Jones saddles up another Derby hopeful
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Fate, or something more divine, tugged at Larry Jones' wrist Tuesday morning in the Churchill Downs backside chapel.
Jones had been wearing an Eight Belles wristband for nearly a year, commemorating his star-crossed filly who suffered a fatal breakdown just moments after finishing a robust second in the Kentucky Derby last May. It was quite likely the most agonizing moment in the 134-year history of America's greatest horse race, and it exacted a toll on the horse's trainer.
In honor of his fallen filly, Jones wore that wristband day and night. From the moment he put it on, he swore he wouldn't take it off "'til it wore out."
In the chapel Tuesday morning, he felt something on his wrist and looked down. Three hundred and sixty days after Eight Belles died on the Churchill dirt, the wristband had broken.
"That was a sign," Jones said.
The symbolic unshackling from last year's Derby told the 52-year-old cowboy from Hopkinsville, Ky., that it was OK to let go. Time to stop grieving, stop dwelling, stop defending, stop trying to make sense of how a filly can run so brilliantly, then shatter both front legs in mere strides.
Time for a clean break from a year-old tragedy. Time to go after the 2009 Kentucky Derby with fresh vigor, zero trepidation and a talented horse. Time to look forward with enthusiasm, not backward with regret.
On Saturday, Jones and Rick Porter will do it all again. They will saddle a fast 3-year-old co-owned by Porter and trained by Jones in an attempt to win the Derby. Friesan Fire, a 5-1 morning-line choice, gives the connections that have finished second in the past two Derbies a very real shot at earning the roses.
"I don't think he could look any better," Porter said Thursday morning on the backside, as raindrops splashed on a tan jacket that said "Eight Belles" on the right breast.
About four hours before Saturday reaches its crescendo with the big race, Porter will present the winning trophy in the newly renamed Eight Belles Stakes (formerly the La Troienne) for 3-year-old fillies, which will be run on the Derby undercard. Jones will saddle two fillies in that race: Just Jenda and Warrior Maid.
"I know it's going to be an emotional thing," Porter said. "Hopefully I can present Larry the Eight Belles trophy and move on to the 11th race [the Derby]."
As an investor in the thoroughbred business and a fan of the game, Porter moved on about one week after Eight Belles went down. He gritted his teeth and went back to the races at Delaware Park, determined not to dwell on the worst possible outcome.
"I told myself, 'Look, I'm not ever going to think about a horse breaking down,' " Porter said. "And I'm not going to think it this race [the '09 Derby]."
But moving on professionally is different from moving on emotionally. Porter is human, and Eight Belles' wrenching collapse left significant psychological scar tissue.
"I don't think it's anything you ever get over," he said. "It's just back there, and it surfaces every once in a while. I think of all the people watching. It's just a horrible part of the sport.
"To see her lying on the ground; I can't get that picture out of my mind."
If Larry Jones sticks to his word, this is his last Kentucky Derby. He announced near the end of last summer that he was retiring after the 2009 Breeders' Cup in November. Told his owners to stop buying young horses for him to train.
Horses are a 24/7 investment, and when you are as hands-on as Jones -- he exercises his animals himself -- there is no time for anything else.
Jones and his wife and assistant trainer, Cindy, say they want to spend time seeing their children and eight grandchildren. They're based at Delaware Park but make the thoroughbred racing rounds. They have a house in Henderson, Ky., across the Ohio River from Evansville, Ind., that they've owned for three years. Slept there three nights. They'd like to see what life is like without a 4 a.m. wakeup call.
"We're going to be spending birthdays with grandkids and Christmas with grandkids," Jones said. "It's just time."
Ask Porter about Jones' retirement and he winks.
"He might get a little itch," he said. "I tell him I might want him to take a ride with me to South Carolina [where Porter breaks his young horses] and get his opinion on my 2-year-olds.
"He needs about four or five months off, then he'll be bored to death. He doesn't have any hobbies. He doesn't fish, he doesn't golf, he doesn't want to farm anymore and he doesn't like to sit around on a beach somewhere."
However long it lasts, Jones insists the retirement decision had nothing to do with Eight Belles' breakdown, or the backlash of criticism against him. When a filly breaks down on national television in the most high-profile moment in American racing, somebody has to pay, in the eyes of many people who love animals. Jones and his young jockey, Gabriel Saez, paid pretty dearly in terms of attacks on their character.
"That hurt him and Cindy a lot," Porter said.
Never mind that Eight Belles' breakdown was beyond their control. There were people who accused Saez of excessively whipping the filly into a breakdown. There were people who accused Jones of running an unsound animal or jacking her up with steroids.
Both trainer and jockey were ultimately vindicated by investigation and autopsy. Eight Belles did not run on steroids or any other medications: Jones made a decision years ago to forego a lot of the drugs others used legally. Saez did not cause the breakdown, either.
In fact, Jones became a spokesman for limiting medication in racing. In sticking his neck out, he alienated everyone. Animal-rights activists already had vilified him, and then horsemen took shots at him for being holier-than-thou.
The backlash included attacks on his barn at Delaware Park. His horses were let out of their stalls one night, and his stable pony had a blistering agent poured into its mouth. Jones said an employee of his was fired over those incidents, but he believes he was working in concert with others who were angry over his anti-medication stance.
As near as anyone can responsibly guess, the filly's fractures were a freak accident. Breakdowns happen with distressing regularity, but a double front-leg fracture is rare to the point of being almost unprecedented.
"No trainer can be so unlucky to have that happen twice in one lifetime," Jones said. "There's lots of people who have seen thousands of races and never saw that."
Thanks to that stroke of incredibly bad luck -- perhaps exacerbated by Eight Belles' bloodlines, which link her to some fast but unsound sires -- Jones became the flashpoint for a national debate on horse racing safety issues. In the past year, tracks and blue-ribbon commissions have studied medications, racing surfaces, breeding, horseshoes, jockeys' use of the whip, what age horses begin running, how many times they run and many other factors.
As a result, the sport has made some changes. Jones thinks that's progress.
"It's changed as fast as it can," Jones said. "You're not going to watch TV and tell anything, but they have [made changes]. The racetracks are being as conscientious as they can.
"It was a good game in 2008. It's a better game in 2009."
Porter isn't so sure. He points to a New York Times story this week in which 17 leading trainers and/or owners refused to disclose what legal meds they give their horses. Porter and Jones were not among that group.
"I think it's unbelievable, and it's just the epitome of what's wrong with our sport," Porter said. "The bettors, without whom we couldn't have a sport, what are they going to think? What are the other guys hiding?
"I think we're trying and there's a lot of people talking [about how to improve racing]. All these committees -- but until the suits inside 'the club' decide we need to make some changes, we cannot fix racing."
Porter declined to specify who is in "the club." Suffice it to say it isn't a club he or Jones want to join anytime soon.
This one on the white wood of the shedrow in Jones' barn at Churchill. It says "Eight Belles" in the colors of the filly's silks, red and white. At the bottom are eight tiny bells. Everyone in the barn looks at the sign every morning.
They'll look at it Saturday as well. Then they'll lead Friesan Fire over for the 2009 Kentucky Derby and try to put the past to rest.
"We remember," Larry Jones said. "But we go on."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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