Johnny Jones - we profile the legendary Kentucky horseman
When John T.L. Jones Jr. props his cowboy boots up on his desk, he leaves behind the mud accumulated from 72 years of being the Jones to keep up with. Unlike the speedy Quarter Horses that jump-started his livelihood by making a mad dash to the finish line, Jones’ ascent in the racing industry has taken him several circuits around the racecourse.
Jones spent nearly 30 years at the helm of Walmac International, presiding over the successful stallion careers of dual Arc winner Alleged and the great sire Nureyev before selling the farm to his son Johnny III and business partner Bobby Trussell. Retirement was short-lived as Jones soon fell back on his roots to train a small string of horses. In between running a couple of two-year-olds at the fall meet at Keeneland, he took some time to sit down and think back on his years in the business.
When you sold Walmac in 2004, you could have chosen to do anything, or nothing for that matter. What influenced your decision to train again?
My good friend R.D. Hubbard said to go buy some yearlings and I wanted to supervise them through at least their first year to know kind of what I got. I haven’t really supervised that kind of thing for 35 years. But I enjoy it. I guess I just have an addiction to horses. I like them! To be honest with you I don’t know how long I’m going to train.
Your father was in the insurance business. Did he want you to follow in his footsteps?
Not particularly. We’d had horses since I was a boy, I mean, as far back as I can remember. He got interested in Quarter Horses and registered his first horse in 1945, so I just grew up with it. He was a businessman, but still we always had a farm and had horses and so I had an interest. Then when I went to college, I played golf and got away a little bit from the horses because I was gone all the time. When my dad passed away in 1958 he had probably 25 or 30 head of Quarter Horses. So basically I started devoting all my time to horses right after my father died.
So how does one begin the journey from humble origins with Quarter Horses in Quanah, Texas to syndicate manager for some of the world’s most valuable Thoroughbred stallions?
I ended up joint venturing a deal on my farm in 1965 and when my partner got into a financial bind that carried me with him I lost everything I had. When you wake up one day with four children and no money, you’d better get your ass to work. I went to the track and started training for Walter Merrick in 1966.
Had you had any introduction, formal or otherwise, to training?
So from the first day you started training horses you just went on instinct?
Well, Mr. Merrick was a legendary horseman but he never had much input. What he basically told me is that little things win races. In other words, that everybody knows to feed them, everybody knows to gallop them, everybody knows to work them, the details are what make the difference between the people that win and the others. Most of what I learned was trial and error. So I won races all the time, everywhere I went. First started off with match racing, and we won most of them.
Where was that, at bush league tracks?
You’d pull up in a trailer and a guy would say, what have you got and how far do you want to go? You’d bet $500 or $1000. I started doing that every weekend instead of playing golf.
I got into it because a cowboy was badgering me one time so I went down by the wheat field and grated off about 3/8’s of a mile, just turned around and let the horse run. We got to hauling down there to those little old straightaway tracks. Most of them were bred to run; well the horse I started out with was out of a half-Thoroughbred mare. Originally he was meant to be a parade horse for a friend of mine’s boy. That was in 1962 or ’63, first time that he’d ever been on an official – by that I mean pari-mutuel – track. His name was Gold Nugget Sims. The first time I’d ever been to an official track and he ran second and I was thrilled. I went and got them to give me a picture of him being second.
It was about a $300 purse. I was in the paddock that night and it was hotter than Hades up in Oklahoma, 240 miles from where I lived. So I was in the paddock and I was nervous and I’d never been in a paddock before like that. The paddock judge came out and said, “Rain’s over!” I said, huh? It was so hot and not a cloud in the sky... He said, “Reins over!” and I went oh! and threw the reins over the horse’s head.
I think you’ve learned a lot since then!
I’ve learned most of it by trial and error. Still making errors!
At this point your main focus was on Quarter Horses. Did you win any major races?
The biggest Quarter Horse race I won was the Kansas Futurity in 1967 with Jet Smooth for Mr. Merrick. I did train some cheaper, New Mexico Thoroughbreds for him, too.
How and when did you transition to Thoroughbreds?
