10/14/2005 12:00AM

A sporting life, all in all, a good one


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Pons family is throwing a party on Monday afternoon at their Country Life Farm, out there deep in Maryland's Harford Country, just off Old Joppa Road, near a stream known as Winners Run. But this is not exactly news. The Country Life Preakness parties are legendary. Crab feasts are common, and no one at Country Life ever really needs an excuse to throw open the gates and hang out the welcome sign.

Then again, this particular shindig will have a different feel, as friends and family gather in remembrance of Joe Pons, the family patriarch and legendary Maryland horseman who died this week at the age of 83. More than simply a well-respected farm owner and breeder, Pons was a walking encyclopedia of Thoroughbred insight and a glad-handing ambassador of the breed, whose legacy at Country Life has been perpetuated by two of his three sons, Michael and Joseph Jr., better known as Josh.

"We're calling it a good old-fashioned Irish wake on Monday," Josh said, "and we're expecting quite a cast of catbirds. It can sound like a cliche, but he really did touch a lot of lives. He was like some walking messenger for good humor."

At 8:45 last Wednesday morning, still snug in their bed in the old Country Life farmhouse, Joseph Pons Sr. and his wife of 55 years, Mary Jo, were laughing about the Yankees blowing the playoff game the night before and plotting the day ahead. Then, just like that, his heart stopped, and he was gone.

"What a guy," said Michael, still shaking his head in wonder. "Just like John Wayne, a real white knight. No suffering, no lingering. Just put the bit in his teeth and rode into the sunset, laughing. And that's pretty much the way he led his life."

Josh agreed.

"All the scenarios that I'd envisioned of being so difficult for him - slowing down, not being able to go to the windows, the horse sales. None of that will come to pass," Josh said. "He made a great deal."

Joe Pons actually led two lives, one in the horse industry and the other in the company of recovering alcoholics, like himself. At the time of his death, he had been sober 25 years. For most of them he held weekly meetings at the Harford County Detention Center, counseling inmates.

"He had something that diffused all class distinction," Michael said. "Thieves, murderers, most of them in there for problems caused by drugs and alcohol, he could disarm them. Had them laughing. When things got dicey, and they'd go on lockdown after a jailhouse riot, he'd be able to get in there anyway to hold his AA meetings.

"He saw good in folks who didn't see any good in themselves," Michael added. "That validation made them say, 'Hey, I am somebody, and I can do something about myself.' Before you knew it they got a job, and their family came back together. I'd look at my Dad and think, man, how did you do that?"

The history of Country Life traces back to Joe's father, Adolphe Pons, who served as personal secretary and advisor to August Belmont II. Pons established Country Life in 1933 and lived until 1951, after which Joseph and his brother John took the reins. Their most famous stallion was Saggy, sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Carry Back.

In modern times, with a third generation of Pons boys running the show, Country Life has become known as home to such stallions as Malibu Moon, Allen's Prospect, and Citidancer, and was the birthplace of two-time Horse of the Year Cigar. Joe Pons was an integral part of their success.

"We couldn't have rebuilt the family business without him, because he had all these connections," Michael said. "All we needed was a product that was remotely palatable. Because they knew Dad, they would say, 'Sure, we'll give it a shot.' "

"He was our emissary to the track," Josh noted. "He'd come home and tell us that so-and-so wanted to book a mare to that stallion. You wouldn't think he'd be working, shuffling to the windows. But he was, because he was so approachable, and he bridged a real gap. He was everybody's age. Put him in with the teenagers, and he'd be busting their chops. Put him in with the old farts, and he'd have them moving along."

As far as the formalities of a funeral and burial are concerned, it was the wishes of Joe Pons that his remains be used for research.

"He donated his body to the Anatomy Board, which we all laughed about, because we always said his liver should be in the Smithsonian," Josh said with a laugh. "If they send us something back, I think there's a place for him overlooking Winners Run. He always loved it there.

"It will be interesting to see how Dad's different worlds mix on Monday afternoon," Josh said. "And I'm sure we'll hear stories that will make us roar. Sometimes it's hard for me, though, because until he was 57 it wasn't easy, when he was drinking. I could see through all the rainbows there were more than a couple of dark days.

"But hey," Josh added, "he got it together and gave back more than he ever took."