02/11/2009 12:00AM

Derby hunt may be last for Jones

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Barbara D. Livingston
"The drive is not there, in my heart, the way it was. I've got to build it back up, or do something different," says trainer Larry Jones.

He may have a hitch in that bowlegged giddy-up of his, and he may have had slings, arrows, and virtual snowballs fired his way over the past year, but trainer Larry Jones is still standing tall. He had a tumultuous 2008. Jones experienced some of the greatest highs of his career: a Kentucky Oaks win, and Eclipse Award, for Proud Spell. And he had an unfathomable low, the death of Eight Belles following her runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby, just 24 hours after Jones won the Kentucky Oaks.

Now, Jones again finds himself in what has become a familiar springtime position for him - with top chances to win classic races at Churchill Downs.

It may be the last time, though. Jones, 52, this week said he is sticking with his plan, announced last year, to retire from training at the end of this year. What happens after that, he does not know. What he does know is he is torn, torn between the joy of having two top Derby contenders in Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire, and the sober realization that he just needs a break.

"The drive is not there, in my heart, the way it was," Jones said from Oaklawn Park, where Old Fashioned, the top-ranked colt on the inaugural list of Daily Racing Form's 2009 Derby Watch, will make his 3-year-old debut on Monday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes.

"I've got to build it back up, or do something different. My kids let me chase this dream for 30 years. I wasn't around as much for them as I wish I could have been. But now I've got grandkids, and I do plan on being part of their lives."

Jones, whose wife, Cindy, is his top assistant, has four children and six grandchildren. He also has 65 others who need his attention - the 25 horses he has at Oaklawn, and the 40 he has at Fair Grounds.

"That's about what we had a year ago at this time. The difference," Jones said, "is I don't have 60 2-year-olds waiting to come in." Jones topped out at 114 horses last year. It was overwhelming. And, combined with the emotional toll the Eight Belles situation took, he looked at his life anew.

"I'm going to be in the game in some form. I just need a break," Jones said. "Maybe it'll be two years. I don't know. But it's not like I'm going to take a vacation for two weeks and come back."

Jones did not want to quit and just walk away. He had too many people working for him, and too many owners he liked, to leave them high and dry. His well-thought-out plan was to keep the horses he had in training, but not take on any new runners. Included in his last crop are Old Fashioned, who is unbeaten in three starts, including the Remsen Stakes, and Friesan Fire, who won the Risen Star Stakes last Saturday at Fair Grounds.

Of Friesan Fire, Jones said, "Here's an A.P. Indy colt who broke his maiden going six furlongs first time out, and you had to think he'd get better with distance."

Old Fashioned "has done nothing wrong, other than me running him six furlongs first time out and almost getting him beat," said Jones.

"He gives you chills," Jones said of Old Fashioned, who worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Wednesday morning at Oaklawn. "He is just different. There's an aura about him. He's just unbelievable."

The parallels between Old Fashioned and Eight Belles are eerie. Both are owned by the Fox Hill Farms of Rick Porter. Both are gray. And both are offspring of Unbridled's Song. Porter is also the co-owner of Friesan Fire.

Porter and Jones finished second in the 2007 Derby with Hard Spun. Last year, they decided to race Eight Belles against males in the Derby. She, too, finished second. And seconds later, while galloping out on the clubhouse turn, she suffered catastrophic injuries that necessitated her being euthanized.

Jones showed startling grace under such harrowing circumstances. He returned to his barn after witnessing that tragic scene, then came back to the frontside, to the Churchill Downs press box, accompanied by Churchill publicist Darren Rogers, for an emotional press conference some two hours after the race.

What happened next shocked and dismayed him. Jones and jockey Gabriel Saez were criticized, primarily by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for all sorts of claims, including an allegation that Eight Belles raced on steroids. Jones insisted Eight Belles was not on steroids, and was vindicated when lab tests confirmed his statements.

Jones did countless radio, television, and print interviews, where he patiently explained that everything had been done by the book with Eight Belles, that nothing foretold the tragedy, that nothing he or Saez did hastened her demise. It was not easy for him, but he felt obligated, for her, and the sport.

"People don't realize that I really am a private person," he said. Yet there was a segment of society that simply would not listen. What's a man to do when he tells the truth, and they still don't believe him?

"I tried not to read a whole lot of press," he said. "Sometimes you're better off not knowing."

And then during the holidays, it was dredged anew. On PETA's website, there was a game where you could throw virtual snowballs at Jones and Saez. Merry Christmas.

"I just came to realize that they don't understand," Jones said. "They wanted a reason to make noise. The more I learned about them, the more I was glad I was not on their side."

Other people reached out, including several trainers Jones admired.

"It felt good to have them call with words of encouragement," Jones said.

Jones said he talked last year with trainer Roger Laurin, who also left the game at a fairly young age after training the likes of Chief's Crown, the champion 2-year-old colt of 1984. Eventually, Laurin came back, but far below the radar.

"He said the pressure of it all at the time was not worth it," Jones said. "I asked him why he came back. He said, 'You can only play so much golf.' "

In other Derby developments:

* In addition to the Southwest, races of significance this weekend include the Grade 3, $225,000 Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, both Saturday, and the Grade 2, $150,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on Monday.

* Vineyard Haven, the Champagne Stakes winner, was scheduled to run Thursday night in the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas in Dubai.

* Trainer Barclay Tagg wants Hutcheson runner-up Hello Broadway to run two turns in his next race, so he is leaning toward bypassing the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth Stakes, now a one-turn mile, in favor of the Tampa Bay Derby on March 14.

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WHO'S HOT

With only 20 horses on Derby Watch this year, opportunities to get on the list were reduced by five spots from previous years. Still, several trainers or owners placed more than one horse on the list. Trainer Larry Jones has the top-ranked colt in Old Fashioned, and two of the top six, counting Friesan Fire. Godolphin Racing has two runners in the top seven: Midshipman and Vineyard Haven. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., who won last year's Kentucky Derby with Big Brown, also has two runners in the top 20: Patena and This Ones for Phil. IEAH Stables, which owned Big Brown, has Patena and the filly Stardom Bound.

WHO'S NOT

Hard to believe that trainer Todd Pletcher does not have anything on the list just yet, though Dunkirk and Take the Points could be late-developing threats for him. D. Wayne Lukas (four Derby wins) and Nick Zito (two wins) also don't have any horses on the list.

ON THE BUBBLE

Three horses in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager - Big Drama, Chocolate Candy, and Taqarub - didn't make the cut. Desert Party has a chance to move onto the list, and give Godolphin another top contender, pending his performance on Thursday night in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas. Holy Bull runner-up Bear's Rocket also just missed making the top 20.

- Jay Privman