I went to work for a fellow named Marvin Warner in Cincinnati. He gave me the freedom and the financial backing to do what I thought was the best in the horse business. In 10 years he never bought a horse and he never sold a horse. Now, had I not been producing, had I not been making money, I’d have been back in Texas chopping cotton. But he enabled me to accomplish something or use my knowledge to accomplish something where 99% of owners like that that don’t know anything about the business start thinking they know and it’s all an odds game anyway. He enjoyed the game, he enjoyed going to the races and never injected what he thought about the horses. I had pretty much a free rein and we were fortunate enough to do well. It just gives you an edge, it just gives you the advantage of over a period of time being right more times than you’re wrong. ‘Cause in the horse business you’re going to be wrong a lot of times. So, that’s really where I was lucky with Mr. Warner because he just gave me a free rein. He looked at the balance sheet and as long as that was good he allowed me to go to Europe, he allowed me to go anywhere I wanted to go. Not many people have that opportunity.
Training horses at River Downs in Ohio in the late 1970’s, you were in a good spot to observe the fledgling career of Steve Cauthen.
[Steve’s father] Tex was our horseshoer. I wasn’t paying much attention and I’d already made a deal with a jock at River Downs to ride our horses when Steve started riding and I couldn’t really get out of that commitment because I wanted to do what I’d said I’d do. I rode Steve some when he first started out. But then when he went to New York we’d sent horses to Chuck Taliaferro [for Marvin Warner] and since his family knew Chuck – we were all kind of family – well Steve went up and stayed with Chuck when he got really rolling.
Why did you leave training?
I figured out if I was ever going to be a factor in the industry it was going to be through stallions but I didn’t have any money; I had to get into something where I could use other people’s money. A man told me a long time ago that in the stallion business, people are calling you – you’re not having to call them. In other words, you can gather a lot of information in all facets of the industry by just picking people’s brain when they call asking about a stallion or something. I knew where I wanted to be but I didn’t know exactly how to get there. I thought with some of the older, established farms, I thought at that time there was a little spot for a younger farm. Brereton Jones had just got started and most of the other farms around here had just one stallion, except for Claiborne, Spendthrift and Gainesway. In all honesty, I’ve known a lot of people in my life that worked very hard and were good horsemen but never did have the break.
What is the most difficult part of being a trainer?
Training horses is somewhat of a mundane life. In other words, as Walter Merrick taught me, the little things win races. For example, there will be a few seconds, a few minutes of highs…the majority of what a trainer goes through are negatives. He’s got a horse that’s coming up a little off, or not doing what he expects of him, or enters it in a race but only one horse can win.
That’s probably less true of trainers at the top level with a barn full of stakes-quality horses. There is quite a dichotomy between the Todd Pletchers and everyone else.
For some of these fellows it’s somewhat of a system to run a business rather than training and teaching the individual horse. The horse adapts to a system and if he doesn’t they really don’t have time for him, especially when they’ve got horses at five different locations. That’s also different from the way I came up. Thirty, forty horses was the most anybody had. Most owners had their own personal trainer; the Whitneys had their trainer, Spendthrift had their trainer, Claiborne had their trainer. Very few have that now; they’ve either got their horses scattered or they’ve got them in a huge stable with somebody.
We’re talking about a very small minority of the trainers. But even in Europe, I think, most of the bigger stables are still geared towards the personal aspect and trainers are able to feel their horses’ legs every night and know about every little niggling problem as it happens.
With major trainers in America today, probably a lot of them know exactly what is going on but they have to hear it from somebody else. Their system is excellent, but the owners don’t have the personal touch. It used to be a much more social atmosphere, a personal atmosphere rather than all business. They have a very, very good system but they can’t possibly be as involved like the trainers of the old days. You used to see pictures of old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons sitting on a stool running cold water on a horse’s legs. You don’t see much of that with your high-profile trainers anymore.
Sure you do, right after their horse has won the Kentucky Derby! But that makes for a great photo op.
What differences have you noticed between the horse of today and his ancestors?
The horses are much more fragile than they were 30 years ago. Horses that had stamina were more acceptable in American racing until the advent of the two-year-old sales. A huge part of our market is to pinhook into the two-year-old sales so that requires speed. With so many buyers looking for speed people are breeding for it. The faster horses run the more liable they are to break down so I think that probably we’re breeding less sound horses. Not many people want to buy a horse and wait for him to make his first start at three; they want it now.
