Trainer Larry Jones, who earlier this year saddled Proud Spell to win the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and the following day had ill-fated Eight Belles finish second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), said he plans to retire by the end of 2009.
“It is just time to quit,” Jones, 52, said Sept. 23. “We have been very blessed. We have reached a level that 25 years ago I never knew we could ever reach, in the caliber of horses we have and the races we won. I had the best year of my career this year. Lots of very good things have happened and lots of bad things have happened.”
Jones, who is assisted in his stable by his wife, Cindy, cited a number of reasons for retiring, but acknowledged that the huge media coverage surrounding the death of Eight Belles was a “wakeup call.” Eight Belles broke down and died after her impressive second-place finish behind Big Brown in this year’s Derby, one day after Jones won the Oaks with Proud Spell. In addition to Proud Spell and Eight Belles, Jones’ other most prominent trainee was Hard Spun, the 2006 Derby runner-up who ran third in that year’s Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
“It definitely took a lot of the fun out of it,” Jones said of the toll that the filly’s death had on him, his wife, and the stable. “This was a hard thing to get over. Every day something reminds us of what happened."
Jones, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native whose horsemanship skills took him from Ellis Park in western Kentucky to the upper echelon of the North American training ranks, said he will phase out his stable over the course of the next year. As long as the better horses in his barn continue to excel he will train them, but will not replace them once they retire and will let other horses that are no longer competitive at the top levels of racing go to other barns.
“Hopefully, I will be out within a year,” Jones said. “I will try to see them through their careers, although some are 2-year-olds. If I have any good 3-year-olds next year, I will go through the (Triple Crown races) with them. I would hope to shut it down after the Breeders’ Cup of 2009.”
Other factors behind Jones’ decision include several tampering incidents that have occurred at his barn this year and the personnel problems on the backstretch. “We still like what we do, which is training horses, but there are so many issues any more. It’s a sign.”
Jones also alluded to the difference between training on a small scale and life at the top as adding to this decision. “I have to become a manager rather than being a trainer. That’s what I want to do, is train the horse. Of course, we’re on a different level now. We’re strung out with divisions in several locations. And no matter where I am on a Saturday afternoon, the other owner thinks I should be there (where their horse is running). I like to be the guy who puts that saddle on the horse. But I can’t do it all. It has a price to pay.”
Jones said his experience in elevating his stable has taught him how tough it can be at the top.
“You have to be careful when you are envious of the top guys,” he explained. “You couldn’t understand their whole perspective. My hat is off to them, especially those who have horses in different places. I don’t know how they do it. My admiration for them is more than ever. How they can keep the owners happy, I just don’t understand it.”
While he is retiring, Jones said he would not rule out a return to training some day, but on a much smaller scale. “I am not going to say I will never train again. We will see what happens. We have never had any time off. I have taken 10 days off in the last 25 years.”
While his plans are uncertain, Jones noted, “I am not going to climb under a rock. I am going to find something to do in racing that is constructive.”
Jones said his family still owns a farm in Hopkinsville, which he operated before becoming a full-time trainer, as well a home in Henderson, Ky.