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Ben Jones: Racing's Pugnacious Maestro

 America's Best Racing
The Jockey Club Website
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March 2015

It was 1939. Hard-knocking trainer Ben Jones was being wooed by Warren Wright, the master of Calumet Farm, near Lexington, Ky.BJones 2

"Mr. Wright, I'm afraid to tell you your horses aren't good enough," barked Jones, who had already won the 1938 Kentucky Derby with Lawrin.

A small and dapper but humorless man, Wright responded: "Well, by George, if I'm not raising them good enough I'll buy them for you."

No doubt about that. His father William Monroe Wright had  launched the Calumet baking powder company in 1889. (A native American term for "peace pipe," in 2015 the baking powder can still be found on grocery store shelves.)  Warren Wright joined the business at age fifteen and proved to be a man of considerable business smarts. Just before the stock market crash of 1929, Wright put together a $32 million sale of the company to Postum, later to be General Foods and then Kraft.

William Wright died in 1931, leaving his son a $30 million estate including Calumet Farm, a 400-acre  standardbred breeding nursery.  The younger Wright proceeded to switch the prominent harness racing facility into a legendary thoroughbred breeding and racing operation.

Benjamin A. Jones was born on December 31, 1882 in Parnell, Missouri, a farming hamlet just south of the Iowa border.  His father Horace Jones, a banker,  also raised registered black angus cattle and saddle horses on his ranch.  At eighteen, Jones pedalled his bicycle 500 miles to Fort Collins, Colorado where he enrolled as a student-athlete at Colorado Agricultural College (Colorado State University) in 1901. However, after two years of studies and football, Jones had had enough of college life so he climbed back on his bicycle for the long journey home.

With thoroughbred racing shut down by a ban on wagering, Jones headed to Juarez, Mexico. From 1909 to 1912, he learned the ropes of training racehorses. Reportedly, he tangled with the legendary Pancho Villa when Villa came to town to steal horses. Jones' parents paid a visit and his father was so impressed by his  success that he bought his son a stallion and a few mares which launched his four decade-long career  as one of the best in the business.

Jones' national reputation blossomed as he developed and trained the offspring of a well-bred stallion named Seth, listed in the top 20 of the thoroughbred sires from 1925-28. Jones was hired by Herbert Woolf, owner of Woolford Farms & Stables in Kansas City.  Jones captured the Derby in 1938 with Woolf's colt Lawrin.

BJones 1Big, beefy and a feared salon brawler, Jones  was  as much a part of the Kentucky Derby as the race's signature blanket of roses. In a 14-year span, Jones was credited with six Derby victories: Lawrin, Whirlaway (1941), Pensive (1944), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949), and Hill Gail (1952). At the height of Jones' career, he led all U.S. trainers in earnings from his horses’ winnings a total of eleven times. His son and assistant Jimmy went on to win two Derbys with Iron Liege in 1957 and Tim Tam in 1958.  

The Jones Boys-- as they were universally known-- created an unmatched racing dynasty. They accounted for two Triple Crown winners, five Horses of the Year and nine national training titles between 1938 and 1961. They trained an equine arsenal that included  such racing luminaries as Citation, Coaltown, Ponder, Hill Gail, Pensive, Bardstown, Whirlaway, Armed, Bewitch, Tim Tam, Two Lea, Barbizon, Iron Liege, Wistful, On-and-On, A Gleam, and on, and on.

In his first season at Calumet Farm, Jones was handed the "problem child," Whirlaway.

"You can teach him," cracked Jones in the spring of the chestnut colt's two-year old season, " but you can't teach him much."

Exasperated by Whirlaway's penchant for bolting out sharply on the stretch turn, Jones devised the "one-eye blinker" that shielded the chestnut colt's right eye. Conducting a daring experiment with new jockey Eddie  Arcaro in the irons, Jones was perched on his stable pony stationed ten feet from the inner rail at the head of the stretch. Arcaro was instructed to pilot the colt through the slim opening.

"I could see that old man just sitting there on his pony," Arcaro said. "I was bearing down on him full tilt, and I was scared to death we'd have a collision that would kill the both of us. But B.A. [Jones] never moved a muscle, and Whirlaway slipped through there as pretty as you please. Then I knew we had a hell of a chance in the Derby."

Whirlaway was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 1941. The colt trailed by fourteen lengths down the backstretch. Wearing his customized headgear, Whirlaway flew down the stretch to win by eight lengths and clocked in a time of 2:01 2/5, the fastest ten furlongs ever run at Churchill Downs. His final quarter (23 3/5) was only 2/5 of a second slower than Secretariat's remarkable effort in 1973.

A star was born.

One week later Whirlaway almost walked out of the gate in the Preakness Stakes and trailed far behind the pack headed up the backstretch. When Arcaro shook the reins the colt circled the entire field by the quarter pole, and geared down to win by five and a half lengths.

The sight of the smallish colt with the unusually lengthy and bushy tail streaming in a pennant-like wake when he hit high gear earned the colt the nickname  "Mr. Longtail." Jones was convinced the  bushy tail intimidated rivals and kept them from running up from behind.

