As trainers Larry Jones and Karyn Wittek gallop their horses around the Oaklawn Park oval, one would be hard-pressed to find a link between the veteran Jones and the freshman Wittek.
But on the backstretch, kinships often are formed during the pre-dawn light through passing conversations. It was through those conversations, that Jones and Wittek formed a bond, discussing the sport they love and the connections they make with their horses by galloping them each morning. Without this, the pair would never have crossed paths.
Jones saddled his first winner before Wittek was born. He was raised in the rural setting of Hopkinsville, KY.and Wittek grew up on Staten Island in the shadow of Manhattan. But, the road that led them to Hot Springs, Arkansas has provided each of them with memorable experiences and valuable lessons.
Originally a commercial farmer, Larry Jones turned to horses in the 1970’s when the economy was hurting. Jones grew up riding horses and, while he never really thought he would end up in thoroughbred racing, he did.
Wittek aspires to be like Jones. But, Jones, in his typical self-deprecating manner advises the young trainer to aim her sights a little higher. It was Wittek’s father, Dennis, who actually first exposed his daughter to racing with regular trips to Monmouth Park. Wittek says, “We used to have picnics, but I would always make him take me to the paddock. He would go bet and I would hang out with the ponies.” Wittek now owns a couple of horses with her father.
She can still remember rooting for Alysheba to win the Kentucky Derby with her father when she was three. It is her first memory of horse racing and, to this day, the 1988 Horse of the Year is still her favorite. She even had Alysheba written on the back of her shirt when she ran track in high school. “My coach would wait at the turn when I ran the ¼ mile and call me Alysheba as I was running by.”
Six years before Alysheba, Jones saddled his first winner at Ellis Park. Since then he Jones has trained, and also owned, many horses with names familiar to fans of thoroughbred racing – Hard Spun, Just Jenda, Honest Man, Friesan Fire, Old Fashioned, Wildcat Bettie B, Island Sand, Ruby's Reception, Josh's Madelyn, Solar Flare, Proud Spell and the ill-fated Eight Belles were all trained by Jones.
Jones’ career has not been without challenges. The man with the signature white cowboy hat was on top of the world after Eight Belles finished second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 2008. He had won the Kentucky Oaks the day before with Proud Spell and had just missed completing an Oaks-Derby double with his other talented filly.
As many who know racing will tell you, sometimes those peaks of happiness can be derailed all too quickly. Eight Belles suffered a catastrophic injury on the track immediately after the finish. There were public demonstrations, there was public outcry and Jones was vilified – all of it undeservedly so. The filly was in top condition and the accident had nothing to do with Jones’ care according to many experts, including On Call Kentucky Derby Veterinarian Larry Bramlage.
|(Joan Fairman Kanes/Eclipse Sportswire)|
With his wife Cindy, an excellent horsewoman in her own right, supporting him, Jones fought through the media frenzy and continued to train and do what he loved. Jones managed to secure an Eclipse Award for Proud Spell as the champion three-year-old filly.
The furor that followed the 2008 Kentucky Derby subsided and Larry Jones was back on the 2009 Kentucky Derby trail. Suddenly, Jones made an announcement that was a complete head-scratcher for everyone who knew him – he was retiring. On November 7, 2009 he did just that. And while Jones was retiring, Wittek’s career was just getting on a roll.
She wanted to become a jockey, but there were a few factors lined up against her. She didn’t ride her first horse until visiting a dude ranch when she was seven. She took her first lesson at twelve. “I never had my own horse, I took lessons, but I never competed, “ says Wittek, who added, “I was so jealous of those kids who had their own horses.” And then there was biology – Wittek was just entirely too tall to become a jockey.
Undeterred, she looked for a way to become more involved in horse racing. That path led her to the State University of New York-Cobleskill (SUNY for short)for a major in Equine Management. For those of you Googling it, the town of Cobleskill is midway between Cooperstown and Albany along I-88.
Your next question is “they have equine management there?” It is a good question. “It was only me and one other girl,” says Wittek, “They just tied us in with the Equine Science majors.” Among other notable alumni from the SUNY-Cobleskill Equine Management program – Trainer Chad Brown.
But going to Cobleskill paid off for Wittek. “My college instructor got us internships at Saratoga.” Without the move, Wittek believes she would have never made it this far. “If I didn’t do it, I would have never gotten to the backstretch. When I graduated I went straight to work walking hots and exercising horses for Todd Pletcher.”
With that open door, Wittek made the most of the opportunity. Since then she has worked and learned from many notable trainers like Michael Matz, Mike Maker and even Carl Nafzger when he had Street Sense.
