This was long before the days of 2008 Eclipse Award-winning filly Proud Spell, when colts Mr. Bowling and Mark Valeski – now top contenders for Saturday’s Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds – and the filly Believe You Can (the favorite in the same card’s Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes) were just a twinkle in their breeders’ eyes.
“Her sire, Silver Hawk, was a very good sire – one of ours,” Governor Jones recalled. “We’d advanced a bit in the eyes of the industry and I was racing some of the Silver Hawks, but this particular horse wasn’t running that great and we kept dropping her further down the ranks. I told our trainer to put her on the bottom and somebody would probably claim her. And someone did.”
The filly’s new trainer was named Larry Jones. The Governor had never heard of him, and when he saw that a guy who shared his last name had taken on his not-so-great runner after she ran sixth going six furlongs on the dirt at Ellis, he only said, “Well, I hope he has good luck with her.” What else was there to say?
That fall Governor Jones was at Keeneland Race Course and he looked at the program and there was Modean, coming off two wins at Ellis and a third at Keeneland and running in an allowance race, no less.
“And by golly if he didn’t win,” Governor Jones recalled. “I was so impressed by that, taking a bottom claimer and winning an allowance race at Keeneland, that I went up to him and introduced myself and said, ‘Would you have room to take a couple of horses to train for me?’ He said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to.’”
This happened in 1993. It was 2006 before Governor Jones recalled the conversation and sent the affable horseman a runner – Larry Jones, he said, just laughed and remarked, “I figured you were one of those politicians you couldn’t believe, so I didn’t worry too much when you didn’t call me.”
The wait turned out to be worthwhile for both Joneses. Their first racehorse together was on the small side with weak pasterns, one Governor Jones hadn’t sent to the sale because he didn’t think she’d bring much of anything. She turned out to be Proud Spell, a daughter of Proud Citizen who won the Fair Grounds Oaks in 2008 en route to victories in the Kentucky Oaks, Delaware Oaks, and Alabama Stakes during her Champion 3-year-old Filly season.
“After that, I told him, ‘We’re together, till death do us part,’” the Governor said with a grin. “You put two people together who love horses and good things happen.”
Larry Jones, 55, tells another version of the duo’s beginnings – a bit of a tall tale with a dash of humor. “When I first started training for him, it seemed like he always had a Jones trainer working for him,” he joked. “He had Bert Jones. He had Gary Jones. And then all of a sudden, it seemed like he was going to other-named horsemen. So we couldn’t let that happen.”
“Keeping up with the Joneses” may very well wind up becoming the most bandied-about phrase on the Triple Crown trail this season. One thing’s for sure – with the coupled entry of Lecomte Stakes winner Mr. Bowling and stablemate Mark Valeski pegged as the 4-1 second choice for Saturday’s Risen Star and Believe You Can leading the field for the Rachel Alexandra, the owner-trainer combo is set to cause quite a stir on Louisiana Derby Preview Day Presented by Lamarque Ford.
“We’re pretty excited,” Governor Jones said. “We love the Fair Grounds, it’s a fun place to go visit in New Orleans. Libby is coming with me, we’re going to get in on Friday and spend the weekend.”
Asked to expound upon his runners for this weekend, the owner had good things to say about Believe You Can, the 1 ½-length winner of the $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes here on Jan. 21.
“She’s by Proud Citizen, the same sire Proud Spell had, and she’s a beautifully-made filly,” he remarked. “We took her to the sale thinking she would sell very well, and we bought her back. I wasn’t going to take less than $75,000 for her and we bought her back for $70,000. We have a lot of confidence in our own horses. We’re primarily a commercial breeder but if somebody’s not willing to bid on a horse for what we believe its value to be, we’d rather keep it and give it a shot. It’s a lot of fun to be involved in racing our own and participate that way anyhow.”
Out of the unraced El Prado mare El Fasto, Believe You Can flashed early ability in her 2-year-old season while stringing together three straight victories from July to September of 2011, including a score in the Grade III Tempted Stakes at Belmont Park.
