Kentucky Derby

A bittersweet road back to the Derby

He has the horse many consider to be the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby as well as the colt he always felt was destined to be a cut above his peers.

Realistically, trainer Larry Jones knows he could boast the strongest hand of any of his counterparts come the first Saturday of May.

Unfortunately, Jones also knows the quality of the horses he brings to Derby week will not be the only subject he'll have to broach.

Ten months after having his world shattered when his top filly Eight Belles broke down following her runner-up finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Jones is gearing up to take another shot at the roses with graded stakes winners Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire.

Just as the trainer's strength and resiliency has not wavered over the last year, neither has his vaunted horsemanship. Old Fashioned is undefeated in three starts, including a stunning 71/4-length win in the Grade II Remsen Stakes last November, while Friesan Fire has impressively taken the Grade III Lecomte and Grade III Risen Star in his first two starts this year.

Jones, who has announced his plans to retire at the end of 2009, knows the already mixed emotions of being back at the Derby will be heightened by the constant rehashing of the Eight Belles tragedy.

In true Jones form, however, he isn't letting that potential adversity ruin the fact he is currently in a position most horsemen would dream of.

"What it boils down to, I guess, is you always let the good thoughts override the bad," Jones said from his base at Fair Grounds last week. "We're looking forward (to Derby week) because we feel we're in a similar position this year with the boys that we were in last year with the girls.

"We feel like we have two of the better boys ... and we're just keeping our fingers crossed. But I do know the criticism is always out there no matter what you do. It's not good being in front of a firing squad all the time."

Jones has saddled the last two Derby runners-up in Eight Belles and Hard Spun, but he believes his latest prospects are ahead of the game compared to his past stars.

Old Fashioned, who like Eight Belles, is by Unbridled's Song and owned by Rick Porter, has been brilliant from day one. The gray colt captured his maiden race from off the pace his first time out and then switched things up by demolishing his foes in front-running style by a combined 223/4 lengths in his next two starts.

"He's way above the curve of where my last two horses were at this stage," Jones said of Old Fashioned, who is slated to make his season debut in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 16. "He just does things the right way."

With his regal pedigree and stunning physical looks, Friesan Fire was deemed a potential star by Jones shortly after arriving in his barn, but was slower to mature than Old Fashioned.

After losing his last three starts of 2008, Friesan Fire finally unearthed his potential with a professional 11/2-length win in the one-mile Lecomte at Fair Grounds before romping in Saturday's 11⁄16-mile Risen Star over the same track.

"He's always had plenty of talent but... we've been trying to teach him to have a more dominant attitude," Jones said. "It was like he would forget about racing and run with them as if they were out in the field."

Despite having a barn full of contenders, Jones says his original plan to retire hasn't changed — yet.

"I have some people saying I'll be gone six to seven hours and be back," Jones laughed. "But right now I'm looking forward to visiting with family and doing some things my wife and I want to do."