LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For Larry "Cowboy" Jones, trainer of Hard Spun, the hardest part of his first Kentucky Derby trail may not be preparing his horse, but hearing how he's prepared his horse all wrong.

He figures the criticism will continue right to post time for tomorrow's 133d Kentucky Derby.

"I'll wear the wrong hat over on Saturday," Jones quipped yesterday.

So the tension's worn him down? Not this guy. The 50-year-old trainer of the Delaware Park-based, Chester County-bred 3-year-old may be the liveliest wire on the Churchill Downs backstretch.

Even on his horse, a well-pedigreed son of Danzig, Jones keeps it loose. He gallops Hard Spun himself and was humming "My Old Kentucky Home" from the top of his horse the other day when he had Hard Spun in the paddock.

"I forgot I was wired for television," he said later.

The former commercial cattle farmer from a no-stoplight town in southern Kentucky is trying to stay low-key about what is at stake here.

"I try not to think about it," Jones said, standing outside Barn 41. "When we won the [2005] Delaware Handicap, until they hit the sixteenth pole, it was all for a ham sandwich. All I wanted to do was win. At the sixteenth pole to the wire, it dawned on me: 'Hey, this is for a million dollars.' Then your knees get a little weak."

Which brings us to tomorrow.

"I'm afraid when they play 'My Old Kentucky Home,' it could be a long 10 minutes for me," Jones said. "That may get a little shaky."

Nobody can quite prepare for Derby week. Queen Elizabeth hasn't shown up yet, but O.J. Simpson was outside Hard Spun's barn yesterday, saying he liked the horse inside but was picking Tiago.

"How'd he get in here?" Hard Spun's owner, Rick Porter of Wilmington, asked about Simpson.

In the midst of the circus, Jones wasn't leaving anything to chance. Yesterday, Hard Spun's regular equine massage therapist, Neshaminy High School graduate Cindy McVey, was in from Lancaster County, treating 25 of Hard Spun's muscles "from behind his ears . . . to under his tail," looking for knots and spasms. She pronounced Hard Spun "raring to go."

Jones plays up the cowboy angle for laughs. He and jockey Mario Pino's agent, Bill Castle, both joke about the first time they met last year, when Jones had just arrived at Delaware Park from Kentucky and Castle had just shown up from New York.

"I'm a cowboy - he's New York City, Wall Street," Jones said. "I tried to feed him squirrel. He couldn't believe anybody was going to eat a squirrel. I said, 'Man, these squirrels in Delaware are going to be easy to get. You can take a hammer handle and knock them in their head and you've got supper.' "

On a dime, Jones will switch to explaining all his moves with Hard Spun. He knows there was widespread criticism of Hard Spun's blazing workout on Monday, how it might have taken his best race out of him. (Jones, who sent Hard Spun out with his filly Wildcat Bette B., acknowledged that the workout was faster than he wanted.) But Jones ticked off a list of criticisms starting with a seemingly innocuous decision to give Hard Spun a short three-furlong workout at Oaklawn Park. He remembers hearing that Derby horses work longer than three furlongs.

"So I started goofing this up real early," Jones said.

Moving away from having all prep races at Oaklawn? Wrong. Skipping the Blue Grass? Questionable. Working him a mile on the Polytrack surface at Keeneland two weeks ago? Too long.

How it works is that there is so much attention paid to the Derby trail, somebody is bound to criticize. Naturally, it's the criticism that gets back to the trainers. Or questions becomes criticisms.

But Jones wondered how anyone thought it would have been a good idea for him to stay at Oaklawn after Hard Spun's only loss, in February's Oaklawn Stakes there. All evidence pointed to the horse's not liking the surface.

"If you've got a vacation scheduled in July and a hurricane wipes out the town you're going to in the end of June, are you going to continue on with your vacation?" Jones said. "I don't think so. That's what we've done with this horse."

And that three-furlong workout?

"It happened that the track had been frozen at Oaklawn," Jones said. "If you know how Oaklawn's made, there are a lot of trees down the back side. The sun comes up from the back side. The only side that had sunshine was from the three-eighths pole to the three-quarter pole. If we worked three-eighths to the wire, it gives us a quarter mile to pull him up before we hit frozen track again."

This is a guy who got started over 25 years ago. He brought his first horse to the family farm.

"What's that?" his father said.

"A thoroughbred," Jones remembers saying proudly.

"You can outrun him," his father said.

Jones did run track in high school, he said, and earned just $3,500 in purses his first year as a trainer. Even after he had proven himself, he couldn't get stalls at Churchill Downs.

"God works in mysterious ways," Jones said.

He ended up in Iowa.

"We won a lot of races in Iowa," Jones said. "Therefore, people start seeing who wins races. They decided, 'Hey, the cowboy, he wins races in the right spots.' It's just evolved."

There have been stops at Ellis Park and Turfway Park in Kentucky. Then he got to Delaware Park at just the right time. He wouldn't have Hard Spun if he hadn't told Porter, the owner, he had room to take one filly last year. Eventually, he got more stalls and the biggest horse of his life.

Jones isn't trying to make himself out to be the next racetrack genius. It's just that he knows a little about these animals. After Hard Spun's first race, an 83/4-length romp Oct. 22 at Delaware Park, Jones began preparing for all this. A week or so after the race, when a newspaper photographer showed up at Hard Spun's barn at Delaware Park before dawn, Delaware Park's publicity director, Chris Sobocinski, asked that the photographer not use a flash, saying it might spook the horse.

Jones interrupted and said that a flash would be all right, that nothing in horses' genes makes them scared of flashbulbs, that most are just shielded from them, which makes them skittish.

Jones could have been speaking for himself when he said, "He has to get used to this type of attention sooner or later."

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Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.