By Julie Sarno
Retired from training Thoroughbred racehorses since 1996, Gary Jones thought his days of glory in horse racing were over. Jones was elated when it was announced recently that he was elected to Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. The Del Mar resident will be inducted during ceremonies on Friday, Aug. 8, at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs, New York.
To date only 92 trainers have been honored with the distinction of being inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs. According to Equibase, a racing statistical database, there are 4,484 trainers currently active in North America. Hall of Fame criteria dictate that trainers become eligible after 25 years as licensed Thoroughbred trainers. Thousands work training horses, few are honored by election to the Hall of Fame.
Jones and his wife, Joan, have been year-round Del Mar residents for nearly 20 years since Jones’s retirement following a heart attack. Before that, they spent summers during the Del Mar race meet in a condo they owned in Solana Beach. Jones is part of a Thoroughbred racing dynasty. His father, Farrell Jones, first was a jockey and later a successful trainer with eight training titles at Santa Anita and 11 at Del Mar. Gary won a total of 15 race meet titles, including four at Santa Anita, where he still ranks sixth all time in wins with 576. Son, Marty, 42, trains on the Southern California circuit. The couple’s other son, Davey, is an attorney.
Jones was working for his father, Farrell in 1974, when Farrell suffered a serious heart attack, forcing him to retire. The younger Jones, then 29, took over his father’s stable.
“He gave me a full string of horses ready to run,” recalled Jones. “He (Farrell) had a record of 44 wins at Santa Anita (1970-71 season) and I won 47 (still a single-season record at Santa Anita) races that first year. I had owners standing in line.”
During his career, spanning from 1975-1996, Jones saddled 1,465 winners from 7,900 starters for an 18.5 career win percentage. His runners earned $52,672,611 in purses. Jones trained 104 individual stakes winners, winning 223 stakes races. His best runners included Turkoman, voted an Eclipse Award as Champion Older Horse of 1986. Under Jones’ tutelage, Turkoman won the $500,000 Marlboro Cup (G1), the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and the Widener Handicap (G1). Turkoman raced for Corbin J. Robertson’s Saron Stable.
“Turkoman did not care about running,” said Jones. “I had to breeze him an eighth of a mile the morning of a race to let him know he was going to run,” said Jones, reminiscing about the great horses he trained. “Best Pal was so dependable.”
Jones trained Best Pal to victories in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Charles H. Strub, all Grade 1 events. Local racing fans remember Best Pal for his victory in the very first Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 10, 1991. Jones had taken over training duties for Best Pal not long before the inaugural Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s $1 million race. Best Pal was only 3 at the time, competing against runners aged 4 and 5. Earlier that year, Best Pal had finished second in the Kentucky Derby, 1 3/4 lengths behind Strike the Gold, for trainer Ian Jory. Best Pal, who raced for the Golden Eagle Farm of John and Betty Mabee, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Best Pal was a mean son of a gun,” recalled Jones. “If you went into his stall, he was going to try to nail you, either bite or kick you. He bit Marty’s fingernail off.”
“They didn’t get much more intense than Gary,” said Mac McBride, director of media for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. “When he zeroed in, he was in all the way. He learned from his dad (Farrell) and he passed it on to his son (Marty). Those Jones boys have quite a training and racing history in Southern California.”
In Jones’ early years, training horses was a hardscrabble life. Racing was a rough, tough way to make a living. Jones recalls living in a trailer under the Los Alamitos Grandstand with his parents and his sister. “My parents would drive a long way to go match Quarter horses on the weekends. If they won, it was worth $25 or $50. If they tied, the trainers went into a stall and settled it with a fist fight.”
A horse Jones recalls fondly was Larrikin, winner of the 1975 Del Mar Derby: “Larrikin was a personal favorite. He was a mean old son of a gun. He would try to savage (bite) another horse if one came alongside him in a race. When he retired because of injury, I saw to it that he had a home for life.”
Jones recalled top stakes winner Fali Time, winner of the Grade I Norfolk and Hollywood Futurity, then a $1 million race. Fali Time ran in the 1984 Kentucky Derby: “He was a little bitty horse. He was the only horse to benefit from a change of position in the Kentucky Derby finish. Fali Time finished fifth after being bumped by Gate Dancer during the stretch run. The stewards disqualified Gate Dancer and moved Fali Time up to fourth.”
Jones also trained Kostroma. She ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.92 seconds on Oct. 21, 1991, in the Las Palmas Handicap at Santa Anita, setting a track and world record that still stands.
“I think anybody who works in a profession strives to be in the Hall of Fame for that profession,” smiled Jones, interviewed at his Del Mar home. “To be mentioned in the same breath with Charlie Whittingham and Laz Barrera (fellow Hall of Famers) is really special.”