Today’s society is often about trying to have more and bigger than the next guy. Keeping up with the Joneses is at the top of the list for more than just a few. But in the here and now of Thoroughbred horse racing and the Kentucky Derby, forget it because when you consider a historic pair of Jones boys it probably will not happen.
Ben and Jimmy Jones are far and away the most prolific training tandem in Kentucky Derby history. As a father and son team, between 1938 and 1958, the Jones boys sent 15 horses to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. On 8 different occasions (1938, 1941, 1944,1948, 1949, 1952, 1957, 1958) they strode proudly to the winner’s circle. Four other times, this terrific twosome finished in the money (3 seconds, 1 third). Measuring up to those numbers is not very likely in today’s world.
“From what I know about it, the horse population in those days was not like it is today,” says current trainer and three-time Derby winner (1997,1998, 2002) Bob Baffert. “I think there is a lot more parity today and the bigger farms had the majority of the bigger horses in those days. I think things have changed so much over the years you can’t really compare it to the way it is now. So I think the answer to anyone duplicating those numbers today is probably not.”
Indeed it was a different time in those days. The country was a much tougher place and men like Ben Jones rose to the top because of guts, work ethic, and a battle-ready mentality. As a product of the environment, Ben was nick named “Plain Ben” by sportswriters not because of a simple life, but because he would quickly engage in fisticuffs with anyone that crossed him and a local boxer was called “Plain Ben”. So it was often wondered which packed more punch, the business end of one of his Thoroughbreds or the right hand of Ben Jones. And it was that fighting spirit that perpetuated the birth of a legend.
“The Jones were blessed with an incredible amount of luck, but it was earned luck,” says horse racing historian Ed Bowen. “Ben Jones once said most everything he learned about horse training he taught himself. He worked his way up with cheaper stock and won a lot early to develop a reputation as man that could get the most out of his horses.”
The biggest of those earlier wins came in the 1938 Kentucky Derby when Ben Jones helped guide a long shot Kansas- bred named Lawrin to the winner’s circle for Woolford Farm. Catching the eye of Warren Wright and mighty Calumet Farm, the elder Jones was signed on to run the Lexington-based operation and he took his horse-loving son with him.
“The Wrights met with us and said “we want to win the Kentucky Derby”, told Jimmy to famed turf writer Jennie Rees before his death in 2001. “We said “we do too”. The Kentucky Derby was always our focus and we talked about it just about every day. We felt really lucky to get involved with a group like Calumet.”
And get involved they did. With Ben Jones as their leader and son Jimmy at his side, Calumet Farm ascended the throne and became kings of the Kentucky Derby. The rough and tumble elder Jones and his more cerebral son formed a great combination. Utilizing the might a farm like Calumet provided, the Jones boys cultivated their hard work and good fortune to the fullest. In 1941, Plain Ben delivered in a big way for Calumet with Whirlaway. Considered a bit of a “project, The elder Jones used his horse whispering abilities to cultivate this home-bred Calumet colt into their first Derby champion. Under his masterful trainer’s guidance, not only did Whirlaway win the Derby, but he also captured the Triple Crown that year.
After developing Whirlaway into a hero for the whole country, Calumet returned to the Kentucky Derby in 1944 with Pensive and made another trip to the winner’s circle. In 1945 (Pot O’ Luck 2nd) and 1947 (Faultless 3rd) Calumet knocked on the Derby door, but in 1948 the Jones tandem helped them reach iconic status with a horse named Citation.
Legend has it that Jimmy played more of a part in the training of Citation, who was also a Calumet bred. Ben wanted to tie the training mark of Herbert Thompson and his son was going to make the sacrifice. That headstrong approach was a classic example of what made Ben Jones the successful trainer he was. Calumet had learned to not question his authority and his son would certainly never say anything. Plain Ben was the trainer of record for the 1948 Derby as Citation came from behind to win in dominating fashion.
“Years later Jimmy Jones admitted he thought it was kind of mean-spirited for his dad to list himself as trainer of Citation,” says Bowen. “I think the records for Citation’s Preakness and Belmont wins indicate Jimmy as the trainer of record, but in the Derby it was Ben.”
The elder Jones and Calumet continued to dominate the Derby as they won again in 1949 (Ponder) and 1952 (Hill Gail). Both of those wins were of significance as one was with the longest shot of Plain Ben’s era (Ponder at 16-1) and leading Hill Gail to the winner’s circle demonstrated his unique training abilities again as this stubborn son of Bull Lea was coerced into being another Calumet champion. Jimmy took over the reins as lead trainer for Calumet after his father assumed the role of general manager and won back-to-back Runs for the Roses in 1957 (Iron Leige) and 1958 (Tim Tam).
The Jones boys incredible success was not solely limited to the Kentucky Derby. They trained two Triple Crown winners and Jimmy was the first trainer to win over a million dollars in purses in a single year. They changed the way horses were trained for the Kentucky Derby as anyone with a pony pulse took note of what they did and their numerous trips to the winner’s circle. Yes, it is a different day and time now, but same as 60 years ago, every trainer dreams of keeping up with the Jonses.