BALTIMORE Smoke billowed from Gary Stute's mouth as he relaxed in the paddock at Pimlico Race Course just after 7 a.m., enjoying a Montecristo cigar and talking horse racing. One of the topics he discussed was what it was like to see fellow trainer Larry Jones' horses get bad breaks.
But bad breaks are nothing new to Jones. And in horse racing, as Stute put it, "the highs can be pretty high and the lows can be awfully low."
Jones is the perfect example of that. One day after one of his fillies captured the 2008 Kentucky Oaks, another had the challenge of facing colts in the Kentucky Derby.
That was Eight Belles.
Her breakdown just after the finish line at Churchill Downs cast a negative light on the sport, and the ensuing storm of media attention helped Jones make the decision to draw a finish line of his own for his career. Jones said he will retire at the end of this year, making this race with Friesan Fire his last go-round at the Preakness. And though Stute, who trains Papa Clem, wants a victory, part of him wants to see Jones walk away from the track a winner.
"Larry seemed like such a nice guy when I met him that I'd love to see him get another shot," Stute said. "He'll probably beat me; I'll probably be regretting it afterward."
Jones has experienced his share of both victory and regret, but no more so than in the time after the Kentucky Derby. Proud Spell won the Oaks on Friday, and then Eight Belles finished second in the Derby on Saturday before breaking down and having to be euthanized on the track.
The 52-year-old Jones said he didn't consider it a mistake to run Eight Belles in the Derby. The pain in his voice when discussing Eight Belles is noticeable, even as his cowboy hat and folksy way of speaking echo his affable personality.
"If she was gonna break down and stumble, she would've done it in the Oaks, she would've done whatever. It wasn't the fact that there was boys in there that made her do what she did," Jones said. "It was a mishap, but I've fallen over my feet before too, and if I was as heavy as she was I'd have broke something."
Jones, who began owning racehorses in 1980 and training them in 1982, has never won a Triple Crown race. His closest chance came in 2007 with Hard Spun, who was second in the Derby, third in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont Stakes.
Friesan Fire went off as the favorite in the Derby two weeks ago but finished 18th. Still, Jones has endured that unlucky trip, which included some cuts and scrapes, to move on to the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
"Well, I know I can't win the Derby this year, so let's go for the Preakness now," Jones said with a chuckle. "I've already blown the Derby off."
On Tuesday morning as photographers snapped photos and cameramen rolled film, Jones held Friesan Fire's bridle as the horse got a bath. Wearing his signature cowboy hat, a red Fox Hill Farms jacket and beige chaps, Jones walked with Friesan Fire around the paddock - just another example of his hands-on attention to his horses. Minutes earlier, he rode alongside jockey Gabriel Saez and Friesan Fire as they worked on the Pimlico track.
While it was a disappointing outcome, Friesan Fire's 18th-place finish didn't dampen Jones' enthusiasm for the Preakness. Instead, like everything else, he took it in stride.
"We're OK. We're just gonna regroup, go on through it and go on," he said. "We was confident with Hard Spun, and we ran third. But yeah, it's horse racing."
Jones has said he'll keep himself busy despite retiring as a trainer. But it's no accident he made it to Churchill and Pimlico. He also plans to go to the Belmont this year. He gave Friesan Fire plenty of rest leading up to the Triple Crown in part because it could allow him a chance to experience each race one more time.
Other trainers are happy to see him out at the track. And they're sad to see him go.
"He's a true, true class act, and it'll be a loss to the industry," Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley said.
Jones is well-loved around the sport in part because, Stute said, he is an "old-fashioned horseman" who cares about the one-on-one attention than the promotion and media attention.
"He just seems like such a class person," Stute said. "I asked him yesterday, 'Are you really retiring?' Because the sport needs guys like that."
And after this year's Breeders' Cup, horse racing will lose one more of those men.