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Horse Racing: The 'nice life' of Jones entertained everyone

Sunday, September 16, 2001

It was November of 1999, and Jimmy Jones, days away from his 93rd birthday, was getting ready to make his annual winter journey from his native Parnell, Mo., to South Florida.

"When are you flying down?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm not going to fly. I'm driving down," he answered. "I don't want to get killed in any airplane crash."

I laughed after we hung up that day. Ninety-three years old, recipient of what he euphemistically called "a nice life," and he was worried about dying in a plane crash.

Whether he feared a violent or a premature death I never asked, but I thought about that exchange when I read that Jones had died Sept. 4 in a Missouri hospital. He was about 2 1/2 months shy of his 95th birthday.

"A nice life" indeed -- for him and for the thousands and thousands of racing fans he helped to entertain and thrill over his extraordinary, 60-year, Hall of Fame career as a thoroughbred trainer.

Working with his father Ben, another Hall of Famer, he trained or helped his dad to train six Kentucky Derby winners, five of them for the great Calumet Farm. After his father finally retired, Jimmy Jones trained two more Derby champions by himself, also for Calumet.

In the record books, Jimmy Jones is credited as trainer of only those last two, Iron Liege in 1957 and Tim Tam in 1958, but he always said the real story was different. "As I saw it," he told me, "we both had four each."

Jimmy Jones, who headed one of Calumet's two divisions while his father handled the other, said he did the actual training of the great 1948 Triple Crown champion Citation and 1952 Derby winner Hill Gail. He said he kept quiet while his father, who was on his way to setting a Derby training record, took credit for the other two to preserve family peace.

His father, Jimmy Jones said, really was the main guy with Lawrin in '38, Whirlaway in '41, Pensive in '44 and Ponder in '49.

It was because of Citation, racing's first millionaire, that I had the honor of getting to know the younger Jones over the final months of 1999. I was writing a biography of this great champion race horse, and Jones provided much of the anecdotal material during a series of telephone interviews.

He was, as I wrote in my book "Citation", as sharp as a pitchfork, and his outspokeness was an absolute delight.

To me, his most surprising story had to do with the 20th and final start of Citation's remarkable 3-year-old season in 1948. It was in the Tanforan Handicap at a track near San Francisco also named Tanforan. Citation was injured in the race and never regained his top form, though he raced off and on until age 6 to fulfill his owner's dream of earning $1 million. The injury was such that Citation missed all of his 4-year-old season and another 10 months at age 5.

Jones originally had planned to rest Citation after his 18th start of the year, the Pimlico Special. It would have been a good stopping point because no trainer or owner was willing to run against the horse who had not lost in 12 starts. Citation ended up winning the race, his 13th consecutive victory, in a walkover.

But Gene Mori, an old friend who recently had bought Tanforan, called and asked Jones to race Citation in the Tanforan. Citation's appearance would help Mori establish Tanforan and San Francisco as a racing center. He also said the $50,000 race was one Citation easily could win.

Jones eventually was persuaded.

Mori was right -- after prepping with a victory in an allowance race, Citation won the Tanforan handily by five lengths. But he came out of the race with a sore left front leg.

In horsemen's terms, the problem was an osselet, a stress injury in which calcium forms in the fetlock.

At the time, Jones put all the blame on himself, saying, "I had run him so many times that summer that I had begun to think he was immortal."

But 50 years later, after Mori no longer was around to be embarrassed or made to feel guilty, Jones told me the track racing surface also had played a major role in the injury.

"When Mori had bought the track ... he didn't know they'd had a seepage problem in recent years and doctored it by cutting the dirt back and putting some concrete in it. ...

"They buried the concrete two or three feet down ... Concrete has no resiliency. It was hard, and it was injurious to him."

Jones made one more mistake with this injury. He wanted to allow it to heal naturally by giving Citation a long rest. Owner Warren Wright, though, wanted a quicker fix.

His choice of treatment was called "firing," and that meant using a hot iron to burn little holes in the skin. The theory behind this treatment was that this additional irritation would increase blood flow to the area and speed healing.

Jones argued against it, but eventually gave in. He told me he was too afraid of losing the horse and/or his job.

"[He] was a salty old guy and he could have fired me. ... There were a lot of things he could have done. He could have got another trainer. I wanted the job."

After the treatment, Citation's injury worsened, leading to the two lengthy layoffs and the loss of top form.

Jones made it obvious during our conversations that, even at 93, he still hadn't completely forgiven himself for standing stronger against Wright and the firing.

Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com.

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