He's out of the woods

Horse racing: Aaron Jones saved his leg and probably his life by heading for the hills, and when the cure was complete, he pointed both feet toward the track.

November 03, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Before disappearing into the mountains to cure himself of cancer, Aaron Jones, the 78-year-old lumber tycoon, planned on selling his horses. He owned more than 200, appraised for $62 million.

But Jones, a proud and stubborn man, said that if he sold the horses then, in the late 1980s, everybody would call it a "death sale." He figured a death sale meant he was going to die. He wanted no part of that.

"So we canceled the sale," Jones said. "And I said, `I'm going to live.' "

What he did next turned out to have a significant impact a decade later on horse racing at its highest level. He disappeared into the wilderness for nearly three months, intent on defying his doctors' prognosis and restoring his good health.

And his self-treatment worked, even though he eventually sold his horses for other reasons. And then, he began seeing a white-haired trainer named Bob Baffert cracking jokes on TV after winning major races. Jones caught the bug again. He began buying horses.

Now, he owns about 50, including two Baffert trainees with excellent chances of winning Breeders' Cup races Saturday at Gulfstream Park: Forest Camp in the Juvenile and Forestry in the Sprint.

Note their names. Jones owns Seneca Sawmill Co. in Eugene, Ore. He started the business from scratch, and now it is one of the top producers of lumber in the country. Jones also owns the 3-year-old colt Prime Timber, who finished fourth in this year's Kentucky Derby.

A stocky, white-haired man who knows what he wants, Jones wanted most of all to live.

Doctors told him in early 1986 that he had a deadly cancer in his right leg. They treated him with chemotherapy and radiation. They operated, and complications left him comatose for three days. When he recovered, they said they needed to cut off his leg.

A major problem remained: clogged blood vessels that severely limited circulation. But Jones balked at amputation.

"They said they could prolong my life for about 10 years, but they couldn't cure me," Jones says. "Well, I made up my mind I was going to live."

A physical education major at the University of Oregon, Jones believed he knew the cure.

"I needed to get the circulation back," he said. "I told them, `If you people can't get it back, I think I can get it back through exercise.' They said, `No, your leg can't stand that.'

"I said, `I'm going over there and climb those mountains and ride horses.' They said, `Aaron, you get back in there, and you come down with gangrene, we'll never get you out in time to save your life.' I said, `That's where I want to die then.' "

Jones called a longtime hunting and fishing buddy, Charlie Bass. A real-estate developer as well as manager of timberland for Jones, Bass, now 71, verifies Jones' story.

"He's tougher than shoe leather, I'll tell you," Bass says of his friend. "When he sets his mind to do something, you'd better get out of the way or get run over."

For three months in Idaho and Canada, Bass and Jones climbed mountains, rode horses and chased elk by following their tracks on foot through snow.

"When we started, I couldn't shuffle 10 feet uphill," Jones said. "I couldn't get on a horse by myself. By the end of two or three weeks, I could walk up that mountain about a mile. I got so I could ride a horse all day.

"I just made myself go. I'd lie down when I got pooped, and then I'd get up and go some more. I just climbed every damn steep place I could find, and I got that leg to pumping. It was painful as hell. But it wasn't as painful as thinking about dying."

Marie, Jones' wife of 30 years, says she wasn't surprised at her husband's resolve, even though she wasn't keen on his going into the mountains.

"That's how he is. He's a fighter," she says. "The doctor said, `I don't think you should go.' Knowing my husband, he said, `Like hell.' It was the best medicine in the world. Some things doctors can't prescribe."

Late in 1986, when Jones returned to the doctor, the nurse couldn't tell which had been his bad leg, he said.

Said Jones: "The doctor was sitting there on the table, and he said, `Aaron, this is a miracle. Your own analysis of what to do was better than what any doctor could have done for you. Your right leg is circulating just as well as your left leg.'

"They didn't say I was cured, but they said, `If you show no sign of cancer in 10 years, we'll say you're cured.' Well, in 10 years they put me through every kind of test they knew of, and they said, `You check clean. You don't have a sign of cancer.' So I said, `I'm cured then.' "

With that, Jones was ready to get back into the horse business. It was 1996.

About then, the white-haired Baffert, a former quarter-horse trainer, began emerging as a standout trainer of thoroughbreds.

Quick with a joke, he bought modestly bred horses for relatively modest prices and would go on to nearly win two Triple Crowns in a row.

"I said, `God, that guy's doing great. I think I'd like to do some business with him,' " Jones said.

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