Updated on 09/15/2011 12:25PM

The legend of Jimmy Jones

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Suzie Picou-Oldham
Jimmy Jones, Thoroughbred racing's ambassador-at-large.

PARNELL, Mo. - Jimmy Jones lifted his head from his hospital bed pillow and reached out with a speckled left hand. His handshake was firm. He held it a long time. He peppered his guest with greetings. "Good to see you. Come sit down. When did you get in? How long can you stay?"

His voice was gravelly, but strong enough so that every word was heard, and it rang like sweet music to the ears of anyone who believed the stories circulating a few weeks earlier that had the 94-year-old Hall of Famer knocking on death's door. If he was, no one bothered to answer.

"I'm feeling better," Jones said. "Have a seat. Did you eat yet? Don't know what they've got around here. Wish I could take you up to the house."

For a man due to turn 95 next November, Jones was doing pretty well until he got back to Parnell in April from his traditional winter in Miami. Since then, he has been battling symptoms of pneumonia and circulatory problems in his legs, while suffering what his doctors suspect have been a series of mild strokes that have taken a toll on his normally high energy level. He has been hospitalized for nearly a month.

"There was a time there a few weeks back I thought we might lose him," said Hale Sanders, a close friend of Jones since childhood. "But he's tough. He's been getting a little stronger every day."

"Well, I don't know," Jones said. "My heart valve keeps making a funny noise."

"The time to worry is when it stops making that noise," Sanders replied. It was okay to laugh, now that Jones was showing signs of improvement. Still, he has a daily battle on his hands. "Never been in a hospital this long before," Jones said. "Had Legionnaires' disease and beat it. Had that heart valve put in about 20 years ago. I guess I'll stay right here until they tell me I can go."

Even flat on his back, dressed in hospital garb and sporting a plastic bracelet that reads "Horace Jones," this was still the real Jimmy Jones, Thoroughbred racing's ambassador at large, glad-handing politico, and gracious host, not to mention the trainer of Citation, Iron Leige, Tim Tam, Miz Clementine, Two Lea, and a Hall of Fame full of Calumet Farm champions. Horace Allyn Jones, nicknamed Jim Crow as a boy, always has been a chatty gadfly who has borne witness to nearly a century's worth of racing history. He has also made his share of it along the way.

Even while laboring in the shadow of his famous father, Ben A. Jones, Jimmy managed to carve out a proud reputation of his own. To those who knew them, the two men were as different as night and day. Ben was a big man, a thick six-footer with a hard, flat face and a manner that brooked no nonsense. Jimmy was short and on the round side, with a beaming countenance that always seemed more comfortable when fitted with a smile.

Still, there may have been those in the public who grew confused over which was which, B.A. or H.A., when noting the trainer of some Calumet Farm monster. Their names appeared interchangeably on such runners as Real Delight, Wistful, Coaltown, and Bewitch, depending upon which part of the country they were trained. After awhile it didn't really matter. The son learned from the father, and the father relied on the son. They became known as simply the Jones Boys, a handle that became synonymous with unprecedented success at the highest national levels. Two Triple Crown winners, eight Kentucky Derby winners, and four different runners hailed as Horse of the Year in a span of eight seasons. No one has ever done it better.

Since June 13, 1961, there has been only one Jones boy. Ben Jones died that day in Lexington, Ky., after a long battle with the effects of diabetes. He was 78. His body was returned to his hometown of Parnell, a small farming community in the northwest corner of Missouri that was built by his father, the original Horace Jones. After a ceremony at Parnell Methodist Church, Ben Jones was buried on a knoll in Rose Hill Cemetery alongside his wife, Etta, who had died two years earlier. The minister and his wife sang "Shall We Gather at the River." Among the casket bearers for Ben Jones were his cousins Frank Jones and Austin Felton, and his good friends Ted and Paul Sanders.

