05/16/2007 11:00PM

Hard Spun put Jones back on track

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STANTON, Del. - Shortly after Hard Spun rolled to an 8 3/4-length victory in his career debut at Delaware Park last October, trainer Larry Jones was having a discussion about the horse with his wife and assistant, Cindy.

Jones had recently been fired by his longtime owner James Osborne - for whom Jones won the Grade 1 Acorn in 2004 - and Hard Spun's win snapped a 0-for-24 skid for Jones.

"I said, 'Honey, don't get attached to this horse,' " Jones recalled, adding that Richard Porter, the owner of Hard Spun, was in earshot. " 'Michael Matz will have this horse for the Derby next year, Tom Albertrani will have him for the Preakness, and Kiaran McLaughlin will have him for the Belmont.' "

Those were the three men who had trained the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 2006, and all of them are employed by Porter.

" 'When he gets through with that, Graham Motion is going to take him and show that he's a turf horse,' " Jones recalled telling his wife.

"And Porter's sitting there," Jones said, "he's not believing we're saying this. He said, 'I ain't moving the horse!' "

Porter, who races under the name Fox Hill Farms, didn't recall that conversation. But Porter did say he never considered taking the horse away from Jones, even though one of his trainers did call to inquire first, whether the horse was for sale, and second, where he was going to winter.

"I would never think about moving a horse from Larry," Porter said. "I was very comfortable with Larry training any of my horses."

Porter is certainly comfortable with the job Jones has done with Hard Spun, who enters Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico as perhaps the biggest threat to Street Sense, whom Hard Spun finished second to in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.

Hard Spun's success is thus far the pinnacle of Jones's training career, one that began 25 years ago with an $800 horse, Ala Turf. In 1982, Jones's stable earned $3,480 from 20 starts. Last year, Jones's stable earned a career-best $2.8 million.

Porter and Jones almost didn't hook up. Porter had horses with John Servis, whom Jones had become friendly with during spring 2004 when Servis was campaigning Smarty Jones and Jones had Island Sand. When Porter first asked Jones to train for him a year ago at this time, Jones initially declined.

"I told him I didn't want to train for him," Jones said. "John was a friend of mine, and I wasn't going to do anything that was going to cause him an issue."

Eventually, Jones acquiesced and took one filly for Porter. After having a discussion with Servis, Jones agreed to take several more. He now trains about 10 for Porter. Altogether, Jones has about 70 horses in training.

Working for Porter, Jones, 50, has a chance to be a mainstay in Thoroughbred racing's big races. In recent years, Porter has campaigned the talented but fragile stakes-winning colt Rockport Harbor as well as 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond. Several years ago, Porter had the multiple graded-stakes-winning fillies Jostle and Zonk.

Porter was active at horse auctions last year, purchasing progeny of Unbridled's Song, Vindication, Dixieland Band, and Maria's Mon for significant money.

In his early days, Jones built a reputation as someone who could succeed with cheap horses. Jones, who began his training career at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., won his first stakes with Capt. Bowl, another horse who cost $800. Jones also won stakes with D.C. Tenacious, a $2,300 purchase; Josh's Madelyn, who cost $10,000; and Ruby's Reception, a $12,000 purchase who earned $365,000. Gasia, another $12,000 purchase, had earned $423,931 entering Friday's $200,000 Allaire DuPont Handicap at Pimlico.

"All we wanted to do when we set out was to be able to compete at Ellis Park or Turfway," Jones said.

Before a tornado that nearly leveled Ellis Park in 2005 forced him to move to Delaware, Jones had success at Oaklawn and Prairie Meadows, the Iowa track whose purses have grown through slot machines.

Jones grew up on a farm in Hopkinsville, Ky., where his grandfather had horses. Jones eventually ran a cattle farm for a Standardbred horse owner. Jones also rode Quarter Horses at bush tracks in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Illinois.

Jones was an owner before he trained. But after the horse he owned was claimed, he decided to take out his trainer's license. In the beginning, he would just train during the months that Ellis Park was open and run a farm for his owners, Frank and Shirley Pitzer, the remainder of the year.

His first significant break came when he met owners Mike Pressley and James Osborne, who improved the quality of Jones's stock. In 2003, Ruby's Reception won the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn, and in 2004, Island Sand won the Acorn after finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks.

Jones said he almost didn't get to run Island Sand in the Acorn. New York requires a published work be shown within 30 days of a race, and the only work Island Sand had since the Kentucky Oaks was a half-mile move in 54 seconds at Ellis Park. The stewards weren't satisfied.

"I told them she will not work again," Jones said. "I said, you want to scratch the horse that just ran second in the Kentucky Oaks? She's likely to be your marquee horse. I said, 'If you want to scratch her, scratch her.' Now I've never been in New York in my life, and I'm scared to death."

The stewards agreed to let Island Sand run, and she won the Acorn by 1 1/4 lengths.

"I saw one of the stewards the next day, and he said, 'That's why you train the horse and we don't,' " Jones said. "I knew my horse."

Before the Derby, Jones came under fire when Hard Spun worked five furlongs in 57.53 seconds the Monday before the Derby. But while he heard and read all the criticism that the work was too fast, Jones never wavered from his belief that the horse was doing exceptionally well. He was buoyed by conversations he had with Leroy Jolley, who had worked General Assembly five furlongs in 57 seconds before finishing second in the Derby to Spectacular Bid, and Eddie Delahoussaye, who worked Risen Star in 33.40 seconds before winning the Belmont Stakes by 14 lengths.

"Everybody said you sure look relaxed for your first Derby," Jones said. "Right now, everybody says I've already blown it, so they're expecting me to run bad. Number two, if my horse wasn't doing well, I could have something to worry about. But I'm not having to ice him. I'm not having to work on feet. I'm not having to run bar shoes on him. I don't have anything to worry about. He's as good as he can be in spite of me. We just got to hope he's good enough, and I think he was."

Jones, who gallops many of his horses, including Hard Spun, believes Hard Spun is good enough to run another big race and perhaps end Street Sense's bid for the Triple Crown.

"I'm just really happy with the way my horse came out of it," Jones said. "Of course, it looks like a lot of the other horses came out of it well, too. Pimlico, in years past, maybe favored speed a little more so than what Churchill has. It does look like [Street Sense's] best races have been at Churchill. . . . Hopefully, this will be a little bit not as kind to him."

Although he always seems happy and proudly sports his white cowboy hat, Jones has taken to the role of Triple Crown spoiler.

"I intend to be the spoiler," Jones said. "I brought my black hat just in case."