10/27/2011 12:19PM

Breeders' Cup: Jones bids for Horse of the Year with Havre de Grace

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Larry Jones will send Havre de Grace in next week's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill. Jones has never won a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race.

Larry Jones is a quietly religious man. His faith is not something he wears on his sleeve. It pops up in conversation with the trainer, not in a proselytizing way, but more matter-of-factly.

It was faith that got him through his darkest hour and let him show uncanny grace under pressure. He eventually took time away from his craft of training horses, a sabbatical born of a combination of burnout and health concerns. After addressing those issues, he has come roaring back this year and now finds himself in a position whose parallels cannot be ignored: Jones, 55, has overseen the campaign of a filly − owned by Rick Porter − who has risen to be among the best of her generation, good enough to take on the boys, in a 1 1/4-mile race at Churchill Downs.

It was 3 1/2 years ago that Jones sent out Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby. The race came a day after the career pinnacle for Jones, the native of tiny Hopkinsville, Ky., winning the Kentucky Oaks with Proud Spell. But by nightfall of the first Saturday in May, the lightness of Proud Spell’s victory had been eclipsed by the darkness of Eight Belles’s death.

Next Saturday at Churchill Downs, Jones will send out Havre de Grace in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Should she win, Havre de Grace would become the second female to capture the Classic, and would secure the title of Horse of the Year, won in the immediate preceding years by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Never in the history of racing in North America have fillies won Horse of the Year three straight years.

So, the story for Jones has come full circle. Redemption, seemingly, is nigh. Except that Larry Jones made peace with Eight Belles long ago.

***

Corey York has been Jones’s right-hand man for six years. Like Jones, he is a native of Kentucky, but his connection to Churchill Downs is even more visceral. York, 26, grew up 1 1/2 miles from the track.

In 2007, Jones ran his first horse in the Kentucky Derby, Hard Spun. York was right alongside Jones as they saddled Hard Spun in the paddock before he went out and finished second to Street Sense.

“Larry teared up when he put the bridle on Hard Spun,” York recalled recently at Keeneland. “You could tell he was getting choked up.”

The next year, Jones tried to win both the Oaks and the Derby with fillies. On May 2, 2008, Proud Spell won the Oaks.

“That was fun,” York said. “It lasted about 20 hours, till Eight Belles.”

York calls May 3, 2008, “the worst day of my life.”

“As far as I knew, we had run second in the Kentucky Derby,” York said.

York watched the race along the outer rail near the finish line, and was down on the track right after the race, waiting for Eight Belles to return to be unsaddled after running second to Big Brown. York didn’t notice the commotion on the clubhouse turn until being alerted by Robby Albarado, who had come back to dismount from Z Fortune.

“He said to me, ‘The filly broke down,’ ” York said.

“I ran to her,” York said. “I could see they had put the tarp up, and they don’t put that up for nothin’ good. I did get to see her before she died. I was bawling my eyes out. I cried like a baby.”

Jones and Porter also were shocked by what had happened to Eight Belles. And then they had to weather subsequent baseless accusations about the filly’s condition, all of which were proven false, as Jones had said they would.

Porter’s healing came quicker. He realized what happened to Eight Belles was an accident, a horrible accident, but nothing more.

“If you are in racing, you’ve got to go on and try to put those things behind you,” Porter, 71, said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Chadds Ford, Pa. “It’s like if you have developed a really close relationship with a dog. When they die, even though you loved them and you grieve, you have to go on. It was the same thing with this.”

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For Jones, his healing was a two-step process that took nearly a full 12 months before he had peace.

“I wish like heck there was some way I could erase that,” Jones said during a recent interview at Keeneland, “but we’re good with that now. God alerted me at the Days Inn, where I was staying. He told me His plan. He said to shut up, stop whining, live with it.”

At the following year’s Derby, Jones was preparing Friesan Fire for the race. In memory of Eight Belles, he was wearing a plastic wristband dedicated to her, like the ones people wear for any number of causes, such as cancer research. Early Derby week, Jones was having a conversation about Eight Belles when the band broke.

“I was doing nothing. I felt it pop,” Jones said. “That was the sign − it’s over. He let me know all is well.”

***

By the end of 2009, though, Jones had been run ragged. At the height of his career, he was up to 114 horses, spread over multiple tracks − like the operations of Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen − and when he wasn’t training or running a horse in a race, Jones was on the phone, updating owners about their horses. He also was dealing with high blood pressure and an enlarged liver.

Jones announced his retirement, slashed the number of horses in his care and turned them over to his wife, Cindy, and was perfectly happy to gallop horses in the morning and get healthy.

The high-blood pressure wasn’t simply due to the stress of the job. Doctors determined that Jones had alarmingly high levels of aluminum in his blood and traced it to the deodorant Jones says he slathered on his body after his twice-a-day showers.

“I kept putting it off and putting it off,” Jones said. “Fortunately for us, since 2003 we always had a big horse in the barn. I knew it was something I had to check, but I kept constantly putting it off, and then we got even busier after Hard Spun. I had owners I really liked. I didn’t want to tell anybody no.

“Todd and Steve, I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “I always was busy. I always said I’d take care of it next week, but it never let up. There was always another big race, another horse to gallop. The only way I could see getting out of it was to stop.”

Now, Jones said, “I feel great.”

“Number one was finding out what was medically wrong with me,” he said.

Number two was deciding to come back with a more manageable number of horses. There are now 48 in his care. Not much else has changed. Jones and his wife still work as team, and York is among the coterie of loyal employees still with them.

