Larry Jones is back and racing is the better for it. The 56-year-old trainer, who retired at the top of his game on November 7, 2009, returned in early 2011 with the same fervor as the day he left. Anyone talking with the personable Kentuckian could recognize that in a heartbeat.
Jones, who has been training since 1982 save for his recent respite, is headquartered in Kentucky and is making his first visit to Santa Anita, thanks to Grade 2 winner Joyful Victory, who drew post position four in a field of nine in Saturday's Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes at 1 1/16 miles.
"She shipped in really good," Jones said of the four-year-old gray daughter of Tapit, owned by the Fox Hill Farms of Rick Porter. "She was training well. We didn't have to come to California just for the fun of it, but she was training so well, we felt now was the time to give her that opportunity.
"I've never been to Santa Anita, so this is the first time, and I've always heard maybe the track was like this (pointing to a freshly watered-down patch of hard dirt outside his shedrow), but it's not.
"They've got a lot of cushion on it and the horse really galloped well (three-quarters of a mile) over it today. It's a track that we're kind of used to, so I thought it was a lovely track.
"She just got off the plane the night before last. We had all the preps done so all we have to do is keep her loose and happy."
Joyful Victory has raced at seven different tracks in her 12-race career, with a 4-3-2 record and earnings of $575,068, so she doesn't have to carry her track around with her, as the saying goes.
"She's done pretty well on all of them," Jones said. "She's a very good-moving filly, but I'll be honest with you. I think she's going to be OK on this track. She acts like she got over it very well this morning."
Rosie Napravnik rides Joyful Victory for the first time in the Zenyatta. Jones has every confidence in the 24-year-old rider from Morristown, New Jersey, the daughter of a blacksmith and a show horse trainer. In 2006, she was runner-up to Julien Leparoux for the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice.
"We're real proud of her," Jones said. "She won the (Grade 1 Kentucky) Oaks for me this year (on Believe You Can). I put her in some big-name races already and she shows up every time. I started riding her maybe in 2006 and she just performed every time.
"I think she's one of the most talented riders -- boy, girl or whatever -- in the country. We're very proud to have her on this filly. She's never gotten to ride her. She's ridden with her and she's worked against her in the morning. We've always had her on Believe You Can and sometimes we'll work them together. She's seen this filly, so she knows her."
As for his brief personal break, Jones took time to smell the roses.
"We were very blessed," said Jones, a former commercial farmer whose signature 10-gallon hat makes him readily recognizable. "Rick Porter said he would give me some top-notch horses if I would come back and train, and my wife (Cindy) took over for a year and let me catch my breath and take care of some health issues.
"Anyway, we are back, we're on a lot smaller scale (44 in training) which is really good, and we still have a lot of quality. Between Rick, and Brere Jones, and my wife, they made it to where I could come back and be at the top still."