10/28/2015 12:36PM

Hovdey: Jones might finally wrangle himself a Distaff


You would have thought that by now, Larry Jones would have won at least one running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by accident, especially after training such talented female Thoroughbreds as Havre de Grace, Proud Spell, Believe You Can, Island Sand, and Joyful Victory.

Then again, it’s probably in bad taste to mention “accident” around Jones, who counts himself as a paid-up member of the lucky-to-be-here-at-all club after getting roughed up and sent into a semi-coma by a racehorse just 18 months ago at Delaware Park.

Jones, 59, somehow got through it all and stands today as a testament to the resilience of the human body. If nothing else, his dry, self-deprecating humor has remained intact, and it has been very much in evidence this week at Keeneland, where he is preparing Fletcher and Carolyn Gray’s 3-year-old filly I’m a Chatterbox for a championship run in the 31st edition of the $2 million Distaff on Friday.

“I tell everybody that they should have known me before the accident,” Jones said. “I was amazing.”

His work this year with I’m a Chatterbox has been nothing if not exciting. Making her eighth start, the chestnut filly is poised to take down the Eclipse Award for the division if she can outrun fellow 3-year-olds Curalina, Stellar Wind, and Calamity Kate in a Distaff top-heavy with scary older fillies and mares like Wedding Toast, Got Lucky, Frivolous, and Sheer Drama.

There is always the possibility that the Distaff will lose its star attraction to the Classic. It happened with Azeri in 2004, Zenyatta in 2009 and 2010, and Havre de Grace in 2011, when her fourth-place finish was good enough to clinch Horse of the Year. And it has happened again this year with Beholder, who has ditched the Distaff, which she won in 2013, to challenge the males. Jones appreciates the gesture.

“I know you’re not supposed to be afraid of just one horse, but I don’t know who would want to go out of their way to go up against Beholder the way she has been running this year,” Jones said. “I think she’s right where she belongs.”

Jones was parked outside the stall of I’m a Chatterbox as he talked and the filly walked around the shed row of their Breeders’ Cup barn. Assistant trainer Andre Stock pulled her up long enough for a drink of water and a peppermint from a visitor, which I’m a Chatterbox took as if it was expected.

“When I first started getting on her, I noticed I was coming back with dirt on me in places it shouldn’t really have been,” said Jones, who is back galloping several horses each day since recovering from his injuries. “That told me she might be more comfortable on the grass. We looked for a turf race at the Fair Grounds earlier this year, and nothing ever filled, so I put her in the Silverbulletday at the last minute just to get a race into her.”

I’m a Chatterbox went to the lead and won by eight with Florent Geroux riding her for the first time. So much for her turf career.

In her next race, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, I’m a Chatterbox turned her form upside down and came from far back to win easily again. Jones can explain.

“She drew the 10 hole that day, and you cannot lose ground on the first turn at Fair Grounds and expect to win,” the trainer said. “I told Flo to do whatever he needed to do to save ground, which in this particular case was taking her back to last. It didn’t seem to matter.”

I’m a Chatterbox went to the front again in the Fair Grounds Oaks and won for fun, then finished a respectable third to her Jones-trained stablemate Lovely Maria in the Kentucky Oaks. To that point, I’m a Chatterbox had been a perfect princess, putting to a lie a reputation for young rock-star tantrums. Then came Saratoga and the Coaching Club American Oaks.

“She was the wildest thing I have ever seen,” Jones said. “She reared up and kind of fell into the wall. They wanted to scratch her, but I told them she didn’t fall down. I don’t think I ever saddled a horse on the walk like I did that day.”

After all that, I’m a Chatterbox beat Acorn Stakes winner Curalina by a nose. She also drifted out just enough to be called for a flag on the play. Jones took the disqualification with class.

“I figured she had every reason to run dead last, and yet she held on like she did,” he said. “It was clear she had a lot of ability, but that was the day she won me over as to her quality. If she could do all she did and still get there first, I thought it was unbelievable.”

Since the CCA Oaks, Jones has made sure that I’m a Chatterbox has had a traveling companion to soothe her soul, and the trick has worked like a charm. She ran a solid second in the Alabama Stakes and then took the $1 million Cotillion with ease to set her up for the Distaff.

Now here she was back in her stall, dropping and rolling in the straw like a kid let loose at recess. Up again, down again, then right into her feed tub.

“She’s not built like a super-strong filly, but she’s a lot bigger than she was,” Jones said with admiration. “We’ll see if she’s big enough on Friday.”