While Wittek was learning from Nafzger on the Triple Crown trail with Street Sense, Jones was in the middle of a wonderful run of back-to-back 2nd-place finishes in the Derby with Hard Spun and Eight Belles. Not a win, but still a great showing. His success made his retirement all the more puzzling.
Jones didn’t really know why he was retiring, but for the man who made a living out of reading horses, it was his ability to read his own body that may have saved his life. In a phrase many horseman use to describe their horses, Jones “just wasn’t right” and he knew it.
|Larry Jones catches a nap during Preakness Week in 2009. (Wendy Uzelac/Eclipse Sportswire)|
When he was diagnosed with aluminum poisoning and the doctor told him the symptoms, it all made perfect sense. Short-term memory loss, bad decision-making and even the early onset of dementia, were all things Jones was experiencing and now he knew why. For the record, it is not known whether aluminum poisoning causes Alzheimer’s or just facilitates its onset, but the two are definitely connected.
|Larry Jones exercises Friesan Fire in 2009. (Eclipse Sportswire File)|
Jones was able to experience the domestic life during retirement. He bought a house in Maryland, close to the Fair Hill Training Center and Delaware Park. For the first time in a long time, Jones wasn’t always on the road. When contemplating his retirement Jones said, “That rocker (on the front porch) felt pretty good for about three weeks, then that horse got to feeling a lot better.”
As Jones started his recovery, he also considered what life after “retirement” would be like. Things had grown so fast for Cindy and him. At the point he decided to un-retire and return to training in 2011, he wanted things to be different.
He says the size of their stable is down from its peak. “It gives us a little more individual time with each horse,” and Jones added, “With the quality of the horses we have, its great to work with these kinds of horses.”
It might take Jones a little longer to get ready for his day than it used to, but getting loosened up to gallop his own horses is important for him. It is that daily routine which has Jones crossing the path of young trainers like Karyn Wittek.
Maybe in Wittek, Jones sees a little bit of himself. He says, “She does good, you can tell she has a good background, and her work ethic is the same way,” and Jones adds, “she is out there, she works, she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and put her backbone in it.”
On a recent race day, it was Wittek who decided to go to a spot in the grandstand to her first-time starter at a TV where many trainers go. She was nervous. “I was worried I had him at the wrong distance,” she said, “since I sent him long first time, or for the wrong price, what if he got beat 30 lengths?” She watched the race with Jones. After the first led most of the way, but faded to fifth, Jones told her she was doing a great job and she just needed to keep at it.
The fact a veteran trainer like Larry Jones notices her is gratifying for Wittek. She adds what she can pick up from trainers like Jones to the things she has incorporated into her repertoire from trainers to whom she has been exposed.
“All of them were very hands on people, in the barn every day,” she said. And with regards to Todd Pletcher she said, “He has hundreds of horses, but when he showed up, he knew exactly what was going on with each horse, he never missed a beat.”
When Wittek set out as a freshman trainer in 2010, she didn’t have hundreds of horses. She had two. Her first win came in August at River Downs in the likes of the four-year-old Dead Serious. “A friend got him for free from a rescue and he was doing so well on the farm she thought she would race him.“ Dead Serious finished second five times in a row. She said, “I was dying to get my first win. Then he broke his maiden and so did I.”
Now she is at Oaklawn Park for her first full meet with a string of 13 horses and she has tallied two wins and hit the board numerous times. “Owner Billy Hays gave me an opportunity and it has worked so far,” she said, “Hopefully, I can keep that going and pick up some owners of my own.”
Even with the early successes, Wittek’s aspirations are grounded. She doesn’t want a huge stable. “I would like to have a nice string of maybe 30-50 horses.” When asked if winning the Kentucky Derby is included in her goals, she said, “I would just like to be successful, go see my family in New York, go back to my farm in Kentucky and maybe go to some place warm like Florida in the winter with my horses, that would be nice.”
And with this opportunity comes a whole new set of challenges. Wittek feels it is important to stick with basics. “I love the rush of breezing horses, but being out there on them is so important. You feel every little thing with your horse and you know right away if something isn’t right.”
Wittek recognizes that as a female trainer there may be a few competitors our there who will be her detractor. “Sure some people don’t respect you,” she says, but adds, “But the more experienced trainers, people like Larry Jones, they show a lot more respect and are much more willing to help you.”
They are unlikely horse training contemporaries at first glance, but they both get up at 4 a.m. every day. They both gallop their own horses.
“You don’t get Sundays off, you always worry about your horses.”
Karyn Wittek said it, but, it could just as easily have been said by Larry Jones.