05/16/2007 11:00PM

Jones silences the second-guessers

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WASHINGTON - Before the Kentucky Derby, it was easy to underestimate Larry Jones. The man in the omnipresent white cowboy hat was little known nationally, and he had never trained a horse for a Triple Crown event.

Six days before the Derby, Jones gave his colt, Hard Spun, his final serious workout - and almost immediately Churchill Downs was buzzing about the blunder he had committed. Hard Spun flew in the five-furlong workout as if he were running a sprint instead of training for a 1 1/4-mile race. His time of 57.53 seconds was the fastest such pre-Derby workout in decades. Had this exertion ruined his chances?

The answer came when Hard Spun rocketed to the lead in the Derby and held on to finish a strong second. Although Street Sense caught him in the stretch, Hard Spun beat the other 18 runners by more than five lengths. The unorthodox training move might have been a stroke of brilliance and the impetus for the colt's excellent performance. Now no one is underestimating Jones or Hard Spun as they prepare for a rematch with Street Sense in Saturday's Preakness Stakes.

Few people in racing knew much about Jones, 50, until this spring, but he had paid his dues in the horse business. Jones had competed in rodeos and trained Quarter Horses before he broke into the Thoroughbred sport in 1982; he was based at Kentucky's Ellis Park before moving to Delaware Park last year. Rick Porter, a Wilmington, Del., auto dealer and the owner of Fox Hill Farms, put some horses into his care, including the regally bred Hard Spun, who scored runaway victories in his first four starts. But after Hard Spun suffered his first defeat in a stakes at Oaklawn Park, where Jones was based for the winter, the trainer made a series of decisions that invited second-guessing.

Jones said publicly that Hard Spun didn't like the track at Oaklawn, and he wasn't sure about running in the Kentucky Derby because the Churchill Downs track is similar to Oaklawn. This was a questionable premise; Hard Spun probably lost because he had a difficult trip.

Nevertheless, Jones altered his plans, shipped his colt from Oaklawn to Turfway Park and won the Lane's End Stakes there. Then he vacillated. Should he prep for the Derby in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland? Should he run in the Derby at all? When he finally decided to go into the Derby after a six-week layoff from competition, plenty of people (myself included) dismissed Hard Spun's Derby chances. No trainer can win America's toughest race with such indecision.

So some people were questioning Jones's judgment even before the morning he sent Hard Spun to work five furlongs in company with Wildcat Bettie B, a fast, stakes-winning filly. Jones told jockey Mario Pino to go in 59 seconds or thereabouts. Instead, Hard Spun ran away from his stablemate and blazed the distance in 57.53. According to some research, this was the fastest pre-Derby work at five furlongs since General Assembly's 57.40 in 1979.

Because the modern fashion is to train horses with a light hand and bring them into races fresh, the reaction to Hard Spun's move was overwhelmingly negative. Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch observed that Hard Spun was tiring noticeably at the end of the workout, and wrote: "It remains to be seen what kind of toll this type of work will take on a young horse."

Jones heard the criticism constantly. "There was no shortage of opinion," he said. "People would tell me, they'd write it, they'd say it on Kentucky Derby blogs." As the trainer wondered if he had made a mistake, he received reassurance from a pair of Hall of Famers. LeRoy Jolley - the man who had trained General Assembly in 1979 - told Jones that he too had been criticized for the fast pre-Derby workout, but his colt had run extremely well to finish second. Jockey Eddie Delahoussaye phoned Jones and recalled Risen Star's ultra-fast workout on the morning before the 1988 Belmont Stakes: "Everybody thought it was the craziest thing in the world. We only won the Belmont by 14 lengths." Then Delahoussaye asked Jones: "How's your horse doing now?"

"Great," Jones said.

"Larry, he's going to run huge," Delahoussaye predicted.

He was right. Hard Spun hustled to the lead, set a fast pace, and ran away from the other horses who were pressing him. If Calvin Borel hadn't delivered a flawless, ground-saving ride aboard Street Sense, Jones might be accepting congratulations for winning the Derby. But he still deserves credit for getting Hard Spun to run the best race of his life.

Seen with the benefit of hindsight, the fast workout might have been the key to Hard Spun's good performance. This old-fashioned tough preparation might have given him an edge in sharpness over horses whose trainers wanted them to be "fresh." The fast work undoubtedly honed Hard Spun's speed, helping him to get the early lead from other would be front-runners in the Derby field.

Jones quieted most of the critics who questioned his judgment, and the trainer himself made a memorable self-evaluation. After the Derby, he was quoted as saying: "I think I think more than y'all think I think." Most racing fans must now think that he is correct.

(c) 2007 The Washington Post