FLORENCE — While the 2008 Thoroughbred racing season has been the most statistically successful year of trainer Larry Jones’ career, it has also been the most emotionally taxing. Earlier this week, the native of Hopkinsville — who saddled the ill-fated Eight Belles to a runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby in May — announced plans to retire following the 2009 Breeders’ Cup.
Thursday morning at Turfway Park, the venerable trainer took a short break from his morning activities to discuss with the Herald-Leader some of the reasons behind his decision and if the nation’s backstretches will really have to bid farewell to him for good this time next year.
Question: What has been the reaction you’ve gotten since you announced your plans to retire at the end of 2009?
Answer: “Well I think the people have been going to Vegas to see about taking odds on how long I can stay quit. ... I don’t know, but I’m going to have to take the long side. Whatever they make the date I’m going to have to take the over. It’s been the best year of our career and it’s been a great career. I mean, if we never touch another horse this has been great and very satisfactory. Hopefully we’re going to win an Eclipse Award this year with Proud Spell and I told them I won the Red Smith Good Guy award in New York, what else is there?. It’s been good but we’re very tired. “Most people in the horse business you know... very few people take extended vacations. You can’t. I’ve had 10 days off in my life because I grew up on a farm and from eight years old on I can remember either tacking up horses or driving tractors every day. I had a 10-day vacation in 2003 and that’s it in my life. I’ve got grandkids that range anywhere to nine months to 18 years old and I’ve seen two of those grand kids only twice in their life. We’re going to spend some family time, we’re going to do some things before those kids figure out they don’t know who I am. I want them to know who I am. We’ve got horses, my wife and I have broodmares, and I’ve got stallion prospects so we’re going to be in the business. I just don’t know that we’re going to be racing.”
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Q: Did you think about retiring before this year?
A: “No. I started thinking about it about a month ago. I decided we had to put a stop to some of the madness so we informed all the owners before it came time to go to Keeneland to the sales because that’s where most of our owners get their stock. And before a lot of our owners in the breeding game decided if they were going to RNA (reserve not attain) horses or sell them or what, they needed to know we were contemplating the shutdown. That whatever they did with yearlings they needed to do it with the thoughts of having another trainer because I didn’t want to get responsible for another three years down the road. “We felt like, at that time, that we have 2-year-olds in the barn now and I figure if they go through their 4-year-old season that’s two years. But then we decided to try and shut it down by next year this time. Hopefully after the Breeders’ Cup of 2009 we can have it run out of horses. “I was on the road yesterday and I bet you I didn’t have 30 minutes during that trip where I wasn’t on the phone. We were doing radio interviews and then a lot of people, when the entries come out, have issues about things and it’s all good … it’s a good problem to have. This is what you always hope for. But just be careful what you wish for because it may come true. Even like the day when we won the (Grade I) Alabama with Proud Spell and then Honest Man won the Iselin the same day I thought ‘Man, what a great day.’ And then the next day I get back and an owner is complaining because I’m not with their horse saddling them at Delaware Park or I wasn’t at Monmouth or whatever because I was at Saratoga. Well shame on me. That’s when I really realized, that’s when I decided you know, I don’t need this. I’ve been very blessed in this game but I can train for myself and do whatever and I don’t have to have my name on the top of the charts to feel good about myself. That’s when we decided we were going to quit. So hopefully we can still do a good job next year. Hopefully we’ll be in the Triple Crown with something next year.”
Q; Say you come back next year and Proud Spell is a monster as a 4-year-old and you get a good 3-year-old that wins some classics. Are you going to change your mind?
A: “I don’t think so. I think we’re just going to try and get through next year and do the very best we can. It’s our last shot, I feel like, to win the Kentucky Derby. And we have to scrape it out of there somehow. We have to find something in that barn that is Derby bound and we’ll go. But last year at this time, we didn’t think Eight Belles was it either so we know they can show up. And believe me, we have more stock in the barn this year than what we thought we had last year. (Owner) Rick Porter has nine 2-year-old boys that can be top of the line and they haven’t started yet. We’re just now starting to get them to the races because they’re bred to run all day long so there is no need getting them ready for five and six furlong races. We definitely have classic material out there. And we’ll see what we can pull out there and try it again.”
Q: You could do the Carl Nafzger retirement plan and just come back and win Derbys?
A: “That would be good! And it would be great if I could keep an eye on all these horses. That’s one reason I want to try and quit in the right way and not have the owners mad because hopefully when they think, ‘I’ve got a Derby horse this time’ they’ll remember my phone number.”
Q: So you still may dabble in training?
A: “I’m not going to hopefully forget everything that I knew about horses. But I mean, if I forget three things, I’ll forget everything I ever knew about it. So I have to be careful about what I forget. But we’re not going to be a hermit up on a mountain somewhere, we’ll be around. Like I said, we have broodmares and if I see a foal out there where I think, ‘Boy I’d like to put some tack on this one,’ I’ll be to where I can. I’ll still have plenty of tack left. I’m tacking up 114 horses. If I can cut that down to four, I’ll have enough for every horse. This is one of those deals where we can walk away and we’re still at the top of our game. We may not be at the very top of the game, but we’ve had a great year. It’s time. Now once the grandkids are grown 20 years from now and everyone has their life going and they don’t want me hanging around… I may go back to training then. But I still have to be able to gallop (the horses himself). I’m not going to train if I don’t gallop.”