Higher Power - by Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the May 2, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

This time of year people invariably talk about, and write about, the “racing gods” and “Derby gods.”

Of course, we all know what really wins Kentucky Derbys is horses and horsemanship. Well, most of the time anyway, because we also know the best horse doesn’t always win.

Still, it is nice to imagine a higher power had something to do with people such as Frances Genter and Paul Mellon ending up in the Derby winner’s circle, and that more than a good horse enabled an ailing Roy Chapman (Smarty Jones), a gracious Jim Tafel (Street Sense), and the lovely Bob and Beverly Lewis (Silver Charm, Charismatic) to win racing’s most coveted prize.

If there are Derby gods, this year belongs to Larry Jones.

Lots of trainers have had horses lose the Derby, many by a narrow margin and perhaps more due to a rough trip. But few have suffered through what Jones faced a year ago, when Eight Belles ran second in the Derby and then tragically broke down while galloping out.

After the incident, no one would have blamed Jones had he locked himself in his tack room, left the track, or simply said, “I can’t comment right now.”

Instead, Jones appeared in the press box, and despite tearing up several times, answered the media’s questions.

The next morning he was back at the barn, again conducting interviews despite a heart shredded by the emotions of the previous 12 hours.

At least Jones and his wife, Cindy, had 24 hours to revel in the excitement of Proud Spell’s win in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) the day before Eight Belles became headline news.

Just two months after last year’s Derby, Jones, who also ran second in 2007 with Hard Spun, received a package he thought could return him to Churchill Downs for the 2009 running.

In July 2008, Tom Simon’s Vinery moved the horses it had with trainer Steve Asmussen to other trainers employed by the farm. Among those sent to Jones was a colt named Friesan Fire.

“This is the type of horse that can get you back to the Derby,” Jones said privately the first time Friesan Fire breezed for him.

On Aug. 25, Friesan Fire won his maiden voyage at Delaware Park, covering six furlongs in 1:10.89 and winning by a facile three lengths. Jones was ecstatic when he contemplated that a horse that had shown from day one he wanted to run long, as his pedigree would suggest (A.P. Indy—Bollinger, by Dehere), had run a quick sprint and won in such convincing fashion.

Friesan Fire failed to win in his subsequent three starts at 2, though he ran third in the Belmont Futurity (gr. II) and fourth in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III). After his third start, Rick Porter, who owned Hard Spun and Eight Belles, purchased an interest in the colt.

This year Friesan Fire is unbeaten in three races, taking the LeComte Stakes (gr. III), Risen Star Stakes (gr. III), and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) in succession.

There are those questioning Jones’ decision to bring Friesan Fire to the Derby off a seven-week layoff and never having raced farther than 81⁄2 furlongs. They questioned the handling of Hard Spun and Eight Belles as well, but a trainer’s job is to know his horse and do what he believes is right for each runner.

Perhaps Jones will win the Derby, or maybe the racing gods have another plan. Perhaps Jones is to win the race earlier on the card re-named the Eight Belles with Just Jenda, owned by his wife and named for their granddaughter.

It is the type of thing the racing gods would do.

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