05/17/2009 11:00PM

Country boy in the spotlight

Barbara D. Livingston
Larry Jones will saddle Friesan Fire, beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby, in Saturday's 134th Preakness.

Larry Jones, reluctant media darling, was looking forward to a relatively anonymous Preakness. The anniversary of Eight Belles's death at the 2008 Kentucky Derby had come and gone. He had survived the experience of running both the sentimental and the parimutuel favorite in the 2009 version of the Derby. And when that favorite, Friesan Fire, came back cut and bleeding after beating only one horse, Jones was relieved that the wounds, this time, were only superficial.

Then Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra hit Baltimore in all her glory, with Saturday's 134th running of the Preakness Stakes dead in her sights, and once again Jones became the go-to guy for anyone who wanted to flesh out the angle of Thoroughbred girls running against Thoroughbred boys.

"I thought all the questions had been asked and answered about 2008," Jones said earlier this week, as he prepared Friesan Fire for another try. "And lo and behold, now everybody wants to know what I think all over again. I mean, give me a break."

Jones was laughing as he said it, fully aware of the absurdities and the demands associated with training racehorses in the fishbowl of the Triple Crown.

"I'm just a country boy from Kentucky," Jones said. "I know what it's like to work all day, and nobody would know that you'd done anything. It's still amazing to me that anyone even gives a crap about what I do."

For the past three seasons, Jones, 52, has been swimming in the deep end, first with the versatile colt Hard Spun, then with his fine fillies Proud Spell and Eight Belles, and now with Friesan Fire, who swept untouched through the Louisiana preliminaries before running aground in Kentucky.

Jones has remained affable and accessible throughout, but by the time this year's Derby rolled around, he had grown a little weary of hearing his own name. Then a fan approached one day with a different sort of magazine - this one had a cartoon on the cover of some silly statue - and asked if Jones would autograph an article inside for his daughter. The magazine was The New Yorker, and the article was about Jones.

"The fellow was kind enough to let me read it before I gave it back," Jones said. "Everything in there was true. When I read it, I even wanted to know me a little bit."

Jones is not a subscriber, and since they don't carry the magazine at Wagner's Pharmacy, across the street from Churchill Downs, there wasn't much chance for Jones to pick up a copy while he was busy training Friesan Fire for the Derby. In fact, the issue dated May 4 hit the stands the same day the Jones colt lit the Louisville skies with a five-eighths move in 57.80 seconds, which positioned Friesan Fire as the possible Derby favorite. The spread in The New Yorker, with its hardcore horseplayer demographic, obviously sealed the deal.

Jones was used to the traditional sports media climbing all over him, alternately sympathetic, because of his Eight Belles experience, and challenging, primarily because of his training methods, which sometimes feature those swift workouts on top of a race. When The New Yorker staff writer Peter J. Boyer approached, during the Oaklawn Park meet earlier this year, Jones figured it was just another guy wanting a peak behind the curtain to see if there was anything hiding back there. His reaction: Come on down.

"To be honest with you, that's the first time I heard of the magazine when he called," Jones said. "But when I mentioned it to people, they looked at me like, 'Wow, you hit it big time!' I said, 'Really?' To me, New York Times, New York Post, New Yorker, they all carry the same lingo where I'm from. 'No, no,' they said. 'The New Yorker - that's the intellectual magazine.'"

Fortunately, they spoke the same language, Boyer and Jones, since Jones has an aunt who is secretary of the alumni association at Ole Miss, Boyer's alma mater. That, and the fact that Boyer has been a racing fan for most of his life, with any number of vivid signposts along the way.

"Terlingua, remember her?" said Boyer, who was working in Southern California when the Secretariat filly ran roughshod over her male contemporaries as a 2-year-old of 1978. "My wife and I once saw Lester Piggott at Ascot in a match race against Willie Shoemaker. On our honeymoon, many years ago, Carrie and I ended up visiting the horse farms of Kentucky. So beginning with that, you have perhaps an extra measure of sentimentality that a fan is allowed to have, and not a sports writer."

Boyer's piece, headlined "Horse Sense," reached beyond the Jones story to address the broader challenges facing the racing business today, and did it in a refreshingly unsensational manner.

"It struck me that there was a side of the game and stories in the sport that did not have to do with slaughter and tragedy and some of the more commonly sounded themes," Boyer noted. "That's not to say those other things aren't quite legitimate. I do feel as if horse racing finds itself at an unfortunate place, at the confluence of a political movement and a sporting press that is much less in the business than it once was of reporting the victories and the heartbreaks with a sympathetic eye."

It remains to be seen how Friesan Fire will be judged by the Preakness players this time around. But according to Jones, the colt has rallied from his Derby trauma and is giving off good vibes.

"The longer I'm in the business, the more I'm amazed at what great athletes these horses are, and what they can do," Jones said. "When I hear people say, 'Oh, they're just an animal,' boy do they show me how ignorant they are.

"It did hurt that the horse ran bad, though," Jones added, "because it finally dawned on me that a lot of people were rooting for us to do it, not thinking we would, but hoping we would. It was disappointing to me because it felt like we let people down by not getting it done."

Boyer was not among them, even though he bet with his heart and played Friesan Fire in the Derby. For the Preakness, he is torn, since a writer always roots for the best story. That means Rachel Alexandra.

"But if Larry likes his horse, I'm willing to give Friesan Fire another chance," Boyer added. "Looks like an exacta box to me."