"The Lord hung it there, he must of had a purpose," the pugnacious trainer quipped.

Whirlwind became the fifth horse in American racing history to capture the coveted Triple Crown.  As Jones' private pupil, the wily trainer had devoted countless hours to Whirlaway-- accompanying him, schooling him, working him, relaxing him. Whirlaway earned Horse of the Year in 1941, and repeated the honor in 1942.

"That was one of the greatest jobs of training I ever saw," said Jimmy Jones after the 1941 campaign. "He was a peculiar horse in that he had a very stubborn disposition, but he learned. He would respond to habit-building, and that's really what made the horse go."BJones 3

At age five, Whirlaway retired with a record of 32 wins, 15 seconds and nine thirds with a bankroll of $561,161, the all-time money earning thoroughbred.

Five years later Ben Jones was back in the limelight at Churchill Downs with Citation.

A homebred of Calumet, Citation was a son of Bull Lea, who finished a disappointing eighth as a 3-1 second choice in the 1938 Kentucky Derby. Deciding to try a little foreign blood, Wright purchased Citation's dam, the English mare Hydroplane II, in the spring of 1941.

Proving to be classic material from the start, Citation ran nine times as a two-year-old, scoring eight victories and one runner-up. He was named champion two-year old.

During the winter, father and son's stables of horses headed in different direction-- Ben to Florida, Jimmy to California. In 1947, Ben was in poor health, and relinquished his training responsibilities to Jimmy who became Calumet’s chief trainer and the primary tutor of Citation.

Still, with a chance to surpass H. J. Thompson's Derby record of four winners, Ben Jones wouldn't be denied.  Once again he took control of Citation's training which greatly angered his son.

On the eve of the 1948 Derby Jones told his son: "Jimmy, you can sleep well tonight, and you can take this as gospel: any horse Citation can see, he can catch. And he's got perfect eyesight."

On Derby Day an inch of rain fell. When the gates sprung open Coaltown rocketed to the lead and at the half mile mark the colt was cruising by six lengths over the sloppy track. When Arcaro signaled Citation he  easily rolled past his touted stablemate by three and a half lengths for an impressive Derby victory.

In the Preakness, Citation sprinted to the lead and cantered home a five and a half length winner. On June 12, 1948, Citation posted an eight length victory over Better Self in the Belmont Stakes. Citation tied Count Fleet's stakes record of 2:28 1/5 and became racing's eighth Triple Crown winner. Citation would win nine more starts in 1948 and was named Horse of the Year.  

Citation was racing's first millionaire horse, earning $1,085,760 in a 45-race career that ran from 1947-51. He won 32 times and was in the money in all but one. At his peak as a two- and three-year-old, Citation won 28 of his 30 races, including 16 consecutive wins between 1948 and 1950 that established a modern-day record. That mark was tied by Cigar in 1996.During the streak, Citation won at distances from three-quarters of a mile to two miles. He crushed older horses. He broke track records. He won on the lead and won from off the pace.

Later in life the great Arcaro reflected: "Citation was the best ever. He was so fast he scared me."

Calumet provided the elder Jones with superb horses, and Jones minted champions one after another. His talent, innovation and accomplishments put him on the cover of the May 30, 1949 issue of Time Magazine.  In 1958, Ben Jones was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.  On June 13, 1961, he passed away at the age of seventy-eight and was buried in the family plot in Rose Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of Parnell. Ben A. Jones remains the King of the Run for the Roses.

 

Writer & Historian

Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003. He started writing historical racing articles for ESPN.com in 2010 and the Jockey Club’s America’s Best Racing in 2012. His work has been featured on premier racing sites including the Paulick Report and Equidaily.com. He is also a member of the Turf Writers of America.

One of the most familiar sounds at a racetrack is the bugle call, universally known as the call to the post. The catchy melody is performed as the jockeys parade their horses to the track. It also alerts spectators that another race is forthcoming. Prior to the advent of the starting gates, the call to the post would signal horses to circle around and line up at a starting line and were off and running at the signal of the starter's flag.

The origin of the call to the post goes back to military traditions. Buglers and their horns were a key part of the art of warfare sending signals over a chaotic battlefield and on board warships. "First call" reveries signal the start of a new day, while Taps is the haunting strain sounded nightly by the U.S. military to indicate "lights out." Sometimes known as "Butterfield's Lullaby," it is also played during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on a bugle or trumpet.

 

Kelso 8

Kelso is the only Five Time “Horse of the Year honoree. That feat will never be duplicated. Kelso dominated American racing like no other horse before or since setting a string of records and endearing himself to millions of fans. He was a homebred of Mrs. Allaire du Pont and raced in her canary yellow and gray silks. No horse raced so well and did it so long as Kelso. He is buried in a lovely equine cemetery at Mrs. du Pont’s Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md.  A quote at the base of Kelso’s granite marker simply says: “Where he gallops the earth sings.”  For my money, longevity-wise, there has never been a greater American thoroughbred.

Contact: tconway@terryconway.net