‘Plain Ben’ Jones: The Hard-Knock Horseman Behind A Historic Derby Reign

This year, as last year, much will likely be made of trainer Bob Baffert’s quest to keep up with the Joneses – specifically trainer Ben A. Jones. Last year, Baffert tied Jones’ record for the number of Kentucky Derbies won by a single trainer with six, and this year, he will be hoping Medina Spirit will break that record.

For those who came to racing after Jones’ death in 1961, however, his exemplary career as a horseman may be largely lost in the history books. Who was this Derby king whose reign seems to be coming to a close?

Firstly, it’s clear that any mention of Ben A. Jones is followed immediately by a reference to his son Horace A. “Jimmy” Jones. For much of Ben’s career, Jimmy was his assistant, and it’s not always entirely clear where one man’s contributions to a horse ended and the other’s began. After Ben had died, many writers claimed it was really Jimmy who trained several of Ben’s most prominent runners, but it’s unclear if this was speculation or the word of Jimmy himself. (Either way, between the Jones barn and the Baffert barn, it does make one wonder if all really excellent assistants must be named Jimmy.) It does seem that at least one of Ben’s six Derby winners – Citation in 1948 – was primarily trained by Jimmy, who gave the reins to Ben, who by then had transitioned to general manager at Calumet, in order to allow him the chance at equaling the record of Herbert J. “Derby Dick” Thompson, who had four. Ben would later resume training and win two more.

By all accounts, Ben was one of those people born with an uncanny eye for horses – spotting a good one that could be improved, and figuring out what that horse needed, free of any obligation to conventional ideas. Often called “Plain Ben,” Jones had the look of a cowboy. He went everywhere in a white Stetson and boots, a hulking man who walked with a slight limp due to a football injury he got at Colorado Agriculture College. In the indomitable volume ‘Wild Ride,’ author Ann Hagedorn Auerbach described him as a man who could clear a bar with his fists but chose instead to live by his wits.

Jones had been born to a banker whose primary agricultural interest was in cattle. He had been expected to take over the bank, but preferred the allure of the racetrack – the thrill of the racing, but also the gambling and ensuing fistfights. The family cattle farm had a rough track on it, which enabled locals to run match races and gave Jones a venue to ease into training. Jones often bet heavily on his own horses, which may have been part of the reason he spent his early years living hand to mouth.

Jones became a tough old horseman, taking the only horses he could get in those days – cheap stock – and making them work for him in dusty bull ring tracks. Writing in his book, ‘Masters of the Turf,’ Ed Bowen described a legend that seemed to sum up the epitome of a hardboot horseman. A horse trader came through the small Missouri town where Jones lived with a lame horse and told Jones he’d sell the horse for $100 with the condition that whenever he next passed through town, he had the option of buying the horse back for $150. Jones got the mare, who was called Black Beauty, well again and when he heard the trader was headed back for town, he drove a nail slightly into one of her hooves to create a temporary lameness. The trader moved on, and Jones got to keep the horse.

Print accounts mention Jones’ propensity for gambling – he had to be called out of a dice game to be informed his wife was in labor to deliver Jimmy – but speculate little on how much of an impact it may have had on his business. By the time the Great Depression hit, hard times got harder for “the Jones boys.” When department store owner Herbert Woolf offered Ben a private training job for his Woolford Farm, the stability was too good to pass up. Ben appointed Jimmy, then 26, to disperse the stable and join him as his assistant.

With his own stock and with his clients’ stock, Jones found success dealing in families. He was skilled (or possibly very lucky) at hitching his prospects to a stallion who would go on to produce subsequent generations of successful runners or working his way through a series of siblings and half-siblings. Before Jones became an in-house trainer, that stallion had been Seth, who kept Jones among the nation’s top breeders through the 1920s. At Woolford, that horse was Insco, who sired Lawrin, Unerring, and Inscoelda. Lawrin was the first horse to take Jones to the big time, but he was unfazed, keeping the horse taped together through an intense 2-year-old campaign and a sophomore season that saw him beat older rivals before he won the 1938 Kentucky Derby.

Lawrin struggled with his feet, and Jones described a regimen of soaking the foot to draw out an abscess, followed by treatments of iodine and turpentine to harden the hoof again. Jones swapped Lawrin between a bar shoe and running barefoot.

Despite the success he found at Woolford, Jones parted ways with Woolf in 1939. Although Jones would publicly say the split was amiable, a feature in Turf and Sport Digest suggested there was some practical animosity there.

