04/12/2012 12:54PM

Larry Jones: A do-it-all trainer who was born to ride

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Larry Jones gallops at least eight or nine horses a day. Here, he gallops Havre de Grace before last year's Breeders' Cup.

The exercise rider arrives at barn 3 on the Fair Grounds backstretch at 5:15 one morning in the last week of March. Work starts right away.

By 6, a groom has put a saddle on a mare housed in the barn’s center shedrow. The exercise rider sets a five-gallon white plastic bucket upside down on the barn’s dirt floor. The mare, tacked up and ready to train, is led round by the groom to the bucket. The rider puts a foot atop the bucket and then heaves his considerable heft – gently, purposefully – up over the mare’s back. Horse and rider walk halfway around the barn, out the back door, and onto the racetrack.

The mare is Havre de Grace, Horse of the Year in 2011. The exercise rider is her trainer, Larry Jones.
At 56, Jones would qualify as exotic were he out galloping any old horse. Thoroughbred exercise riders are called gallop boys and gallop girls for a reason: The job is the province of the young. But here is a man on the downslope of middle age who has risen to the elite ranks of American Thoroughbred trainers, and still he insists on riding all morning long. Jones gallops at least eight or nine horses every day. He’d ride more if he had time. Even when his stable swelled to 114 horses in 2009, Jones galloped a horse in every training set.

Considering the numbers, the quality, and the constant riding, Jones stands nearly alone in the modern racing era. It’s not uncommon for younger trainers with a small stable to gallop their own. Sometimes, older trainers with an established clientele will get on a select horse or two. Ross Fenstermaker used to gallop Hall of Famer Precisionist. Warren Stute galloped as a senior citizen, but Stute never had the overall quality of stock that resides in the Jones barn. Perhaps only one other trainer, Bruce Headley, has done anything like Jones. Headley galloped until he was 70, and at 66, he was galloping Kona Gold the week he won the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Jones’s drive to ride comes from two main sources: One, he has a powerful need to control as many parts of the training process as possible, and two, Jones simply loves riding. When he stepped away from being a head trainer in 2010, turning the barn over to his wife, Cindy, he never stopped galloping.

“This is the best part of my job − getting to ride really good horses,” Jones said.

Out on the track, Jones can’t be missed. At about 6 feet tall and weighing 180 pounds minus tack, Jones is among the tallest, heaviest riders at any racetrack. Jones has long, bandy legs, their length accentuated by the fact he uses longer stirrups than perhaps anyone anywhere. And then there is the speed. Jones often gallops his stock at a breakneck clip: Other trainers joke that while merely galloping, Jones passes horses of theirs performing timed workouts.

“Most everything we do is ass-backwards from what most people say you should do,” Jones said.

Racing, as with most human endeavor, treats skeptically the person who diverges from common practice. Many a horseman has been seen shaking his head in wonder as Jones, the fringe of his chaps whipping in the wind, passes the spot where they watch training from the rail. Jones is riding with his stirrups too long, the common thinking goes. His horses are galloping too fast. And with these thoughts comes the hint of deeper questions: Are his methods haphazard? Does Larry Jones really know what he’s doing?

Here’s the thing. Larry Jones diverges by design. No speck of activity in his stable, it seems, has failed to undergo mental examination. Take that five-gallon plastic bucket. Like most everyone else, Jones used to get legged up onto a horse, with someone on the ground grabbing an ankle and boosting him up into the saddle. That action can be hard on a rider’s knee, and Jones started thinking that landing heavily on a horse’s back wasn’t a great idea, either.

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Larry Jones has a hand in nearly every part of the training process, including the riding of his horses.

“The more I learned about chiropractics with horses, the more I didn’t think people should get legged up,” Jones said. “Some people can land light, but most can’t. Girls who ride for us can get legged up, but boys use the bucket.”

The other exercise rider in the Jones barn that March morning, Antonio Cava, looks like a slightly smaller version of Larry Jones. He, too, is tall for a rider, and out on the track, his stirrups are set lower than anyone else on horseback, save Jones.

“Yes, he’s different than most people,” said Cava, who started out in the Jones barn as a hotwalker, progressed to groom, and then started galloping. “I ride short for other people sometimes, but it’s much better this way. You’re more balanced, and the horses seem to like it better.”

