A trainer who was in a coma last April gave an opportunity to a 56-year-old, roughneck jockey to ride a horse who was named after a disabled hotel worker in Florida and owned by a former Kentucky Governor. All that unfolded Friday at Churchill Downs as Gov. Brereton Jones' Lovely Maria, trained by Larry Jones and ridden by Kerwin "Boo Boo" Clark, won the Longines Kentucky Oaks in front of the largest crowd in the race's history, 123,763.
In the winner's circle, Larry Jones lifted his signature cowboy hat to the sky and hugged his wife Cindy following the Oaks victory, in what was clearly an emotional day across the board. Clark, on his way to meet his trainer, looked up to the masses at Churchill with tears of joy running down his face.
"This is 40 years in the making," Clark told NBC reporter Donna Barton Brothers, choking back tears. "My parents were here to watch this - it's just unbelievable."
Brereton Jones also wiped a tear from his eye as he made his way down to what would be the third Oaks winners circle photo with his trainer. The conditioner became just the seventh trainer to win the race at least three times, and did it Friday with the oldest jockey in history of the 141-year-old race.
It was just the second Grade 1 victory for the veteran Clark, whose first also came on Lovely Maria in the Central Bank Ashland Stakes in April at Keeneland Race Course.
"I mean, look, I've been doing this for 40 years," Clark told reporters in the post-race press conference. "When I was in my 30s, I had an opportunity to ride good horses. But, at the same time, I was riding against riders like Pat Day and Jerry Bailey and Shane Sellers and Mark Guidry, those kind of guys. And if would you get lucky and find a good horse, most owners would come to the big dance. They want to switch riders. They want the more experienced, the ones that have been there before. And you would lose out, you know?
"So for me to get this opportunity at this time in my life when 15 years ago I had decided I was just going to stay in Louisiana and finish my career out there and just disappear quietly into the sunset, but I got lucky and I got blessed to be connected with Larry Jones and Brereton Jones.
"They just kind of grabbed me by the collar and said, 'Here, look what I got for you. Go do something.' So, I mean, I am just blessed to be here with some great people. Like Larry said, it is just a blessing all around. Couldn't be happier."
Still sporting his cowboy hat and bolo tie, Larry Jones started by making light of a serious condition when he was asked to comment on what he had to overcome in 2014.
"Well, everyone was real concerned over that except for me, because I knew nothing about it," Jones said. "And it was two days before I knew anything what was going on. But it happened to be over the Easter weekend.
"I didn't realize until right now it happened the day after Kerwin's birthday last year. So what a way to have to celebrate that birthday is get up and start riding Larry's horses for him. But, no, it was two days I was in a coma. And they were going to have to do brain surgery.
"The real reason they didn't is I didn't know they could find it to work on it. That was the problem."
The crowd of about 50 media representatives, cameras rolling, gave a chuckle before Jones continued to explain the seriousness of the events that followed, an unusual road to recovery, inspired by faith.
"To make a story short, I quit breathing in the MRI, so they had to resuscitate me and wait 24 hours to do the surgery," Jones said. "But, when they went back in to do the MRI, all the bleeding had quit and had gone away. And that was on Easter Sunday. Great things happen on Easter. The doctors were in awe. They said this doesn't happen. My wife told them on Easter anything can happen. Two days later I was out of the hospital. It lingered on a while, and they had to put up with it for a long time. But the beauty part about me getting back to normal is I don't have to come up very high off the bottom until Larry is normal. A regular person it takes a while.
"In five weeks I was back to riding the pony. And they actually showed me where my truck was, because they had that hidden from me for five weeks. Slowly but surely, we've come back and it's good.
"It has all been a God thing. God does work. I don't know why he loves cowboys and horsemen and all the things he does, but he does. And just, believe me, it's a blessing. And I'm glad he showed me the blessing that it was. And, once again, he's blessed us again."
When Gov. Jones was asked to describe how Lovely Maria was named, he told the story of how he and his wife began traveling to the Seabreeze Hotel in Bal Harbour, Florida, and how the couple became repeat customers and familiarized themselves with the friendly staff.
"About five years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to the short-order cook," Jones said. "He had said to me ... 'would you consider naming a horse for somebody?' And I said, 'well, of course.' "
Jones went on to describe how the first horse he named at the cook's request, went on to become a Grade 2 winner of more than $600,000.
"Then other people at the Seaview Hotel kept coming up to me and saying, 'Would you name a horse for me?' And I realized then how important that was to so many different people," Jones said.
"This particular horse, Lovely Maria, was a lady - she is a lady now. She was a child then. But Mother Teresa, the Mother Teresa, was her godmother. And, when the adopted mother of this young lady realized that there was going to be a change in her family structure because Mother Teresa was about to pass away, they then gave a lot of thought to it and took me to meet her and they introduced me to her. She is a lovely person with some problems, some serious problems, problems that her family has been able to help her with. But those problems will always exist.
"So then Albano, who is the short-order cook at the Seaview, who I named a horse for - and Albano has now won over $600,000. And now Bano asked me if I would name a horse for Maria. I said, 'of course I would. I'd be happy to.'
"And they said, 'let's just name it Maria.' I said, 'Let's name it Lovely Maria,' because I met her and she was a lovely, lovely girl. So we named her Lovely Maria. And now she's done better than all the others before her. Like I said, I mean, the good Lord does these things. And I hope he doesn't stop doing them with me involved. I mean, this is pretty special stuff."
Lovely Maria was bred in Kentucky by Olin Gentry and Thomas Gaines, and sired by Majesticperfection, a stallion on the roster of Jones and his wife Libby's Airdrie Stud, in Midway, Kentucky.
Oaks Notes: The new record Oaks attendance also resulted in a record for all-source wagering on the 12-race card ($46.1 million) and the highest all-source wagering on the Oaks race alone ($15.2 million). ... Lovely Maria awarded her backers with a $14.60 win mutuel. . ... She earned $564,200 in her 2 3/4-length Oaks victory, bringing her record to 8-4-3-0 and career earnings to $966,800. ... Of the 123,763 fans in attendance, a vast majority had at least some article of pink clothing on, as Churchill Downs Inc.'s foundation donated $50,000 to benefit Bright Pink, a national non-profit that focuses on early breast and ovarian cancer detection in young women.