“…Woolf was really not happy with him, probably because it was a combination of two heavy gamblers,” wrote Tom Shehan. “Under the arrangement Ben’s money was automatically down whenever he recommended Woolf bet.”

Auerbach would write that the offer from Warren Wright to become the private trainer for Calumet came almost immediately, but Jones took some time to think about it. Woolf may have been a difficult client, but Wright had a reputation for going through trainers and for being something of a backseat driver. Wright doubled his initial offer and agreed to bring Jimmy on as well.

When the Joneses arrived, the remnants of Wright’s program were still in full force. He was ordering quantities of vitamins for the horses, which he insisted be given to them. Jones kept throwing them in the muck heap and eventually ran a sales rep for the vitamin company out of his barn. Wright had also required previous trainers not to break horses until they were three, with the belief it would make them stronger runners. Wright, who earlier in his career had specialized in bringing on 2-year-olds, put an end to that.

Jones’ instincts would prove right of course, as he brought Calumet into its golden age on the racetrack. Five of his Derby wins – Whirlaway (’41), Pensive (’44), Citation (’48), Ponder (’49), and Hill Gail came for the devil red Calumet silks. There were other legendary names on his resume who too didn’t win the Derby, including Twilight Tear. He was leading trainer in North America by earnings in 1941, 1943, 1944, and 1952.

But behind all those successes was the same hard knock horseman’s mind – practical and practiced – that had gotten him his start on the bush tracks. At a time when many Thoroughbreds got the winter off, Jones horses raced through the year and took long, slow gallops. They took the long route to the track for work, and exercise riders were instructed to let them graze along the way home, adding flesh to runners that many considered a little rotund for racehorses already.

The best-known Ben Jones story seems to be his work with Whirlaway, who seems to have been deemed semi-psychotic by the people who dealt with him in his early career. “Wacky Whiry” had a habit of bolting to the outside of the racetrack, seemingly at random. He had had a stone kicked into one eye during the Hopeful Stakes when he was a 2-year-old, but Jones mostly dismissed his antics as a lack of intelligence. Jones fashioned a one-eyed blinker for the colt, reasoning that he wouldn’t go where he couldn’t see. He cut a very small hole in the right eye cover and asked jockey Eddie Arcaro to climb aboard for a test during a morning workout. Jones sat on his palomino pony several feet off the rail in the homestretch, forcing Arcaro to take Whirlaway through a narrow gap at full speed to ensure he really wouldn’t react to anything on his outside. The moment the chestnut sailed between Jones and the rail proved the equipment worked, but certainly took a few years off the two men’s lives.

In his Turf and Sport profile, Shehan recalled Jones’ patience with Coaltown, who he also saddled in the 1948 Kentucky Derby. After the colt collapsed in a workout as a 2-year-old, veterinarians discovered he had some sort of issue caused by swollen glands around his chin which impeded his breathing. Jones fashioned a piece of equipment he called a “Throttle Hood” which wrapped around the glands in question, much like a bandage, to trap in heat and try to reduce swelling. He also showed Coaltown’s exercise rider how to change his riding style to lengthen Coaltown’s head and neck carriage, reducing pressure on the glands. Shehan also alleged that Coaltown may have been more talented than Citation (a theory with which the Joneses did not agree) and that his loss to Citation in the Derby was not a coincidence, but rather driven by Jones’ suspicions that he couldn’t stay healthy throughout a Triple Crown campaign like his stablemate or that he may pass on his respiratory issues in the breeding shed.

Ponder was another triumph because the Jones boys had to nurse him back to health after he was stabbed in the chest with a pitchfork as a 2-year-old with the help of well-known veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill.

Ben Jones died in 1961 due to complications from diabetes. Jimmy departed Calumet in 1964, the same year as the death of Bull Lea, knowing that the sun had mostly set on the farm’s golden era. Both men would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in back-to-back years in 1958 and 1959. Jimmy spent time as the director of racing at Monmouth Park for a time, before heading back to the family homeplace in Parnell, Missouri. He died in 2001, the winner of two Derbies himself and champion trainer by earnings for five seasons.

Though their careers were certainly bigger than a handful of May Saturdays, Jimmy said he never forgot how meaningful those days were to him and his father.

“I’ll tell you what the Derby meant to us,” Jimmy said to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees in 1995. “When I was a little kid and we raced around the fairs and little meetings, we talked about the Derby all the time … that was the subject of conversation day in and day out. I was just a kid; my father was about 30. We didn’t have any money much … But that was our main hope in life. Just automatic. Kentucky Derby. Then to have it come up like it did was unbelievable.”

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