Of course I have to ask, what do you think of the Polytrack?
Polytrack, well, nobody knows for sure but I do know one thing, it’s much easier on horses. I think it will probably in a number of years have an effect on how we breed horses. They say that grass horses like the Polytrack. I think to a certain extent – obviously there’s no absolute to this business – I do think it will give horses with stamina more opportunities and it’s safer for the horses. Everybody likes it. I give Rogers Beasley a lot of credit for pushing them [to install the Polytrack at Keeneland]. First of all, it’s safer. It’s just safer. Plus, you don’t have the days when your racetrack’s a soupy mess.
Is there anything you don’t like about artificial surfaces?
One thing I do think is that all the tracks going to that surface should use the same material. Not with any prejudices to any manufacturer but just to make everything the same. I haven’t experienced any of the others so I can’t say accurately but I would say it would have been better if they had been all the same. And they may be all so similar that it doesn’t make any difference.
And its overall effect?
It’s much easier on a horse. A horse has got to be a little fitter, there’s going to be a little more emphasis on recognizing stamina in pedigrees. Five furlong horses that could go 6 furlongs or even a mile and a sixteenth are not going to do that on these surfaces. I think you’ll see horses lasting longer, I think you’ll see fuller fields. Fuller fields mean more pari-mutuel wagering so I think it’s all positive. If horses last longer owners have more chances to recoup money and to make money and it’s positive all the way down the line.
Another positive of the artificial surfaces is that horses are getting a hold of it leaving the gate. I think a lot of horses hurt themselves when they stumble or the ground breaks out from under them leaving the gate, bam! and they’re hitting it wrong and then they run around there and break down. I just think a lot of injuries are caused at the starting gate and with the new surfaces they get a hold of it, they don’t slip, and they go.
The recent Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit held at Keeneland included a presentation made by Wayne McIlwraith, D.V.M., in which he said that most breakdowns are due to pre-existing stress fractures or other such conditions. Would you like to see routine MRIs, CT scans and ultrasounds become mandatory?
I guess you could regulate yourself clear out of business.
But if you’re saving your horse you’re keeping yourself in business.
Well but it’s going to come down to an opinion. It’s just like the vets vetting these horses that have a little chip here or a stress fracture or something that they’re not particularly sore on, but it’s there. One vet says don’t run it, the next vet says it’s okay to run. If you want to just have a nightmare, try to do something like that.
What is your stance on the ever-controversial drug and medication policy in the U.S.?
Overall I think racing is good. I think we’ve gone overboard in not allowing some analgesic-type drugs to be used on horses. I imagine the people who are saying that horses should run on oats and hay are taking eight pills a day for themselves to get through the day. I don’t think it’s fair; analgesics are just comfort-type drugs. They’re athletes, just like baseball players or football players, and narcotics and steroids are not good but I think drugs like Lasix and Banamine and stuff like that are fine. It’s like someone getting up in the morning and taking an Advil for their headache. I don’t think they’ll ever solve the problem. We’ve got too many jurisdictions and everybody wants to be the hero. By the time they figure out what one guy’s using he’s going to come up with another [drug], and it’s almost impossible; they may know something’s in a test but they can’t tell you what it is.
How would you deal with this issue?
There are two things that could probably stop a huge part of it. Number one, the jurisdiction should know what’s in the truck of a veterinarian pulling in on the backside. No point in having certain drugs in your truck, or they could have a dispensary for specific drugs that could be signed out. I also think – I know it’d be expensive – but if they think people are doing something illegal – they take your picture most anywhere now, anytime you go to the bank to cash a check you get your picture taken, or go to the convenience store, everybody’s getting their picture taken. So, if they really want to do something about it they should just put some monitors in the barn. Then they’ll know who’s in the barn at all times.
But you can’t see what they’re giving them.
If you know what’s in their truck, you’d know that they don’t have any business with certain drugs. I just think you’ve got to try to stay away from anything that is going to endanger a horse’s health but analgesic medications, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Let’s hear your thoughts on another sensitive subject, the horse slaughter ban bill awaiting Senate approval.
