The photograph of Eight Belles fits underneath the sun visor of Larry Jones' truck, and that's where he keeps it. Jones doesn't know who sent it to him. The photo was taken along the rail at Churchill Downs, developed at a Walgreens the day after the Kentucky Derby. The sky in the photo is blue, with puffy clouds floating through. The famous Twin Spires are off in the distance.
When Jones looks at it, though, he sees only Eight Belles, the runner-up in this year's Kentucky Derby, and the only Kentucky Derby horse ever euthanized on the track.
The photograph may have been the last one taken of her before she fractured both front legs galloping out after the race.
"She's got her ears up, galloping out, on the correct lead," Jones said of Eight Belles, the gray filly who was the object of the photographer's attention. "This is the 61/2-furlong pole. You couldn't want to gallop out more happy than that right there. This is within five or six strides of her last step."
Five days after the Derby, it hit Jones the hardest. Waiting to move into a new house in Delaware, at a Days Inn nearby, his wife sleeping in the other room, the trainer of Eight Belles sat in the only place he could get some light, a Bible in his lap.
"I'm praying - I'm in there, I'm really getting
" Jones said last week. "I'm crying. I just can't believe God would do this."
Hadn't he spoken up just before the Derby, asked for two things: to bring his jockey back safely and his horse back the same way? He hadn't asked for Eight Belles to
the Kentucky Derby, didn't believe he could ask for that in prayer, although he did request a good trip for his filly. "I can't believe you took my horse," Jones railed that rainy night in that motel bathroom.
Last year, Jones hit the national and local spotlights at the same time, with a colt who moved over the ground so easily. Hard Spun, a son of Danzig, was bred in Malvern, owned by Wilmington's Rick Porter, who also owned Eight Belles. Hard Spun won seven times in 13 starts and earned $2,673,470, but was most famous for finishing second to Street Sense in last year's Kentucky Derby and then second to Curlin, the eventual horse of the year, in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Jones is sure of one thing: Big Brown couldn't have gone four wide all the way around, as he did in this year's Derby, and gotten past Hard Spun.
Last year, Hard Spun became a fan favorite for his tenaciousness, for always showing up. His easy-bantering trainer, nicknamed "Cowboy," a former cattle farmer from a small town outside Hopkinsville, Ky., who still often exercises his own horses, jokes about being an overnight success after three decades. Jones remembers when he had four horses in his barn. He laughs now about earning something like $3,300 in purses his first year as a trainer, then $7,500, then $11,000.
Jones and his wife, Cindy, both remember the big breakthrough, when a goofy stall-running filly they owned named Amanda Panda won a $20,000 race. When she won again, another trainer offered $35,000 for her.
"It was a gift from God is what it was," Cindy Jones said.
Times are different now. Hard Spun, retired to the breeding shed, was his best horse - a photograph of Hard Spun winning last year's Lane's End is reproduced on the back of a Jones truck. The trainer had come in second in the 2004 Kentucky Oaks, the top race for 3-year-old fillies, with Island Sand. Currently, Jones has 82 horses between his barn at Delaware Park and the sparkling new one built for 38 horses by Porter at the Fair Hill Training Center north of Elkton, Md. He's got the best crop of 2-year-olds he's ever been around, he said. The star of the barn, stabled at Fair Hill, is Proud Spell, who won this year's Kentucky Oaks.
"I've turned down people I thought I'd never turn down, with horses coming out of champion mares," Jones, 51, said of owners offering to send him horses.
Cindy Jones is Larry's wife but also his full-time assistant, "16 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. She'd shown up to gallop horses 25 years ago, and they married a few years later. Other than getting on the horses, she shares day-to-day barn responsibilities with her husband.
"Like when you see a swan on the lake, she's the feet paddling like crazy underneath," Larry said.
"I don't think I like being the swan's feet," Cindy shot back.
She used to get on the horses every morning, until April 1990. Larry was up at Churchill Downs with some horses. Cindy was in charge of the rest at their farm in Hopkinsville, which had a training track. Galloping horses in the morning, "I had one to go," she said. "This horse was an orangutan. He would just as soon kick somebody as look at them. He didn't like his bridle put on. He didn't want stuff over his ears."
"I had two guys helping me. They hollered and said they couldn't get the bridle on him. I thought, 'Two grown guys couldn't get the bridle on a horse. Got to have a girl come do it.' It ticked me off just a little bit. I just went to his stall and I picked up the bridle."
She opened the stall door. The colt was hooked to the back wall. As soon as she walked in, "he unloaded, with both back feet. He got me in my arm and got me in my chest. He kicked me so hard I was airborne out of the stall and into a concrete wall. It broke my arm in two, ruptured my spleen and broke four ribs."