“It takes a nice filly to do that,” Governor Jones said. “She had some bad racing luck at Churchill Downs in the Pocahontas Stakes and we threw that race out, which you have to do sometimes. Her next start at Fair Grounds in her season debut she just went out on the lead and wasn’t going to let anybody get by her. She’s got that kind of tenacity and she can carry it; if the Proud Citizens run well short, they run even better long. As far as tenacity goes, she’s very much like Proud Spell. Now, is she as good as Proud Spell? We don’t know yet. Probably not, because Proud Spell was so fabulous – but this filly could very well be as good, because she keeps getting better.”
Mr. Bowling is another tenacious runner from the Jones-Jones arsenal. From the first crop of young Gone West stallion Istan out of the Irish Tower mare Goldilock’s Bear, the Lecomte winner came off a three-month layoff to take the Grade III event by a determined head over Z Dager. He ran third in Churchill Downs’ Grade III Iroquois Stakes last Oct. 30 but had won the $75,000 Dover Stakes at Delaware Park before that. The colt worked five furlongs in 59.80 Monday morning at Fair Grounds.
“Istan wasn’t very well-received when we took him to stud,” said Governor Jones. “I don’t know why, because we’re getting a lot of good reports on his initial progeny. We’ll see how Mr. Bowling does this weekend – of course he’s already won two stakes races, and he’s justified in being one of the top choices in the Risen Star.”
Mark Valeski the human, for whom the horse is named, is an employee of the Seaview Hotel in Bal Harbour, Fla. He’s been working for the Seaview as head of their pool area for the past 40-some years, and got to know Governor and Mrs. Jones during their family vacations in the winter.
“My wife and I started coming down here 42 years ago,” Governor Jones said. “Mark has always been a really wonderful guy, helping us take care of the kids when they were small, and he was always interested in the horses; we’d talk about them all the time. I finally thought, I need to name a horse after him! I asked his permission and he was so honored, it was really emotional for me to know I was able to make somebody so happy with so little effort. That’s true in life, if you try to reach out to people with that little something extra, not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s often really fun.”
Mark Valeski the horse is another Proud Citizen, out of the Fortunate Prospect mare Pocho’s Dream Girl. He enters the Risen Star lightly-raced with just three starts under his belt – a fourth at Delaware Park at first asking in July, and two ensuing victories since then. The colt won his seasonal bow by a length in the allowance ranks at Fair Grounds on Jan. 13 and closed out his juvenile campaign last Sept. 22 by breaking his maiden with a 4 1/2-length tally at Delaware Park. He breezed five furlongs Monday morning at Fair Grounds in 1:00.20.
“He’s a big, good-looking, quality horse who reminds me an awful lot of Proud Citizen,” Governor Jones remarked. “I think Proud Citizen is probably the most underrated sire in North America – he just gets really good, solid, and frequently brilliant racehorses.”
Larry Jones claims he’s yet to get to the bottom of either colt, and part of the reason he kept them both at Fair Grounds for the Risen Star is to assess their abilities relative to one another.
“Right now we’re just letting each horse try to find his way; they’re still both unknown,” the trainer said Wednesday morning. “Mark Valeski shows better numbers and he looks to have more talent than Mr. Bowling, but he’s unproven at this distance. We just don’t know because the pedigree could be questionable at the distance, whereas Mr. Bowling we know he likes the distance and we’re trying to find his quality level. Is he still hiding from us? We think he is. We think he doesn’t give us anything unless he has to.”
Asked how it feels to have Jones the horseman on his side – especially after that trainer’s recent success campaigning Rick Porter’s 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace along with his wife, Cindy – Jones the owner simply said he’s incredibly thankful.
“They’re not only strong people, but they’re really good people, and that makes them special people,” he said. “To be in business with strong and good and God-fearing people that you just enjoy being around is a real pleasure, and it’s not something I take for granted, that’s for sure.”