Gary Jones – Horse Trainer

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Late Friday morning, newly inducted Hall of Fame trainer Gary Jones made for the exit at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion. Wearing his Hall of Fame blazer over a short-sleeved light blue shirt with a blue and green racing tie, he accepted pats on the back, handshakes, a few congratulations but he never stopped walking.

Outside and away from the crowd, he sat on a bench in front of the pavilion and let out a deep, relieved breath. Then he lit a skinny, brown cigarette, took a long draw and pondered a question about what getting into the Hall meant to a 70-year-old retired trainer whose last win came 18 years ago.

“What’s it mean? End of the world, man,” he said. “No, I’m telling you. Seriously. Flabbergasted, I’m totally flabbergasted. To be able to come to this racetrack, right across from the Oklahoma training track and get an award like that is just . . . whew, mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing.”

Jones trained for a little more than 20 years, winning with his first starter (King Wako at Santa Anita in 1975) and his last (Ski Dancer also at his home track in 1996). In between he won more than 1,400 races and trained the earners of in excess of $52 million. 

He won races on the California circuit the way his father Farrell “Wild Horse” Jones did before him. Farrell Jones galloped Seabiscuit, became a trainer and won 11 training titles at Del Mar and eight more at Santa Anita. 

Farrell Jones set a record with 44 wins at Santa Anita and earned a reputation as a driven competitor and astute horseman. 

His son outdid him, breaking his father’s Santa Anita mark with 47 in 1976 and building a stable full of stakes stars. Gary Jones topped 100 victories in a single year just once, but he won 233 stakes, 102 graded stakes and 30 Grade 1 stakes. 

A heart attack at 49 (his father had one at 52) slowed the career and ultimately pushed Jones into retirement. He invests in commercial real estate now, and said he has no regrets about leaving the training game. Now, he watches his son Marty build a career of his own in California.

“Nah,” Jones scoffed when asked if he misses training racehorses. Then he pointed at Marty. “I live vicariously through him and he does good enough that I don’t miss it at all. Let me tell you something, this is a horse-training son of a gun.”

Marty was raised by one, too.

Gary Jones trained champion Turkoman, whose 22-start career included 19 top-three finishes. He won twice as a 3-year-old in California in 1985, lost the Grade 1 Swaps by a nose and then finished second in the Travers, a rare foray to the east for a Jones horse. 

Turkoman finished third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Aqueduct. At 4, he won an Eclipse Award as champion handicap horse with four wins and three seconds in eight starts. The victories included the Widener at Hialeah, the Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park and the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.

The latter was part of three consecutive races at Saratoga and Belmont. Turkoman finished second to top sprinter Groovy going 7 furlongs in the Forego here; won the 1 1/4-mile Marlboro Cup over Precisionist at Belmont and lost the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by a nose to Crème Fraiche. Back home at Santa Anita, Turkoman came from way back in the in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but settled for second.

“Turkoman didn’t give a —-,” Jones said with a laugh. “But he could run 9 miles. The farther the better.”

Champion and Hall of Famer Best Pal made about half of his 47 starts for Jones with major wins in California and elsewhere in 1981-84. Unlike Turkoman, Best Pal lived for the competition.

“He’d cut across the infield to beat you, he’d do anything to beat you.”

When pressed for the horse of his career, Jones didn’t hesitate.

Kostroma, hooves down.

The Irish-bred mare made just 12 starts for Jones in parts of three years, but won seven including Grade 1 scores in the 1991 Yellow Ribbon, 1992 Santa Barbara and 1992 Beverly D. In her third start for Jones, the 1992 Las Palmas, she set a world record by covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.92. She raced first or second throughout, and led through 6 furlongs in 1:07.83 and a mile in 1:31.67. 

“She was the horse for me, the best horse I ever trained,” Jones said. “She had more desire, more everything, than any horse I ever had.”

Heeding the advice of doctors to get away from the stress, Jones stopped training in 1996. He closed Friday’s acceptance speech – no notes, off the cuff, from the heart – by saying simply “I’m a lucky man, the luckiest man you’ll ever see.”

He also went out of his way to credit his stable staff. He saved special praise for exercise rider Salvador Mora and for a longtime foreman, “If it wasn’t for Rafael Becerra,” Jones said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

Afterward, out on that bench, Jones knew he missed some.

“I left some out, I wanted to mention . . .it’s tough to think of them all,” Jones said, before rattling off Art and George and Vinnie. “When we won the Pacific Classic with Best Pal (in 1991) there were 50 of my people that worked for me coming to the winner’s circle. Half of them didn’t work for me anymore.”

He sounded every bit like an active trainer, a Todd Pletcher or a Shug McGaughey pulling out names of people who made the stable go from behind the webbings. 

Using the notoriety California Chrome’s groom Raul Rodriguez received during the Triple Crown as an example, Jones spoke up for all the people who work with Thoroughbreds.

“Every groom of every horse that all you rich people own deserves that kind of accreditation,” he told the Hall of Fame audience. “The guy works his tail off.  I had people working for me like that.”

Back outside on the bench, he continued the theme.

“Go try to find guys like that, go try to replace them,” he said. “It takes a lot of people to do it well.”

And even more to get to the Hall of Fame.

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Editor’s Note: Gary Jones died Oct. 11, 2020. He was 76. Read the Daily Racing Form obituary from Jay Privman here.