08/09/2012 12:55PM

Ellis Park: Joyful Victory can make Gardenia a homecoming present for Larry Jones

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Larry Jones will make a return to Elllis Park with Joyful Victory in the Gardenia.

You can go home again. Larry Jones spent the last decade or so away from the track where he learned his training ropes, Ellis Park, before deciding to return to his old stomping grounds for this summer.

Jones, 55, is from the western Kentucky town of Hopkinsville, just 75 miles from Ellis in Henderson, and after 20 years in relative obscurity at Ellis, he suddenly became one of the most successful trainers in North America. By far the majority of his stable earnings of $33.7 million have come in the last 10 years, since he ventured off to more lucrative venues to train such standouts as Hard Spun, Eight Belles, Proud Spell, and the 2011 Horse of the Year, Havre de Grace.

Jones never quite let the country life go, and it has been with a deep sense of personal satisfaction that he is stabled again at Ellis, where on Saturday he will saddle the likely favorite in Joyful Victory for the track’s signature race, the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia Stakes.

Joyful Victory’s record last year at 3 for Fox Hill Farm included romps in the Grade 3 Honeybee and Grade 2 Fantasy at Oaklawn Park before she ran fourth as the 2-1 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. A 4-year-old gray daughter of Tapit, Joyful Victory will be making her first start in nearly five months. She comes off a victory in the Tiffany Lass at Fair Grounds in February and a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Azeri March 17 at Oaklawn.

She worked a mile in 1:37.20 at Ellis on July 27.

“I’m really happy with the way she’s coming up to this,” said Jones, who returned to Ellis last weekend after spending time at Saratoga overseeing the Alabama Stakes preparations of his 2012 Kentucky Oaks winner, Believe You Can. “She had that really nice mile work, and I thought about breezing her last weekend, but the weather wasn’t quite to our liking. She’s fit anyway, and I think she’s really looking forward to getting back to action.”

Joyful Victory will have Gabriel Saez aboard when she breaks from post 3 in the one-mile Gardenia.

With Joyful Victory being one of four graded stakes winners in a field of 11 fillies and mares, this 31st running of the Gardenia might well be the deepest race ever run at Ellis.

Sassy Image, with Robby Albarado riding from post 11, already has two Grade 1 victories and field-high earnings of $828,216. Injured when virtually eased nearly a year ago in the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga, Sassy Image will be trying to use a runner-up finish in her last start at her home base, Churchill Downs, to give trainer Dale Romans his third triumph in the Ellis showcase. Romans won in 2004 with Angela’s Love and in 2008 with Swift Temper.

“She’s had four good works coming up to this, and we’re looking for her to take another step forward,” said Romans.

The other two graded winners are Salty Strike (post 1, Victor Lebron) and Juanita (post 2, Malcolm Franklin).

Salty Strike, trained by Ken McPeek, handily defeated Sassy Image in their last meeting, which came on June 30 at Churchill, and has a backlog of efforts to justify generous backing here. Her six wins include four stakes, most notably the Grade 3 Dogwood last year.

Juanita, a one-time claimer now trained by Mike Maker, has jumped up with the occasional huge race, including scores in the Indiana Oaks last fall and the Grade 2 La Troienne on the May 4 Oaks undercard at Churchill.

Rounding out the Gardenia lineup are Formal Plan, Absinthe Minded, She’s Picky, Holiday Spree, Ridgester, Find the Humor, and Toxis. Of those, the most intriguing is Formal Plan, a one-horse stable trained by Jennifer Tooley.

The Gardenia goes as the eighth of nine Saturday races at Ellis, where general admission is free. First post daily is 12:50 p.m. Central, with the Gardenia set for 4:10 (coverage, HRTV). Ellis is sponsoring a Gardenia glass giveaway to the first 1,500 in attendance. The meet runs through Labor Day, Sept. 3.