In the emergency room, nobody knew about the spleen. They were dealing with a bad car accident. It was her great fortune, Cindy said, that the doctor, whom her own mother worked for as a lab technician, drove an hour to the hospital to check on her. He felt her belly and asked for a syringe. He poked her and it filled with blood. She was rushed into surgery.
"They said another hour I would have died," Cindy Jones said.
But for the next dozen years, through four or five surgeries, her left arm never healed correctly, until 2003, when a large plate and 32 screws were put in.
"I don't know if it's completely healed now," her husband said.
"It totally changed my life, because I wasn't able to gallop every day," Cindy Jones said of the day she was sent flying. "I lost my passion. But I finally realized, God made me strong enough to work on the ground. I may not be on their backs, but I'm on the ground. I'm in the barn."
For his part, Jones once feared he was going to have his foot amputated after gangrene developed from a bad fracture. He helped heal it himself with laser therapy, he said, the kind he used on his horses.
Another time, he showed up at the emergency room after a horse had dumped him then rode over the top of him. "Broke my collarbone, three ribs, punctured a lung, and broke my foot again, in a different spot," Jones said. He asked the doctor to patch him up as best he could, said he didn't have insurance and needed to get back to work.
A couple of nights after the Derby, driving back to Delaware, getting through West Virginia, Jones had the radio on, listening to a conversation about him and his horse.
"It was a call-in deal," Jones said. "A guy called in and said, 'Now I know for a fact that she had her ankles injected on Wednesday.' "
It was just "some jerk on the radio," but Jones was irate. He thinks that Eight Belles may have been the most under-medicated horse in this year's Derby, that there had been no injection on Wednesday or any other day. Tests later confirmed she hadn't been administered any steroid.
In a sport in which steroids are banned in some states and legal and commonplace in others, a sport in which the winner of the Kentucky Derby had been injected with the legal steroid Winstrol three days before the race, and Jones figured most of the other horses in the race probably used it, too, the horse who died had been clean.
"I feel like more problems were caused than ever remedied by going in and doing that kind of stuff," said Jones, who used them on a limited basis but stopped in the early '90s, with the exception of one horse in 1997 who wasn't racing anymore. He feels as if he gets an edge himself with a high protein diet he's been tinkering with since he proposed it for a high school class. He mixes his own leg paints from a recipe given by an old trainer, has his hard-earned theories on how bandages don't help horses if they're used too much, and can quickly switch a conversation about feed into calcium-phosphorus ratios and units of energy per pound.
"You can't just march in somebody else's band and expect to be a standout," Jones said. "You have to improve it a little bit. My dad, I guess I learned that from him. There wasn't a tractor made - it didn't matter who made the tractor when we farmed - that he couldn't improve just a little bit."
This is the first year of a steroid ban in Delaware. Through Wednesday's races, horses trained by Jones had raced at Delaware Park 37 times this meet, winning 14, with eight seconds and six thirds. His $417,744 in earnings leads all trainers.
"My theory on steroids is we don't allow it in our human athletes, why would we allow it in our animal athletes?" Cindy Jones said. "We've seen what it's done to humans. It does the same thing. . . . If Eight Belles' death will bring a change in that, then that's why she died."
Larry Jones isn't a big believer in coincidences. In November 2005, a tornado wiped out Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., his old summer headquarters - Larry and Cindy had helped dig horses out of stalls - so he brought a bigger string of horses to Delaware Park the next summer. "The tornado spun us this way," as he put it. And that led his to getting a horse named Hard Spun. "Who could make that up?" he said.
He doesn't expect to know much more about what happened to Eight Belles, figuring a clumsy step was the chief culprit. He did want to know why God had taken his horse, sitting in that hotel, when suddenly there was a big crack of thunder, waking his wife up in the next room. The message Jones took was that this wasn't, in fact, his horse to lose. Cindy, who calls Larry "my best friend and my hero," was mad at him that night for his refusal to turn down interviews, an endless stream of them, even as they were being attacked by PETA and others. They'd gone to bed not speaking.
"I have to fight this," Jones remembered telling her right after that crack of thunder. "I have to stand up for our reputation. If you want to go to Kentucky for a few days to the log cabin and just get away from it, that's fine. I've got to do what I've got to do. She rolled over and said, 'I'm OK.' "
The next day, that photo processed at Walgreens arrived, offering at least the comfort that Eight Belles hadn't already been in pain as she galloped out.
"He's got his hands down on her, just galloping," Jones said of jockey Gabriel Saez. "It's not like he's got to wrestle with her and hold her up or anything like that. They're just going on what looks like a routine gallop."
He put the snapshot back under his sun visor. He'll keep it right there, Jones said.
"For a long time," he added.