04/28/2008 11:00PM

Jones has support for Derby filly


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Larry Jones, the shy Kentucky cowboy who trained 2007 Derby runner-up Hard Spun, was only thinking about the welfare of the vast Derby media when he and owner Rick Porter made the decision to run Fantasy Stakes winner Eight Belles against the boys on Saturday.

"I was afraid everybody would not have anything to criticize," he said Monday morning, tongue nestled snugly in his cheek. "At least if they're second-guessing us this time, they're doing it behind our back."

As second-place finishes go, Hard Spun's gritty performance against Street Sense last year ranks among the best, especially for a horse who was roundly written off as both undertrained and overtrained. Hard Spun's two final preps before the Derby were a mile in 1:42.40 at Keeneland and then a blistering five-eighths at Churchill Downs in 57.53 seconds, leading to observations that Jones might have a better chance entering his colt in the steamboat race down the Ohio.

"I had some $5,000 claimers I could have used some help with," Jones noted. "But no, they all just wanted to train Hard Spun."

After Hard Spun gave Street Sense all he could handle in the Derby, the story changed. His preparation was described as a "stroke of brilliance" by Jones critic Andrew Beyer. But the trainer held no grudges. Now retired and owned by the Maktoums, Hard Spun put the Jones brand in lights.

Now Jones is trying to join one of the smallest clubs in the game. It's easier to name the three fillies who have won the Derby - Regret, Genuine Risk, and Winning Colors - than to recite the list of the outstanding individuals who failed, among them Nellie Flag, Silver Spoon, Cupecoy's Joy, Althea, Life's Magic, Serena's Song, Three Ring, and Excellent Meeting.

"I have spoken with the last two trainers who have won the Derby with a filly," Jones said, referring to Hall of Famers Wayne Lukas and LeRoy Jolley, "and both of 'em said I might ought to give it a try.

"I come from Quarter Horses, and we run fillies against colts there all the time," Jones noted. "I'll do it especially with 2-year-old, because I do think the fillies mature a little quicker than the boys. Usually, by this time of year the boys are catching up and going on. By Saturday it may look like they've all matured. But it's a chance we've got to take."

Eight Belles is a leggy daughter of Unbridled's Song who has won her last four races after losing 4 of her first 5. Jones also has the more precocious Proud Spell, the Fair Grounds Oaks winner who is owned by Brereton Jones, pointing for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. With nothing to separate the two fillies on class, it came down to which one could handle the Derby distance.

"I would say Eight Belles is going to get the mile and a quarter easier than even Hard Spun," Jones said. "On him, at the end of a mile-and-a-half gallop, you'd say, 'Whoa,' and he'd say, 'Thank you Lord.' But her, at the end of a mile and a half, you say, 'Whoa,' and then it's, 'I said whoa!' She never seems to ever get enough, and always seems willing to do more."

In 1988, Jones was well beneath the radar as a trainer, but he was on the scene at Churchill Downs to watch Winning Colors lead all the way on Derby Day.

"I'd run a horse on Oaks Day that year, and I had a truck parked between Donald Winfrey's barn and the kitchen, with a van set up so we could see right over the fence," Jones recalled. "Winning Colors came by, just rolling, and took a big dump at the half-mile pole. I said, 'Oh, boy. She's fixin' to get serious now.' "

In 1980, the year Genuine Risk held court, Jones was otherwise occupied trying to win his first Thoroughbred race as a fledgling owner. That summer at Ellis Park he turned the trick with Ala Turf, a 2-year-old filly making her fifth start, all against males.

"The cheapest race they wrote there for fillies was $3,500 maiden claiming, and I knew my filly wasn't worth $3,500," Jones said. "But they did write a boys' race for $2,500. I give $800 for her, so I stuck her in for $2,500 figuring I sell the horse and make some money. She took it gate to wire. Never even knew there was boys in there."

And she was claimed.

"Yes, by some guy who knew I didn't have any sense running her against colts," Jones said. "He's still waiting to get his money back, while I went down to Arkansas and bought four more."

Jolley, a friend of a friend, offered Jones consoling words last year when Hard Spun's training was flayed. In 1979, Jolley dealt with similar noise when General Assembly threw down a 57.40 six days before the Derby.

"LeRoy said it wasn't the work that beat him," Jones offered. "It was Spectacular Bid. He told me that my horse was just telling me he liked the track, and that he'd be fine.

"He came by the barn last week to look at Eight Belles," Jones went on. "He said go ahead and run her. She reminded him of Winning Colors, and she was bigger than Genuine Risk.

"That got me thinking," Jones added. "I ran second in the Derby last year with Hard Spun. After running second with General Assembly, LeRoy comes back the next year to win the Derby. With a filly. How about that?"