LOUISVILLE — Shortly after Joyful Victory arrived in Larry Jones' barn last November, the comparisons to his ill-fated protégé Eight Belles kept coming — even as the popular trainer tried to push some of the more poignant ones aside.
There is the same gray coat, the same effortless motion and powerful kick over the track and — as Jones discovered during his quiet moments with Joyful Victory — a shared demeanor that is almost freakish.
"Before the Fantasy Stakes, I got to spend a lot of time and attention with (Joyful Victory), and she just kept looking right at my eyeball, just right dead in your eye," Jones recalled. "It was like 'Why are you looking at me like that?' And then ... I just walked away and said 'We ain't going there.'
"Reincarnation, I don't know what you want to call it, I'm not going to buy into this. But they do a lot of things similar."
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The sight of Jones alongside a gorgeous gray filly evokes many emotions for those who recall Eight Belles' second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and subsequent fatal breakdown while galloping out.
Following a year-long hiatus from the sport in which he got his health and mind back in order, Jones is back at Churchill Downs with what he hopes is an equally talented filly in Joyful Victory, the morning-line favorite for Friday's $1 million Kentucky Oaks.
For all the tribulations Jones has endured in recent years, the Hopkinsville native considers himself exceptionally fortunate to be able to take so much time off and return to horses like Joyful Victory.
When Jones retired from training in November 2009 and turned his barn over to his wife, Cindy, he was worn out from the demands of having 114 Thoroughbreds in his care and the firestorm that came at him in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy.
In addition to the everyday racetrack stress, Jones discovered he was suffering from high levels of aluminum in his system, which had him thinking he was going off the deep end.
"I really thought I was coming down with Alzheimer's, and I didn't want to do that in the public eye," Jones said. "But when we found out what it was, it ended up being real fixable the way it turned out.
"(The aluminum in his body) was 6½ times the normal levels, and the No. 1 side effect is dementia, and No. 2 was liver issues. We had to do some detoxifying to get it all out. Now, I feel like I did 15-20 years ago."
Though Jones trained 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun and 2008 Kentucky Oaks winner and champion Proud Spell when his stable was at its peak, he made a conscious decision to keep his numbers down once he came out of retirement last November.
Among the less than 50 horses Jones took into his barn was Porter's Joyful Victory, a daughter of Tapit who had broken her maiden first time out at Delaware Park last September and run fifth for previous trainer Tony Dutrow in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in November.
In her first start under Jones' care, Joyful Victory won the Grade III Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 12 by 83/4 lengths over fellow Kentucky Oaks hopeful Holy Heavens.
That flash of brilliance was demonstrated just as strongly in the 11⁄16-mile Grade II Fantasy Stakes. Joyful Victory — who will break from the rail in the Oaks — rated just off the pace before rolling to a 7-length win in her fifth career start.
"She's one of those horses that floats over the ground," Jones said. "I think you could run her over marbles, and she wouldn't care. She's just kind of light on her feet and is just very impressive with the ease she does things."
It is hard to imagine this year's 11⁄8-mile Kentucky Oaks being a cakewalk for any of the 13 fillies in the field.
Jerry and Ann Moss's Zazu captured the Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 5 but has yet to win beyond 1 mile.
The Ken McPeek-trained Kathmanblu opened her 2011 season with back-to-back wins in the Sweet Chant and Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes and most recently finished third behind fellow Oaks contender Lilacs and Lace in the Grade I Ashland Stakes over the Polytrack at Keeneland.
"A good horse can run on anything; that's the bottom line," McPeek said. "In the Ashland, she ran 67 feet farther than the winner and was wide on both turns. She probably was the best horse that day and ran third."
Team Valor's Summer Soiree and the Bob Baffert-trained Plum Pretty both have done their best running on the front end and figure to be among the likely pacesetters.
"Summer Soiree is going to go. You can't grab her," Baffert said. "Believe me, we're going to be breathing down her throat."
All of that suits Jones just fine because he would rather see Joyful Victory lay off the pace longer than normal in her attempt to become the latest star filly for Jones — and latest reminder why he's so glad to be back.
"The longer she waits, the better," Jones said. "She's a people horse; she loves the crowds so we're not expecting any difficulty with that.
"She keeps trying to remind me 'I've been here before,' but I'm not listening to that. But she is pretty special."