“The break helped him mentally,” York said. “He could gallop horses, leave when he was done. You could tell when he came back there was a little pep in his step.”

***

When Jones decided last year that he would return to training, Porter was first in line to give him horses. Porter – hardly a shrinking violet, what with his bow ties and monochromatic sport coats − is notoriously demanding, but he and Jones always have done well together, with runners such as Eight Belles, Hard Spun, Kodiak Kowboy, and Old Fashioned.

“We really have fun together,” Porter said. “I smile at some of the crazy things he says, whether we are going over for a claiming race or a Grade 1. And on top of that, I don’t think anybody can train better.

“Larry told me he’d only take five from me,” Porter said. “I thought he was kidding.” He wasn’t. So, Porter said, “I gave him my best five.”

One of them was Havre de Grace − “Harbor of Grace,” in French − who in 2010 had developed into one of the elite 3-year-old fillies in the country. She beat champion Blind Luck in the Cotillion and was second to Blind Luck in the Alabama before ending her season with a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic.

All those races were accomplished for trainer Tony Dutrow, who had trained Havre de Grace since she came to the racetrack as a 2-year-old in 2009.

“I had given Tony pretty much all my horses,” Porter said. “We had a good relationship. We still talk. But I moved them all because we had a tremendous amount of injuries and breakdowns. I don’t know if it was coincidence or bad luck.”

Havre de Grace, named for a town in Maryland where a well-known racetrack once stood, made an immediate impression on Jones. When she first came to his barn, Jones examined her much as he would a yearling at auction, including wearing a stethoscope to listen to her heartbeat.

“She had the best heart I’ve found in any horse,” Jones said. “She had the best throat system. She had good size. She had good conformation − not perfect, but nothing to complain about. I thought her potential was unlimited.”

And when Jones walked out of the stall, he turned to York and said, “This is gonna be our Zenyatta.”

“And, damn, he’s right,” York said. “She’s as classy as you want to be. She’s a good girl to be around. She don’t bite. She don’t kick. She does what you tell her to do. Like Larry says, she’s about as perfect a horse as you’ll see.

“She makes it exciting to come to work,” he said. “When she runs, you usually know you are going to get breakfast the next day, because the jock will bring doughnuts.”

With the exception of a nose loss to Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap, Havre de Grace has been perfect this year. The Apple Blossom was an early-season goal, and it was achieved. The Delaware Handicap was the major objective of the summer. And the result forever changed Havre de Grace’s campaign.

“After she was beaten by Blind Luck, we thought Blind Luck had a leg up on us for Horse of the Year,” Porter said, “so I started asking Larry about the Woodward. She had the numbers, and I thought a win there would help us for Horse of the Year.”

Havre de Grace beat the boys in the Woodward and rocketed to the top of the charts for Horse of the Year. She and Uncle Mo, an expected rival in the Classic, are the most popular horses in training in North America.

But Havre de Grace has yet to reach the frenzied popularity of Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta.

“I really think she would be considered more special if she wasn’t following in the footsteps of Zenyatta,” Jones said. “It got to be old hat. Rachel did what she did. Zenyatta did what she did. Now, oh, here’s another girl.”

Porter added that he thinks Havre de Grace’s résumé is not in that league. Yet.

“I don’t think she’s done as much as those two,” Porter said. “She’s starting to get a following, but she’s got to do more to get in their league. We were under the radar, and rightfully so, until the Apple Blossom. I think she’ll get that type of recognition if we go on and win the Classic, and next year beat the boys and win more Grade 1 races.”

The next major step in that quest is the Classic. Dutrow, for one, will be rooting for her. But he admitted watching Havre de Grace’s ascension has left him with conflicting emotions.

“I’m a horse-racing fan, so I like watching her, like anybody would,” Dutrow said. “I find what she’s done thrilling, brilliant. But I would be abnormal to say there’s not a hole in me that she’s not doing it under my name.

“I knew when I took horses for Rick Porter it was for a limited period of time,” he said. “I respect Rick. It’s his money, his horse, he can do what he wants. But I feel very proud about Havre de Grace. We managed her excellently. We did not push her at 2 and did not run her at 3 until May.

“Rick Porter had a relationship with Larry Jones,” Dutrow said. “Larry Jones is a top trainer. When he came out of retirement, I respected Rick’s decision. No one has done a better job than Larry Jones and Rick Porter this year. I’m proud of those guys and what they’ve done.”

***

Jones a month ago left Delaware Park for Keeneland, and this coming week he will be at Churchill Downs. Wherever he goes, he brings along a sign that says, “In Memory of Eight Belles,” and hangs it, discreetly, in the barn.

“I think about her every day,” he said.

York wears an Eight Belles wristband on each wrist, the kind that popped off Jones’s wrist two years ago. On the back of his truck, he has a bumper sticker from the 2008 Derby that reads, “I Like Eight Belles.”

Coming to Churchill Downs, York said, brings forth a rash of emotions.

“It always sucks, because I know what barn she was in, what stall she was in,” he said.

But he expects those feelings to be assuaged by being around Havre de Grace.

“We caught a lot of flack, took a bad rap, for Eight Belles,” York said. “This has been pretty redeeming. It’s a good feeling to be around one like that. They come few and far between.”

And because ones like Havre de Grace are so rare, Porter said he believes it is imperative to give her the chance to be all she can be, even though he realizes the upcoming week will be filled with inevitable comparisons to Eight Belles.

“It’s going to come up,” he said. “They’ll probably criticize us for that, like some people criticized us for running in the Woodward. But you just can’t dwell on a freak accident.

“These kind don’t come around often,” he said, “so you’ve got to take the shot.”

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