08/06/2014 8:13AM

Jones makes it into Hall of Fame nearly two decades after retirement

Benoit & Associates
Two decades after his retirement from training, Gary Jones will go into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.

In recent years, Gary Jones largely had abandoned the dream of being inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame. Each spring seemed to bring the disappointment that he had not been selected or did not appear on the ballot. Then his phone rang in April with the good news.

“I was totally flabbergasted,” Jones said last week. “I was in complete disbelief.”

The frustration of being overlooked in the past was replaced by the elation of being voted into the Hall of Fame, nearly 20 years after Jones retired from training.

Jones retired in 1996 at the age of 51 after a 22-year career highlighted by 1,465 wins. Jones, the son of trainer Farrell Jones, was a fixture in Southern California but ventured across the country with success. He trained Turkoman, the 1986 champion older male and the winner of that year’s Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.

“That race was as big as the Breeders’ Cup,” Jones recalled.

Jones won two runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap with Best Pal in 1992 and with Stuka two years later. He won five training titles at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, four training titles at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, three at Hollywood Park, and two at Del Mar.

He left the game on his own terms, concerned about health issues, and turned the stable over to his son, Marty. Gary Jones quickly went from an ultra-active career to retirement, but then, he was prone to doing things to extremes as a trainer.

Jones sometimes started a morning at Hollywood Park watching a division of his stable, then zoomed across town to Santa Anita to catch the later sets in their training. Through those years, he was assisted by Rafael Becerra, now a trainer on his own in Southern California.

“I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame without him,” Jones said.

Many of his favorite racing memories involve Best Pal, the popular gelding of the early 1990s. Jones trained Best Pal to wins in the first Pacific Classic in 1991 and the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1993.

Jones is quick to say he retired on his terms, seeking to avoid the late-career decline some older trainers face, particularly those with difficulty retaining clients.

“I said, ‘No,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘I’m not going to do it that way. I won’t be humiliated.’ ”

Jones does not have an active role in racing today but remains close to the sport. Marty, 42, has a stable based at Del Mar and Los Alamitos this summer. The father and son speak frequently. Gary Jones says he always follows racing on television and the Internet when he is not a visitor to the races at Del Mar.

Jones had homes in the Los Angeles area and Del Mar in the late 1990s but quickly migrated to the oceanfront community at Del Mar when he had the chance.

“We bought a place down here, and we came down once a week,” he said. “Then, it was twice a week. Pretty soon, I said, ‘I’m done.’ ”

Jones thought the Hall of Fame was done with him until this year. Friday is a day to celebrate that career.