For trainer Gary Jones, winning the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) was the equivalent of finding his family's Holy Grail.
"From the time I was a kid," Jones said, winning the Big 'Cap was the central goal for him and his father, trainer Farrell Jones. "It was such a popular race in California. My dad and I, we started 14 horses over the years and we never got close."
Then, in the space of three years, the younger Jones won two. The first, in 1992, was a most popular victory with one of California's all-time favorites, Best Pal. The second, with a horse named Stuka in 1994, was one of the least popular. It came as the result of a much-disputed stewards' call, one Jones still feels bad about.
A little more than two years after Stuka's win, following an earlier heart attack, Jones walked away from racing. Now 69, he's retired and living in Del Mar with his wife, Joan.
During a career that saw him win 1,465 races over a 22-year span, Jones trained for some of the most important owners in the game, including John Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm and Allen E. Paulson. Among his other major stars were the champion Turkoman, Kostrama, Quiet American, and Wishing Well.
But heading the list was Best Pal, a homebred gelding for Golden Eagle who won 18 of 47 races during a lengthy racing career while banking more than $5.6 million. Runner-up in the 1991 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), he was one of the few horses to sweep California's three major handicap—the Santa Anita, the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), and the Pacific Classic (gr. I). He became tremendously popular with the public and that brought added pressure for Jones.
"I think part of the reason (for his great popularity) was his name, for sure. But I think that people also loved that he was so consistent; I think the public responded to that," said Jones, a finalist this year for the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. "He was the kind of horse that if he got beat, you knew you did something wrong."
Jones was worried heading into that Big 'Cap because Best Pal had missed some training time and he wasn't sure the big brown son of Habitony was fit enough for the 1 1/4-mile distance. He needn't have been concerned. With Kent Desormeaux aboard, Best Pal left the field in his wake en route to a 5 1/2-length triumph in a sparking 1:59.08 flat.
Two years later, Paulson's Stuka was an underdog in a race that included The Wicked North, who would prove an impressive winner of the 1994 Big 'Cap. But within moments of the finish, stewards flashed the "inquiry" sign and took a long look at the stretch run. They eventually decided that Desormeaux, riding The Wicked North, had crossed in front of and interfered with Myrakalu, forcing Alex Solis to take up.
The move cost a placing to Myrakalu, who was edged for third by the late-running Bien Bien, the stewards ruled. Thus, The Wicked North, who was trained by a disbelieving David Bernstein, was dropped to fourth.
Stuka, who wasn't involved in the incident and was outrun in the stretch, was moved up for the victory.
The Wicked North, who won three other grade I races in 1994, would go on to claim an Eclipse Award that year as outanding older male. But attempts to have the stewards' decision overturned in court were unsuccessful.
"It was a very, very controversial call," said Jones, who said he later agreed it was an incorrect one. "At the time, though, we were thrilled to death."
The response from the fans was something he'll never forget.
"They wanted to tear the place down," he said. "People were throwing things at us in the winner's circle. I'd never seen anything like it.
"Here we were supposed to be happy about winning but I felt terrible about how it happened. If you could have seen the look on Dave Bernstein's face (when the ruling was announced), you'd understand why I felt the way I do."
Jones said he still gets out to the races occasionally during the summer and stays in touch with the game through his son, Marty Jones, also a successful trainer in California.
A finalist for the National Racing Museum's Hall of Fame on several other occasions, Jones said he was satisfied with what he had accomplished during his shortened career.
"Mr. Mabee had fired me and I was no longer training for Mr. Paulson, so it was time," he said.