I think it is going to be a major problem in the logistics of it if they go ahead and pass this horse slaughter ban. There’s nobody that loves horses better than I love horses. And if I want to take care of my horse, turn him out and retire him and let him die of old age, that’s my business. If I want to support an organization that does that, that’s my business. I shouldn’t try to legislate what somebody else does with their property. Not just the Thoroughbred industry – there’s millions of horses. I don’t know what they think that they’re going to do with all of them because it’s just going to compound. That’d be like turning them out on the roadside only to get killed by people running over them. Which is worse, letting a horse go to slaughter or letting him starve to death? That has to do with the difference between being emotional and being realistic.
Either way, people are looking for absolution instead of taking responsibility. Slaughtering the horses just makes room for more and it creates a snowball effect. Stasis will only make things worse because people will feel encouraged to continue to breed as though there is no moral dilemma.
The government cannot take responsibility for what we do. We have to be responsible for our own morality and what we do with things. We can’t have the government telling us every move, whether it’s moral or immoral or what it is. I could argue both sides of the coin. It’s pretty silly to a certain extent to spend all that money they’re raising to save retired horses when the same guy walks down the backstretch and sees little kids in the tack rooms with no money and does very little for them.
John Gaines credited you with breaking down the dissension that threatened to keep the Breeders’ Cup from becoming a reality. Are you satisfied with how it has matured in these 23 years?
Give him credit, I thought Mr. Gaines was very innovative. And I think that once we got it organized and were able to appease the different factions, I think [the Breeders’ Cup has] been a tremendous success. If you went through the list of buyers at the Keeneland Summer Sale in like 1970, none of them were from Europe but I suspected that the game was going to get global in the early Seventies with global transportation and ease of getting horses over here. You could fly one over here from England about as quick as you can fly it to California – definitely faster than you can van it out there. So I thought it was going to be a global thing and I thought that it would put the spotlight on a special day, at least have another venue that the public could attach itself to rather than just the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont if you happen to have something that might win the Triple Crown.
What improvements would you suggest?
We probably need to take a step further, which I think we’re doing, by creating venues leading to the Breeders’ Cup. It could be a venue in England or Ireland or France or anywhere. I don’t think you can really create any public excitement without events. People always follow crowds. People aren’t going to NASCAR just to see cars running around, they’re waiting on a wreck and to people-watch. The biggest thing about the Derby is, number one, it’s the Derby. Number two, people go to people-watch 150,000 people. People like crowds.
You don’t think that these additional venues will detract from the Breeders’ Cup?
No no no. Not if you start soon enough, it’s just like football and baseball and basketball, they all have playoffs.
Do you think you have any Breeders’ Cup-caliber horses in your barn?
I’ve got two or three of them working like they’re nice horses. A Chester House colt looks like a good one, the same for a Holy Bull colt and a Cat Thief colt who rapped a tendon – it’s minor but I’m giving him some time – I think he might be a good colt. The rest of them I think might be just ordinary.
How many horses do you have in training?
We’ve got about fifteen, all 2-year-olds.
Did you buy any yearlings at the sales this year?
No, but I’ve got three I bred that will go into training.
You’ve had a winner from only a handful of starters, but it didn’t run in your name! How did that happen?
I wasn’t licensed in Ohio so I just let my assistant trainer Ricky Castilleja get his license and he was down as the trainer. I had a filly run third at Saratoga but I’d sent her to Patrick Biancone for the meet and I’ve since sent her to Mike Doyle at Woodbine because she’s a Canadian-bred. I don’t care whether it’s in my name or somebody else’s. I was in San Antonio all winter every day just about and then Keeneland in April, and went to Turfway after that. I’ve got an excellent assistant, and I talk to him twice a day.
Will you continue to train for the foreseeable future?
If I don’t have three or four nice horses by the end of Churchill I’ll probably send them to another trainer.
And then what? Play golf? Go to Barbados?
I’ll just spend more time at my ranch in Oklahoma. I like the cattle. I’ve enjoyed this and I have no complaints. It’s just that I’ve been doing it for forty-something years.
You can only get so far even by being in the right place at the right time, so how do you explain your success?
In a nutshell, I’ve been lucky. But I was paying attention.