Thoroughbred racing fans in Stettler may spy a familiar face waiting at the finish line when the sport’s most promising three-year-olds fly past during the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
With luck and good management, there will be no bigger smile anywhere than the one on the face of hometown cowboy Larry “Thumper” Jones, an equine masseur and key player with the team behind this year’s favourite — I’ll Have Another.
Canadian businessman J. Paul Reddam’s gleaming red colt, who won with strong finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, has a shot at becoming the first winner in more than 30 years of North America’s most elusive trophy — the Triple Crown.
In Horse Heaven, novelist Jane Smiley states that there are just over 55,000 thoroughbreds born every year. About a dozen of them will make it to the Kentucky Derby as three-year-olds. Some of those will go on to run in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore and a few will move from there to run the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.
Only 11 times in the last century has one horse been able to win all three races, open only to three-year-olds.
The last was Affirmed, who shaded Alydar around the track in the 1978 Belmont and then nosed him out at the wire, similar to the way Kentucky-bred I’ll Have Another stalked Bodemeister and then ran him down in both the Derby and the Preakness this year.
Bodemeister is not entered in the Belmont Stakes.
The Triple Crown’s final jewel is also considered its most gruelling because, at 12 furlongs (a mile and a half), it is two furlongs longer than the Derby — and it’s never more than five weeks later.
Belmont contenders that have already run the Derby and the Preakness get very little time to recover from the stress of their earlier races, compounded by the travel from track to track and the need to adjust both mentally and physically to new environs, including strange feed, strange sounds and strange horses in neighbouring stalls.
That’s how I’ll Have Another’s team, led by trainer Doug O’Neill, came to cross paths with “Thumper” Jones and his partner, Reo King.
The same year that Affirmed was working Alydar over to snatch the Triple Crown, Jones was playing defence for the New Westminster Bruins, winner of the 1978 Memorial Cup.
He moved that fall to the Lethbridge Broncos and was still on an upswing later in the 1978-79 season when he joined the Regina Pats.
It was all good until Jones, now 53, suffered a back injury and ended up going into surgery, cutting his hockey career off at the kneecaps.
Jones says he learned later from a chiropractor that he had been misdiagnosed and the injury could have been corrected without going under the knife.
“It was a mechanical problem. It wasn’t even a surgical problem.”
A new appreciation for the value of chiropractic, coupled with a childhood love of chuckwagon racing, set Jones on a career path he had only dreamed about as a boy, grooming and hotwalking horses for legendary driver Orville Strandquist.
“I wanted to run away and go to Cheyenne when I was 11 years old and my mom said, ‘No, you can’t go.’”
Post-hockey, Jones started to take an interest in going back to work with the chuckwagon horses, learning to operate a tool called the equissager, developed to help soothe and repair sore backs for the hard-working horses whose pain he so intimately understood.
He gets his nickname from its thumping action.
Along the way, Jones took in a teenaged outrider named Reo King who had recently lost his dad.
Jones and King became partners in an equine massage business, following the chuckwagon circuit and gaining new clients by word of mouth.
Still working with King in the equine massage business, Jones and his wife Laurie purchased a piece of property in the north part of Texas in 2005, where they set up an equine rehabilitation centre, gaining most of their new clients by word of mouth.
On Jan. 15, racehorse trainer Doug O’Neill, who had worked with Jones and King during the 1980s, asked them during a working visit to Los Angeles if they were interested in working on some of his horses, including a colt named I’ll Have Another, named after the breeder’s penchant for his wife’s homemade cookies.
King had previously worked on another stakes horse for O’Neill and had a lot of luck with him, said Jones.
But King had another obligation at the time and left the job to his partner, who hasn’t looked back since.
Jones has been at I’ll Have Another’s side in the winner’s circle for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and hopes to get there one more time on Saturday.
He recently said the horse is in peak condition and feeling fit and happy.
“He’s strong and fresh. He never lost any weight. He’s feisty, he’s happy, he’s training hard, he’s eating good, he’s laying down.”
I’ll Have Another had been a bit lethargic and unhappy at Saratoga, earlier in the year, said Jones.
“He was not happy. He was hurting a little bit. We got him opened up and, the next thing you know, he started training like a monster.”
The big test will come on Saturday afternoon.
I’ll Have Another was placed on Wednesday in the 11th gate in a field of 12 horses entered in the 144th Belmont Stakes.
The one thing that could get in his way is a looming strike by Belmont Park workers, who have threatened to walk out on Friday.
TV coverage is being provided by NBC and its affiliates, starting at 3 p.m. Mountain daylight time. Viewers can also watch streaming video online at www.belmontstakes.com