Jones said that when he started riding Thoroughbreds on the track, in about 1980, he kept to the mainstream, training like he thought the average trainer trained and riding like other exercise riders rode. It wasn’t until he struggled for a few years and started thinking more about what precisely he was doing that Jones began marking out his own path. Over time, the stirrup settings got lower and lower, and Jones said he hires bigger riders than anyone else at the track. Once in his employ, they begin to ride like Larry Jones.

“We want people to ride long,” Jones said. “We want to keep the center of gravity low. I cannot stand seeing riders perched so high up on a horse. I hate to see rub marks on a horse’s ribs. I don’t see why people should be up that high.”

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Jones’s fast-galloping tendencies also evolved over time and through consideration.

“When I started with racehorses, I jerked them up like they told me too,” Jones said, referring to the practice of taking a strong hold during morning training in order to reduce speed. “But eventually, I started to think that wasn’t right. A horse pulling on you with all his might, that didn’t seem to make sense.”

“I just don’t like to restrain them,” he said. “I like to see their ears up. My idea is, ‘How would a horse gallop if he were out in a field?’ That kind of feeling is what I try to achieve. I try to be more a coach than anything. ‘Turn right here, turn left now.’ ”

Jones said he tries to get a galloping horse into a high cruising speed with “long, efficient strides.” Faster-paced gallops, Jones said, create stronger horses more ready to withstand the rigors of a race. They also lessen the need to conduct fast, timed workouts every seven days: Jones-trained runners usually don’t work for at least two weeks after a race.

Neither does Jones follow the common practice of letting horses stand and look over their surroundings before breaking off into a gallop.

“Standing, I don’t do that much,” Jones said. “If you do that every day, a lot of times they don’t want to go. They can’t start thinking on their own. That’s not what their job is. Their job is to listen to the rider.”

“I have the utmost respect for Larry,” said David Carroll, another trainer who gallops his own stock. “He does things his way. People who would knock his training, those are the people chasing him up the track.”

Carroll, who galloped Easy Goer during a stint as exercise rider for Shug McGaughey, trains about 30 horses –a similar number to what Jones has now – and continues to ride a horse in almost every set despite being a veteran trainer.

“One, it works. Two, it keeps me fit. And three, I love doing it,” Carroll said of his decision to stay in the saddle. “I don’t like standing on the rail with a cup of coffee in my hand. Some people say, ‘You miss horses when you ride,’ but that’s B.S. We don’t miss anything.”

Many trainers who gallop their own horses early in their career find it difficult to merge riding with training. Chris Richard, a former Tom Amoss assistant who trains for prominent owner Maggie Moss, used to get on a horse in every set, but after his string grew to about 30, he began riding the stable pony instead.

“When your stable gets to that size you’ve got a bunch of different exercise riders, and it becomes hard to concentrate on the other horses in the set,” Richard said. “From the pony, I can kind of dictate what happens in every single set. For me personally − and everyone has their own system – I said, ‘You know, I’m going to hire these guys and let them do the riding.’ ”

Hall of Fame trainers Allen Jerkens and Richard Mandella both were former self-gallopers, though Jerkens stopped earlier in his career than Mandella.

“Oh, sure, everyone knows it’s pretty unusual to do what Larry Jones is doing,” Jerkens said. “I galloped my own horses early on. I was only about 19, but I was about 200 pounds by then.”

Jerkens said he can see where Jones is coming from with his long stirrups and heavy riders. “Horses relax more when you ride with a long stirrup. They know you’re not going to breeze them. And horses don’t mind carrying weight. I don’t like to breeze them with more than 150 pounds, but I’ve had [gallop] boys who might have been 165 or 170.”

Mandella, in Southern California, said he doesn’t hire riders heavier than 140 or 145 pounds. Weight – Mandella said he’s 180 pounds, like Jones – is one reason he stopped regularly galloping his own horses about 20 years ago.

“I got started by breaking yearlings and galloping, but when my stable grew I quit doing it,” Mandella said. “I felt like if I was on one I couldn’t see the other horses in the set well enough. That was my own take.”

