03/21/2013 3:58PM

Jay Hovdey: Gary Jones knew to obey the stop sign


There was a time – at least this is the way it looked to someone fairly new to the game – when training horses seemed like working for the CIA, or organized crime. Once you were in, you could never get out.

There had to be some explanation for all the guys in their 70s and 80s still showing up for work every day, dishing out their living history to anyone smart enough to listen. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons trained for 70 years. Henry Clark held a license into his 90s. Noble Threewitt officially retired when he turned 96.

Then somewhere along the way good and talented trainers of more recent generations began bowing out early. Their names are immediately familiar because they won serious races with first-class horses. Tom Skiffington, Randy Winick, and Jenine Sahadi come immediately to mind. Their achievements were significant, just as their reasons for walking away were as varied as their personalities. What they held in common was a love for the sport that could no longer be expressed by the demanding parameters of their chosen profession.

No one ever quit training with more on the table than Gary Jones, unless you count Red McDaniel, who had just won his fifth straight national title when he jumped to his death from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in May 1955, at the age of 44. So let’s not.

Still, Jones did not want to end up like Vester “Tennessee” Wright, who led all North American trainers in wins in 1956, 1957, 1959, and 1961, and died of a heart attack while training in Louisiana in 1966. He was 45.

Neither did he want to follow the lead of Eddie Neloy, North America’s champion money-winner in 1966, 1967, and 1968, who died of a heart attack at Belmont Park in 1971 at the age of 50.

With 15 meet titles on the tough Southern California circuit, it was clear Jones could win races in bunches like Wright. And with more than a hundred individual stakes winners to his name, all of them making their bones in top competition, Jones clearly knew how to get the most from a talented racehorse.

His client list alone speaks volumes about his record. At one time or another, Jones trained for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, Allen Paulson, Michael Rutherford, John Mabee, Corbin Robertson, and the Preston brothers of Prestonwood Farm. They all wanted to play at the top of the game, so Jones helped them get there.

“I just enjoyed getting the best I could out of every horse that came to me,” Jones said this week. “That was really important to me. And when you finally got a horse’s number, man, that was the biggest thrill in the world. You’d be walking down the road before a race with them thinking, ‘Come on, bring ’em on.’ ”

The list of horses Jones figured out is daunting. Quiet American won the NYRA Mile. Best Pal won the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. Turkoman won the Marlboro Cup and an Eclipse Award. Kostroma won the Beverly D. and set a world’s record for nine furlongs on grass. Radar Ahead beat Affirmed in the San Fernando. Lakeway won the Mother Goose and the Santa Anita Oaks. Time to Explode, By Land by Sea, Lightning Mandate, Comedy Act, Good Command, and many more won major events both at home and on the road. And Jones was doing it day-in, day-out in the face of such well-stocked and highly motivated California competitors as Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel, Charlie Whittingham, and Ron McAnally.

Jones trained hard and fast in his 30s and 40s. By the time he had a what was called a mild heart attack in 1993, at the age of 49, he knew his training days were numbered. (His father, the legendary Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones, had a heart attack and quit training at 51.) Jones was told to slow down, which was sort of like telling Lake Tahoe to dry up, since Jones spent most of his life as a 33-and-a-third LP played at 78. To watch Jones train, or simply watch a race, was to witness a trainer investing every fiber in the outcome.

After his heart attack, Jones lasted three more years, effectively handing over what he could of his downsized stable to his son, Marty Jones. Since then, the name of Gary Jones comes up every once in a while – he occasionally puts together a group of friends on the ownership of a horse – but mainly when nominations for the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame are announced each year and Jones is either on the list, or not.

“I retired for the right reasons,” said Jones, who lives in Del Mar with his wife, Joan. “But I’ve continued to watch a lot of races since, and I’ve learned a whole lot of things I wish I knew when I was training. Only I couldn’t train a stable of a hundred horses like a lot of these guys do today. The most I ever had was 65, but I still had to see every horse every day. I had to have that personal touch with them. I couldn’t take the news about a horse from someone else.”

It is best not to ask why a name might be found on the Hall of Fame ballot one year, off the next, then on again later. Let’s just say that after 57 years in business, the folks running the Hall are still getting the kinks out (this reporter is on the nominating committee).

Ballots are currently in the hands of Hall of Fame voters, and Jones is the only trainer among the 10 nominees. As such, this could be his best chance for induction, since there are always a number of voters who like to see all the disciplines represented at induction time, even though actual ballot categories have been eliminated. According to the rules, four will be elected no matter what the combination of horses, jockeys or, in this case, a trainer whose record is worthy from all angles.