was in the next stall, with Proud Spell to his right. In the next stall was the blanket of lilies won by Proud Spell in the Oaks.
In the tack room, Jones spoke about the family member they had lost. His wife, Cindy, cried again, her eyes bloodshot from having wept most of the night.
“When we walked her to the chute before the Derby, she stopped and never moved one foot,” Larry Jones said. “She had her head hanging and was letting us play with her. She thought she was the star of the show.”
During the walkover, in the paddock, and throughout the post parade, Eight Belles never turned a hair. Jones proceeded to a third-floor box above the tunnel to watch the race.
“When they came by the first time, she was happy,” he said. “She was not trying to get away from anybody or anything. The whole race, she never got bumped; never got touched.” After she crossed the finish line, Jones celebrated and headed toward the track.
“Kent (Desormeaux, who rode winner Big Brown) wasn’t jubilant like Calvin (Borel) last year,” Jones said. “Then I saw Gabe (Eight Belles’ jockey Gabe Saez) on the pony and he said, ‘Mr. Larry, they had to put her down.’ I ran for the ambulance.”
When Jones saw Eight Belles, he immediately knew what had to happen next.
But he is still mystified as to why it happened at all.
Jones took out his trainer’s license in 1982 and had two horses he bought for $800 each. Today, he has 50 in the barn, a number that will soon double when the 2-year-olds arrive.
In more than 25 years of training, Jones previously had three horses break down during races and a few others during morning training. You never forget any of them, he said.
In 2006, Jones was among the team of advisers selecting yearlings for Porter, Eight Belles being one of those they approved for purchase. She arrived at his barn after last year’s Derby, in which he sent out Porter’s Hard Spun to run second.
“I thought she was the one to get us to the Breeders’ Cup last year, but she never got into it mentally,” Jones said. “She didn’t know then how talented she was.”
On May 3, everyone found out how talented Eight Belles was. She was perfectly prepared, perfectly ridden, and perfectly happy.
She showed nothing but class on the racetrack.
The same can be said of her trainer.