Headley, who is 78, didn’t stop regularly galloping until a few years ago.

“Kona Gold was my last one,” Headley said. “I figured it was time to stop. I don’t like it, but that’s part of growing old. It really is a hard thing to give up.”

Headley was a jockey in his early years. Carroll, Richard, Mandella, and Jerkens all learned to gallop racehorses as young men. It helps explain Jones’s willingness to do things differently to know that he came from a different tradition – riding on the farm, and riding Quarter Horses. Jones, who grew up in rural Western Kentucky, has ridden since he was only a few years old.

“I always wanted to be a rider,” he said. “That’s all I ever thought about. I used to go out to the back of my grandpa’s property and ride his mules when I was a little bitty guy.”

When he was older, Jones rode Quarter Horses in bush-track races in small towns in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I rode all up and down Interstate 24, county fairs, or whatever, some as a teenager, some even later,” he said. “A rider would get 10 bucks if you’d win. Five-hundred dollars was about the max anybody down there would bet on their own horse. I remember a race called a newcomers race. I was on a horse that had had a saddle on it 14 times – 14 times! There were four horses in the race, and I was the only one who finished.”

Until a few years ago, Jones occasionally enjoyed breaking horses out of the gate during morning training, showing actual jockeys in adjacent stalls that through his Quarter Horsing he was as quick into stride as they. Such behavior has recently waned.

“He’s maybe not as eager to ride those rambunctious 2- or 3-year-olds he used to,” said Cindy Jones, who started galloping for the Jones barn in 1985 and began a deeper relationship with its pilot two years later.

Cindy Jones, a lifelong rider and capable horsewoman herself, provides the rock in the barn that any gallop-their-own trainer requires. It was she who took over the head-trainer title when Jones backed off in 2009. When his stable grew to over 100, Jones felt he was turning into more of a horse manager than a horse trainer. And that is something Larry Jones has no desire to be. Jones has a nearly compulsive need to perform work himself. He does not delegate well and usually feels he’s the most qualified man for any job, including riding.

“Can you believe my wife says I’m a control freak?” Jones asks in mock-disbelief.

Jones often still hauls his own horses when they ship for a race: He did it over the winter when Joyful Victory went from Fair Grounds to Oaklawn to start in the Azeri Stakes, driving back and forth from New Orleans to Hot Springs days before Havre de Grace was to make her 2012 debut.

“My dad was a perfectionist,” Jones said. “And he was a long-haul driver. I grew up in rural America, and I started driving down the highway when I was nine years old. I know how to get a horse over the road without bouncing them around.”

The Jones barn also mixes its own leg poultice. They use a feed program Jones designed as part of a high school project. His horses, despite their fast gallops, tend to carry more weight than the average Thoroughbred in heavy training. Jones takes his recipe to a local feed mill whenever possible. After galloping his 11 horses that morning at Fair Grounds, Jones emerged from his office holding a set of clippers. Nine horses needed haircuts, and Jones intended to give them himself. In most outfits, this responsibility would fall to a groom, but Jones keeps a hand in every part of a horse’s regimen.

“If you want things done the right way, you have to do them yourself,” Jones said. “The grooms are lucky I even let them brush ’em.”

It was hot as summer that morning in New Orleans the last week in March, and when the last set of trainees had returned to the Jones barn, when Havre de Grace had been bathed, cooled out, and was back in her stall, pampered with carrots, Larry Jones had worked up a serious sweat. “I’m going to go cool off,” Jones said, and in Larry Jones’s world, cooling off means riding slowly. The two ponies with his Fair Grounds string – Jones has nine ponies scattered across the Eastern half of the country – had not yet gotten out of their stalls that day, and they needed exercise, too. Jones’s huge warm-blood, Rascal, had been tacked up by a groom. Cindy Jones had put tack on the other pony, a rescued palomino Tennessee walking horse. Husband and wife mounted up, passed through the six-furlong gap, and began a slow procession side by side along the outside rail on the Fair Grounds oval. The sun shined over a nearby church steeple as the pair disappeared behind the tote board.

“When I have to quit galloping, I’m probably going to have to retire again,” Larry Jones said. “And this time, that’ll be it.”