Down On Luck? Hardly

They've Had Misfortune, But Jones, Porter Focus On Positives

April 26, 2009|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Many in horse racing would say trainer Larry Jones and part-owner Rick Porter, who are bringing Friesan Fire to the Kentucky Derby starting gate Saturday, are the sport's hard-luck connection.

But despite a fair amount of evidence to back that up, Jones and Porter would beg to differ.

The two saw filly Eight Belles tragically go down with two broken ankles after crossing the finish line second at Churchill Downs a year ago and get euthanized on the track, and this month they were forced to retire early Derby favorite Old Fashioned with a knee injury. Still, they see their glasses as far more than half full.

"It may look that way," Jones said of the hard-luck streak, "but we've been very fortunate to get to where we have been - to three Kentucky Derbys. There are people who work their whole lives aiming for the Derby and never get to one."

Even the first Derby appearance Jones and Porter made in 2007 could be viewed as something of a disappointment. With Hard Spun, they finished second behind Street Sense. Two weeks later at the Preakness, they were third with Hard Spun in a race won by the great Curlin. Even before that, Porter had Rockport Harbor, who was 4-for-4 as a 2-year-old in 2004 but never made it to the Triple Crown campaign because of a foot injury.

"We've had a lot of good luck, we've had a lot of bad luck, but to get there, believe me, it's not all skill," Porter said. "We had bad luck with Rockport Harbor, we had horrendous luck last year [with Eight Belles] and now Old Fashioned. But I know we belong this year with Friesan Fire, just like we did last year."

The notion of luck, fate, providence - whatever one chooses to call it - is not lost on Jones. It was a stroke of bad luck that led to the good luck that paired him with Porter and launched him into the big time.

"In 2005, a tornado came through Ellis Park, Ky., where we were headquartered," Jones said. "And that essentially wiped us out.

"We thought this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. But then we packed up and moved to Delaware Park, and that put me right under Rick Porter's nose, and here the first horse that comes through is called Hard Spun. So there was a plan in place long before that tornado."

With Friesan Fire, Jones and Porter have one of top five or so contenders in what could be a 20-horse field. The bay colt has three straight wins in stakes races, including the Louisiana Derby.

Regardless of how the 2009 Triple Crown season works out, though, Jones, 52, insists he plans to retire at the end of the year.

There has been a feeling that the death of Eight Belles drained Jones. Known to eschew medicating his horses in favor of using chiropractic treatment, the trainer still came under condemnation from horse racing critics after the filly died. There was speculation that Eight Belles had run with a pre-existing injury or that she had been on performance-enhancing drugs. Testing after her death disproved those theories.

But the outcry was loud; there were even congressional hearings, and, eventually, further measures were established to help make the sport safer. However, Jones says his decision to quit is not about Eight Belles.

Rather, it's because of the demands on his time from owners who want him and not subordinates to oversee the progress of their horses. Plus, he wants to spend more time with his six grandchildren and his parents.

"There's just not enough of me to go around," he said.

His plans include looking after his brood mares in Kentucky and spending time at a second home in Elkton. He and his wife, Cindy, have some 2-year-old horses and Cindy has a trainer's license, so there's always the possibility they'll be near a racetrack down the road.

Meanwhile, Porter is likewise considering winding down his horse racing.

His reservations are about finding another trainer with whom he has the same connection that he does with Jones.

The owner described Jones as a hands-on trainer who not only frequently rides his horses but also uses manipulation to deal with aches and soreness.

"Whether it's teaching a horse how to split horses or be on the rail or change leads, he's a magician," Porter said. "But before I give up, I will go find Larry and have a long talk with him. I think after Larry straightens out his life a little and he gets some R&R ... he'll be fine."

"Larry is going to train horses," Porter added. "It's in his blood."

saturday's race

When: Approximately 6:04 p.m.

Where: Churchill Downs,

Louisville, Ky.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

what to expect

Here are five horses to watch Saturday, three story lines to consider and a look back at the 2008 race:

Five to watch

* I Want Revenge, Joe Talamo (jockey), Jeff Mullins (trainer). : I Want Revenge has momentum going into the Derby with back-to-back victories in the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial.

* Friesan Fire, Gabriel Saez, Larry Jones. : The third Derby entry in three years for trainer Larry Jones, Friesan Fire has three graded-stakes wins in his past three outings.

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