03/13/2007 11:00PM

Tough keeping up with Jones

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is probably safe to say that Bobby Frankel would have passed Charlie Whittingham a whole lot sooner on the all-time list of Santa Anita trainers had it not been for Farrell "Wild Horse" Jones.

Frankel, who broke Charlie's mark last week with Santa Anita victory number 870, figures to run with it for awhile. After all, he's only 66. But in 1972, Frankel had barely tiptoed into his 30's when he moved his New York act to California. There he was confronted not only by the legendary Whittingham, but also a local backstretch colony that included veterans Buster Millerick, Robert Wheeler, Tommy Doyle, and John Canty, as well as such young guns as Ron McAnally and Jerry Fanning.

Whittingham was The Man - lording over horses like Ack Ack, Cougar, and Turkish Trousers at the time - but it was Farrell Jones who ran the claiming table, and that is where Frankel came to play. For three solid seasons, from the winter of 1972 through the spring of 1975, the final standings at Santa Anita read either Whittingham-Jones-Frankel, Jones-Whittingham-Frankel or Frankel-Whittingham-Jones. Frankel and Jones squabbled over the same races while Whittingham devoured stakes, and the rest ate their dust.

The death of Farrell Jones on Monday, at age 84, brought back memories of those heady early 1970's, when a young, brash New Yorker went head-to-head with California's undisputed king of the claimers, and racing fans loved every minute. Between 1960 and 1973, Jones won a remarkable 27 Southern California training titles, but that meant very little to Frankel, who hit the West Coast running and then went on to post records of his own.

History will show that Frankel evolved from a Jones-style claiming operation into a Whittingham disciple, concentrating on class, winning the big ones and eventually earning a place in the Hall of Fame. This also was the dream of Farrell Jones, but he could never quite make it happen, and he knew exactly why.

"I never had any people who would put up serious money because I was drunk all the time," Jones said in a 1992 interview. "Nobody's fault but mine. Nobody's."

Jones never remembered how he got his nickname, but he did take it seriously. From his rugged youth in the Idaho town of Malad, to his brief career as a vagabond jockey, to his stint as a Navy diver in the South Pacific during World War II, to his successful trainer of Quarter Horses, Farrell Jones constantly pushed the envelope of a very rough life. His son and former assistant, the accomplished trainer Gary Jones, can testify.

"He'd fight anybody over anything," Gary once said. "But he'd always go after those big guys, so he's still eligible to nonwinners of two."

As 1974 dawned, Farrell Jones was coming off his eighth Santa Anita title. Gary was at his side and the barn was loaded, with stakes horses starting to elbow the claimers for room. Then, on Feb. 8, 1974, Farrell Jones suffered a heart attack and was given about five years to live if he didn't retire from the stressful world of the racetrack. So, at the age of 51, he retired . . . and lived another 33 years.

"It was a wonderful feeling to think there was maybe a chance I could go on and live," Jones said, reflecting on his heart scare. "Hell, there were things I still wanted to do."

Jones went on to manage farms and then establish his own, widely respected lay-up and early training facility. Essentially, though, the Farrell Jones era at the racetrack ended in 1974. The following year Gary came out from under his father's long shadow to train under his own name, and never looked back, eventually working for such clients as Robert Sangster, Corbin Robertson, Prestonwood Farm, Michael Rutherford, John Mabee, and Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, while handling more than 100 stakes winners.

As a result, Gary is the California Jones that most racing fans know, even though he called it quits in 1996, at the age of 52, for health and business reasons of his own. In fact, Farrell Jones made only one real impact on the Eastern racing world, but it was a doozy, coming on Bobby Frankel's home turf at Aqueduct in the 1970 Ladies Handicap.

Jones invaded the Big A with Manta, a switch-hitting monster who had won such prestigious California dirt and turf events as the Santa Margarita, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills handicaps. She was 3-1 in the Ladies and beat Cathy Honey by a head. But a fine piece of theater from Angel Cordero on the runner-up convinced the stewards that the Californian had transgressed, and Manta was disqualified. Apparently, the New York fans took exception.

"When they took her number down, the crowd went crazy," Jones recalled a few years ago. "I mean there was a riot. They were breaking TV's, setting fire to trash cans, running out on the track. They almost had to cancel the last race."

Shocking. Absolutely shocking. And Wild Horse, of course, kept a safe distance from the rowdies.

"Hell," Jones replied, "I was down in front, cheering them on!"