Forty years later, almost to the day, Paul's son Hale sat by the hospital bedside of Jimmy Jones and reminisced about old times, when Ben Jones was the main man in Parnell and Ted Sanders was a smooth operator in Kansas City politics. "Tell 'em about the goats," Hale said. "Up at the track in Omaha."

"Oh, those goats," Jones moaned. "They belonged to Frank McClain, a big man, hands as big as your head. Would fight all the time."

"Wore a 15-gallon Stetson, he was so big," said Hale, who just happens to be married to McClain's granddaughter.

"I had a new Ford," Jones went on. "I was fond of that car. Parked it outside the barn at Omaha that I shared with Frank. I walked out and every goat in the world was dancing around on my car. Frank's goats. Sharp little feet just tearing it to pieces. Frank never did a thing about it. Wasn't the type of fellow to apologize." Sanders laughed. Jones smiled, and for a moment they were both 70 years younger, back to the days before Calumet Farm, when Ben and Jimmy Jones hauled their Missouri-bred racehorses from a train siding in Parnell, all over the West, from Tijuana and Juarez in Mexico, to the prairie provinces of Canada.

"Remember Rattlesnake Hill?" Jones was digging deep now, to a notorious border landmark south of San Diego. "My father bet a guy named Red Meat five dollars he could bring back a rattlesnake. Dad went off and came back a little while later trailing a rattler by the head. Hell yes, it was alive. That was the bet.

"Three weeks," Jones went on. "That's how long it took to get to Tijuana. We kept the horses in the cars. They did better that way. Just cleaned 'em and fed 'em. Made a sweat box for us boys to sleep in. Pushed tack up against the horses and stacked bicycles on top. Worked fine for us. We didn't know any better."

What they knew how to do was win races, at first for their own Jones Stock Farm and then for Herb Woolf of Kansas City. By the time the Jones boys were hired by the Calumet Farm of Warren and Lucille Wright in 1939, they had already won the 1938 Kentucky Derby for Woolf with a bad-footed colt named Lawrin. Among the colts in their first batch of Calumet Farm 2-year-olds was the lugging-out head case Whirlaway, winner of the 1941 Triple Crown. Ben Jones did pretty much one thing his whole life. He was a horse trainer. Jimmy, on the other hand, found the world to be a larger, more interesting place. He attended Northwest Missouri Teachers College for two years in the 1920's. He dabbled briefly with the idea of a veterinary career. He served as mayor of Parnell for a term during the depths of the Depression. And, at the age of 36, he enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War II.

By the time Jones left the service, he was ready to plow heart and soul into the fortunes of Calumet. In 1947, Ben assumed the title of Calumet general manager and Jimmy ran the racing stable. That season, Jimmy Jones more than doubled the previous record for earnings by a trainer on the strength of a stable that included 2-year-old champions Citation and Bewitch and Horse of the Year Armed. His total topped $1.3 million. The old record was $601,660, held by Ben Jones.

Jimmy Jones retired from the Calumet Farm job in 1964. He'd had enough of the grind, and he had a pretty good offer from Monmouth Park to sit behind a desk as the director of the racing department. He lasted at Monmouth until the end of 1976, and for the last 25 years, Jones has spent his second retirement in ready availability for just about any racing cause or event.

Now he is in St. Francis Hospital in Maryville, Mo., a town of about 10,000 located a couple hours north of Kansas City and 20 miles southwest of tiny Parnell. Whether or not Jones ever leaves St. Francis is up to his legs. Without them, he will never be able to negotiate all the twists and turns of his stately brick home in Parnell, built in 1904 by his grandfather.

"He loves that old house, and every tree on the grounds," said Hale Sanders. Sometimes, when Jones has spent too long in the company of hospital visitors who summon up stories of the past, he will grow weary and imagine that he is back home in Parnell, sitting in his easy chair in the corner of his favorite room, surrounded by the memories of a lifetime in a racing wonderland. It is easy to understand why.

- This is the first of two articles.