06/01/2012 2:52PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Chiropractor plays big role in keeping I'll Have Another straight

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Jenny Burgos
Larry “Thumper” Jones (left) is I’ll Have Another’s chiropractor.

Horses and hockey. Those were the two loves of Larry Jones when he was a growing up in tiny Stettler in Alberta, Canada. Jones longed to win the Stanley Cup, but a back injury short-circuited those dreams and led to a career change that has instead put him front and center with I’ll Have Another, who will try to win the Triple Crown in the 144th Belmont Stakes on June 9 at Belmont Park.

Jones, 53, works as an equine chiropractor, and Doug O’Neill, trainer of I’ll Have Another, said Jones has been instrumental in the success of a horse whose back problems have been so severe that he has required shock-wave therapy in the past.

“He’s a great horseman,” O’Neill said. “He’s a huge asset. He’s taken another member of my staff, Tyler Cerin, under his wing. He’s a great mentor.”

Jones – easily recognized with his signature outfit of shorts and cowboy boots on a frame that is 6-foot-3, 250 pounds – has been with I’ll Have Another throughout the Triple Crown, but started working on him in January. He said the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner has come a long ways since he first treated him Jan. 15.

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

“Back then, the best analogy I can give you is squeeze a quarter between the cheeks of your butt, drop your neck into your shoulders, and then go for a run,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “He was short-stepping, choppy, very uncomfortable. There’s a day-and-night difference now. He’s so flexible, so comfortable. His neck is like rubber. He can rate in his races. He’s not running from pain.”

The goal with I’ll Have Another, Jones said, was to “open him up,” a phrase he uses to describe having maximum movement and efficiency.

“You work on their backs, legs, shoulders, knees, ankles, trying to get a horse balanced, get him full range of motion,” Jones said. “This horse is so good right now. Now, it’s just maintenance – a lot of massage, a lot of stretching. Now, most of what we’re dealing with is minor stuff. It’s like checking the oil. You don’t want anything to stick around. We want to keep him at a high level of efficiency.

“The durability of this horse is incredible,” Jones said. “There ain’t a pimple on him. He eats good. He lays down every night and snores like a big dog. He’s totally satisfied.”

Though he was around horses in Stettler (2011 Census population of 5,748), Jones, like any Canadian youth, played hockey. He was talented enough to play the 1977-78 season on the Western Hockey League’s New Westminster Bruins, who won the Memorial Cup, the premier championship for junior players. Jones, a left wing, played in 25 regular season games and had 1 assist and 36 penalty minutes on a team that included future National Hockey League stars John Ogrodnick and Stan Smyl. In two seasons in the WHL, over 83 games, Jones had 4 goals, 7 assists – and 212 penalty minutes. He’s obviously always led with his hands.

“I was a big old strong farm boy,” he said.

But a severe back injury that required surgery forever changed his life. Hockey was out, horses were in. And Jones said he took the lessons of his medical odyssey to his approach with horses. Fortuitously, he often played in Vancouver at the Pacific Coliseum, which was adjacent to Exhibition Park, now known as Hastings. He didn’t have to travel far to launch his new career.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

“They misdiagnosed me at first,” he said. “If they could do that with me, these horses didn’t have a chance. After my surgery, when I started working with horses, I’d use a massage machine that made so much noise it was called the Thumper.”

And that is how Jones got his nickname. Everybody calls him Thumper.

“Any grown man who calls himself Thumper, who wears shorts and cowboy boots, how can you not love him?” O’Neill said. “He has such a presence. He’s funnier than hell. He’s a real character. He has a great personality.”

Jones said the mix of shorts and cowboy boots are practical, not meant to draw attention.

“I had horses stepping on my toes all the time, so after a couple of broken toes, I started wearing cowboy boots,” he said. “And I need freedom of movement, so that’s why I wear shorts. It’s physical work.”

His back still gets to him, so Jones said he will hang upside down “a couple of times a week.”

Jones is in demand. He and his wife Laurie – she has two daughters from a previous marriage – are based out of Morgan Mill, Texas, approximately 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth. They have a rehabilitation facility there for all types of horses, including the barrel racers on whom Laurie competes.

His work, though, takes Jones everywhere.

“I’ve done 41,000 treatments in 13 countries with all different kinds of performance horses – show jumpers, polo horses, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, dressage, cutting. The common denominator is that the injuries are all the same.”

But not until now has Jones worked with a Kentucky Derby winner, let alone a horse going for the Triple Crown.

“Winning the Kentucky Derby, I never thought that would happen,” Jones said. “I was in la-la land. To be associated with this animal is mind-boggling. I hope the lucky stars are aligned for him to come through in one more race.”