LOUISVILLE — One might get laughed out of Hollywood if they ever presented a script as preposterous as the one three hardboots, brought together by time, circumstance and faith, lived out before a record 123,763 onlookers at Churchill Downs in the 141st Kentucky Oaks.
The 56-year-old jockey believed his days of getting on top horses were done. The 58-year-old trainer was told a year ago his own days of climbing on horses should be shelved considering he had stopped breathing at one point during his two-day stay in a coma following a fall.
Together, they and laughed and cried on a podium Friday evening while recounting all the ways misfortune could have won out. They did so while seated next to the big-hearted former governor of Kentucky, the man who helped put all of them on stage thanks to a filly he named for a goddaughter of Mother Teresa.
They could run the $1 million Oaks a thousand more years and be hard pressed to produce as sentimental an ending as the one Lovely Maria delivered when she overtook Angela Renee in midstretch en route to notching a 23/4-length triumph in the 11⁄8-mile test for 3-year-old fillies.
For her trainer Larry Jones and owner Brereton Jones, Lovely Maria's victory gave the duo their third Oaks win as they previously paired up with Proud Spell in 2008 and Believe You Can in 2012. Technically, there is no relation between the two Jones boys. Realistically, they can call each other family.
For journeyman jockey Kerwin Clark, the Oaks marked just the second Grade I win of a career that began in 1975. The first came on April 4 when he guided Lovely Maria to victory in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.
It all happened 15 years after he had resigned himself to riding out his career in Louisiana "and just disappear quietly into the sunset."
"It's unbelievable. I keep saying I'm absolutely blessed and I was blessed to get hooked up with Larry Jones," an emotional Clark said. "It was just by coincidence, a rider couldn't ride a horse and he put me on and the rest is history. For me to be here at this point in my career riding these kind of horses is just unbelievable."
"When you think something is never going to happen and it does ... I know men aren't supposed to cry, but oh well."
Last April 19, one day after Clark's birthday, Larry Jones' life and career were both nearly halted when he suffered broken ribs, a bruised lung and brain bleeding because of a fall from a horse at Delaware Park.
Five weeks after emerging from his medically induced coma, Jones was disobeying medical orders and back on his pony at his barn. Among the good 2-year-olds he would soon start honing was a daughter of Majesticperfection that his longtime client Brereton Jones sent his way.
Last September, Lovely Maria would break her maiden first time out at Delaware by three-quarters of a length. Though it would take six more starts before she earned graded stakes glory in the Ashland, she has been steadily giving signals that her time was now.
"She kind of touted herself in the Ashland that she was getting good," said Larry Jones, who also saddled the third-place finisher, I'm a Chatterbox, in the Oaks. "She really did everything right. She is one of those horses that does not have to carry her racetrack with her. I think if we'd throw marbles out there, she would run over them."
Clark's 40 years of experience guided Lovely Maria perfectly out of post No. 7 in the Oaks and had her well placed in an outside path just behind pacesetter Condo Commando and Angela Renee through fractions in 23.51 and 47.26.
When Angela Renee started to advance approaching the final turn, 6-to-1 shot Lovely Maria got rolling. After establishing a clear lead in midstretch, Clark had a moment to reflect on the moment that wasn't supposed to be as they hit the wire in 1:50.45 over a fast track ahead of runner-up Shook Up.
"When I asked her to run she gave me everything she had like she always does," Clark said. "I don't think it will ever set in because I wasn't supposed to be here. And this is going to be with me forever."
In the aftermath, Brereton Jones recounted how he named his latest Oaks winner after a goddaughter of Mother Teresa born with a disability whom he had met at the Sea View Hotel in Florida.
She was a girl "who smiles with her eyes," he said. Her namesake had all her connections beaming from every pore.
"I really feel like we brought a lot of good people together to accomplish this," Brereton Jones said. "Me and my family are blessed. Don't ask me why this happened. but we could not be more thankful."