09/15/2002 11:00PM

Right situation appeals to Jones

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Having failed to master the intricacies of the flop shot and the controlled draw, while acquiring such nicknames as "Reverse Pivot" and "You're Away," Gary Jones is turning his back on aspirations to join the Senior PGA Tour and returning to work at what he knows best.

The term "work" in this case is relative. Jones is by no means resuming the training career he ended in 1996, at the age of 52, as one of California's all-time giants.

There will be no pre-dawn screams from the alarm, no dinnertime calls from frustrated clients. Conversations with veterinarians and jockeys' agents will be kept to an absolute minimum. The Labor Department won't even know his name.

Still, golf's loss will be racing's gain. Commencing immediately, Jones has agreed to join Jon and Sarah Kelly as their racing manager, filling a role that has been in limbo since the death of trainer Eddie Gregson more than two years ago.

"Eddie was keeping me out of trouble," Kelly said Monday from his office in Sacramento. "Since he's been gone, I haven't had anybody on a day-to-day basis to help me. Now that I have Gary, hopefully it will be the same warm personal relationship that I had with Eddie, which was very special."

Kelly and Gregson had their sights on the very top of the game. Gregson advised the Kellys on their purchase and renovation of a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, the exclusive enclave east of Del Mar. He consulted on their purchase of mares and yearlings, and trained their first top-class runner, Lady at Peace, winner of the 2000 San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita.

Since June of 2000, when Gregson killed himself with a pistol in his South Pasadena office, the fortunes of the Kelly stable have stalled. Alexis Barba, Gregson's assistant, provided continuity with the care of the Kellys' racing stock. But Jon Kelly was hungry for the same kind of dream-building relationship he had developed with Gregson.

"Going into any new enterprise - horse racing or anything else - there's a baptism of fire," Kelly said. "I think I've served my time."

The Kellys can afford Thoroughbreds because they sold two television stations owned by Jon's family, of Kelly Broadcasting, for $900 million in 1999. One of them was the NBC affiliate KCRA-TV in Sacramento, founded in 1955 by Jon's father, Edwin Kelly.

"We hit it off immediately," Jones said. "I told him he was the only billionaire I've ever been around who's got a personality."

Their deal was clinched when Jones flew to Lexington with the Kellys last week. They attended the sales and inspected the Kelly mares, which are boarded with Helen Alexander at Middlebrook Farm and Alice Chandler at Mill Ridge. Kelly was amazed at the instant credibility provided by proximity to Jones.

"When you're a greenhorn, it takes a while," Kelly said. "I think I'm about at middle school right now. With Gary's help, maybe I can get up to high school."

Jones is up for the challenge. As the trainer of such stars as Best Pal, Turkoman, Kostroma, Lightning Mandate, Lakeway, and Fali Time, Jones made his mark with both quality and quantity. He led the meets at all three major Southern California tracks and trained for such influential clients as Sheikh Mohammed, Allen Paulson, John Mabee, Vincent O'Brien, Mike Rutherford, Robert Sangster, and Prestonwood Farm.

At a recent Del Mar question and answer session with fans, Jones was asked why he retired so early. Trainers are supposed to work until they drop.

"I just didn't have owners who saw the game the same way I did," Jones said. "So I stopped trying to fight it."

Fortunately, real estate investments allowed Jones to walk away from the training profession before his blood pressure killed him.

"He's not a Type A personality," Kelly said. "He's a Type Triple A."

Once on the sidelines, it was day trading on the stock market that kept Gary's juices flowing, and seven weeks of Del Mar racing each summer was just about enough to feed his need for racing in the flesh. As for his golf game, it was described by close friend Chris McCarron as, simply, "a nightmare."

Then Kelly came along with an offer that was hard to refuse.

"He asked me for three days straight," Jones said. "Finally, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'What reason do I have not to go back?'

"Hopefully I won't be the kind of racing manager that I didn't like," Jones went on. "I hated them, and I sure don't want trainers starting to hate me.

"I'll get a chart board, keep track of works, and I'll call if I have a question. But if I don't get any calls from a trainer, I won't be bugging anybody.

"I wouldn't jump in if it wasn't with people I admire and respect,"

Jones added. "Jon's a young 66, he wants to do it right, and they have all the money you need. There's no reason why, with the right kind of help, he shouldn't be able to get the job done."