09/24/2014 3:16PM

Hovdey: Jones reached heights despite tragedy, setbacks

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Seven years ago, Aaron Jones shared with me the story of the night his mother was murdered by an intruder. Later on, people who knew him said it was the first they’d heard it told in such detail, and you could understand why. Who would want to remember?

“I guess I must have been between 4 and 5,” Jones said. “I was the only one of us who heard the noise. When I got to my mom, she told me what happened. She had moved to the middle of the floor, and she told me she was feeling cold, so I covered her with the rug. She told me to stay there with her until my dad got home and tell him what had happened. I did, but she was gone before he got home.”

The question lingered: Where does a child go from there? If you are Aaron Upton Jones, you honor the memory of your mother and deal with the hard choices faced by a father left with five children and no steady means of support. You survive a juvenile work home and migration from Texas to Arizona to the safe haven of a dairy farm in Oregon. You make the most of the opportunities that come along – a state university, the U.S. Army, the purchase of a small sawmill in the heart of big lumber country.

Then, later, when your innovative lumber company is the envy of the industry and you have married the love of the second half of your life, you listen to your doctor’s advice to find something that will divert your attention and ease the strain of your business world. You decide to buy Thoroughbreds.

Aaron and Marie Jones always would laugh about this, the idea that the raising and racing of horses would reduce the level of stress in anyone’s life, given the chances that at any moment, one of them could do something expensive, self-destructive, or both. But they made it work, sometimes in glorious fashion.

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Jones will be remembered as the owner whose name was attached to such champions and major stakes winners as Lemhi Gold, Tiffany Lass, Riboletta and La Zanzara, among others. He also was a great taker of chances, a man of bold swings who was prepared to live with the consequences.

Jones blew a hundred grand backing his classy filly, Miss Musket, when she was eased in a 1974 match race at Hollywood Park against the East’s Chris Evert. He spent a pile of money on Linda’s Chief, a brilliant miler and potential stallion, only to watch him die in a freak accident.

Jones had better luck buying Bold Forbes, the 1976 Derby-Belmont winner, as a stallion prospect. Among his offspring to carry the Jones colors was Tiffany Lass, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1986, and stakes winners Sir Pele and Danebo.

Lemhi Gold, a versatile son of Vaguely Noble, gave Jones his first Eclipse Award in 1982 as champion older male, but not before the owner went to bat for his colt, who was left off the list of invitations to the important Marlboro Cup by the New York Racing Association.

“They told me he didn’t get invited because he was a turf horse,” Jones said. “I suggested they let me decide what kind of horse he was, and let him prove it.”

Kissed in with 115 pounds, Lemhi Gold won by 8 3/4 lengths, then three weeks later took the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 4 1/2.

Jones operated under a simple mantra. “If I’m going to make mistakes, I want to make my own, not somebody else’s,” he said.

To that end, Jones took the significant step of establishing his own breeding operation in Oregon. He turned to Dr. Joe Cannon, an equine surgeon with a racetrack practice who was looking for a different challenge.

“He was an amazing person,” Cannon said. “A very tough man but very magnanimous. He wanted desperately to succeed in anything he did, and like a lot of people, success in the horse industry was the ultimate.”

Jones also employed trainers like Charlie Whittingham, Lazaro Barrera, Ron McAnally, Bob Baffert, and Todd Pletcher, but it was his connection to Barrera’s son, Larry, that said more than anything about the owner. Once a successful young trainer, Larry Barrera ended up in a battle with drug addiction that threatened to end what should have been a promising life. In 2003, when Barrera was clean and trying hard, the Joneses gave him a dozen horses to train.

“I’m not doing this for any press, any celebrity,” Aaron Jones said at the time. “It’s just one of those things in life that makes you feel better. And it’s awfully hard to make it in this world if you’re totally on your own. You need some help once in a while.”

Jones died last Monday, three days shy of his 93rd birthday. His life will be celebrated Oct. 1 in his adopted Oregon hometown of Eugene, where he is known as one of the region’s leading businessmen and philanthropists. I will always remember him for his uncompromising tenacity, embodied in his recovery from the liposarcoma that almost cost him his right leg. He recovered, with agonizing treatments and rehabilitation, and was moving pretty good by the time he found himself at the 1999 Kentucky Derby with his colt, Prime Timber. I asked if he was going to join in the traditional walk from the barn to the paddock with his horse.

“You bet I am,” Jones said. “I didn’t come all this way not to.”