Renovation Break - by Dan Liebman

At 10 p.m., an exhausted Larry Jones finally fell asleep. Just two and a half hours later, he was back up, making training charts for that day’s sets before loading his trailer to drive from his barn at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland to Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York.

Jones was tired, and not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well. This was not the lifestyle he wanted. So a few weeks after turning 52 on Sept. 2, he told others what he and his wife and assistant, Cindy, had decided weeks earlier. By the end of 2009, they are retiring.

Just a few years ago, Larry and Cindy Jones had a small barn of horses at tiny Ellis Park in Western Kentucky, not far from where Larry grew up farming in Hopkinsville, Ky. Cindy is a Tennessee native who also enjoys the quiet lifestyle of living in the country, far away from big city lights.

But Larry Jones is a skilled horseman whose talents were evident. When a trainer wins 20% or more of his races with lesser stock, more than just handicappers take note. When a trainer purchases yearlings for less than $20,000 and turns them into stakes horses, the word spreads.

But when a trainer goes from 30 or 40 horses to 120, something has to give.

And when that same trainer has to suffer through what Larry Jones has endured since the tragic breakdown of Eight Belles, it takes its toll.

At dinner Sept. 26, Jones said, “I don’t know what it feels like to have a nervous breakdown, but I have to think it is like this. I drive up to the barn and start shaking before I get out of the truck. I turn on TVG and I don’t even have a horse in the race and I can’t bare to watch. I used to love every aspect of this business. I don’t mind mucking a stall or driving a horse somewhere. But if I can’t get on the horse, like a 2-year-old I need to be on and know, I don’t enjoy it.”

It could be asked why Jones did not just scale back, telling some of his owners to move their horses to other trainers so he could again work with a manageable number. To him, that would not be fair. Whom does he turn his back on, the guys who have been with him 20 years, or the new owners that have helped him elevate his stock?

Perhaps Jones just should quit galloping horses, or discontinue trailering on his own. That would be like asking him to quit wearing a cowboy hat.

Jones doesn’t want to change, nor should he have to. He wants his current lifestyle to change.

Jones took out his trainer’s license in 1982, and that first year failed to find the winner’s circle in 20 starts. He had earnings of $3,480. The next year, he won two races from 37 starts, and his earnings jumped to $7,665. He made ends meet by galloping horses for other trainers.

Though his first stakes winner, Capt. Bold, came in 1986, Jones’ earnings did not reach six figures until 1989. It was another 15 years before they advanced to seven figures. While he had earnings of $5.9 million in 2007 and has $5.8 million so far this year, the first 17 years combined his horses won $1,835,601, an average of $107,977. The rub is, he made a lot less money but was a lot happier.

He won his first grade I in 2004 with Island Sand, now followed by Wildcat Bettie B, Hard Spun, and Proud Spell. If not for a perfect trip by Street Sense, and a buzzsaw named Big Brown, he would have won two Kentucky Derbys (gr. I).

Jones admits he will probably come back, though with far fewer horses. The fact he can walk away shows how much he loves the horse.

Hopefully, that same love will draw him back, because it is hard to believe we have seen the best yet, as a person and horseman, of Larry Jones.

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