A little more than five years ago, trainer Larry Jones suffered a head injury that by all accounts should have ended his riding career. He missed five weeks before he was back on his pony.
Last year, Jones broke several ribs in another fall. He didn't miss a single day of galloping.
The only malady to threaten Jones' presence on horseback at 62 years of age has been Shingles.
“Shingles tried to kill me,” Jones said, knocking the dust off his cowboy hat before replacing it on his head and leaning back to rest on a folding chair just outside his shed row at Churchill Downs. “That's the reason I said I was through galloping last year. I did not know it, did not know I had shingles, but I was losing my grip and my strength in my legs was going.
“I'm talking about if a horse was pulling, I had to take a wrap (of the reins) around my hand. That's very not safe!”
“I got it in my left leg, and I did know that one day in the dark I had a horse that when she switched leads, she didn't do anything wrong, but I kinda teeter-tottered just a little bit and it took me about an extra stride to get dead center on her again. I knew she hadn't done anything, so I thought, you know, I better quit, I'm getting old.”
The incident with Shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash, took Jones out of the saddle for a little over four months. Initially, he and his doctor weren't sure what was causing Jones' loss of strength.
“I've never not been able to work,” Jones said. “And I really didn't feel well, I mean I tried to walk a horse out for an hour, and I actually had to hand her off because I was just give out.”
After changing his blood pressure medication, Jones developed a rash under his belt on the left side of his torso. Initially he thought he might be allergic to the new medicine.
“I told (the doctor), I said, 'Steve, I'm not trying to moon ya, but look at the rash on my back, right under my pants,'” Jones recalled. “And I just pulled 'em down.
“He said, 'Larry, you keep taking that blood pressure medication, you're not allergic to it.' I said, 'Well, what is that?' He said, 'Larry, you've got shingles. But now I know why you're losing your strength.'”
It took a few weeks to get Jones back to normal, but the self-described “poster boy” for the Shingles vaccine is now back in the saddle and happy to be there.
This weekend, Jones saddled Fair Grounds Oaks winner Street Band to a sixth-place finish in the G1 Kentucky Oaks, and the next day sent out the winner of the first race on the Kentucky Derby undercard in Kowboy Karma. Jones is co-owner and breeder of both Street Band and Kowboy Karma.
It's a far cry from five years ago, when an unplanned dismount off a 2-year-old Thoroughbred sent Jones head-first into the ground. He suffered brain bleeding, two broken ribs and a bruised lung, and was placed in a medically-induced coma. It took two days for the bleeding on his brain to stop, and to this day he doesn't remember the accident.
“It took about five weeks to get back to driving or to get back on the pony, I was pretty well down on my butt for about five weeks,” said Jones. “But I got up to mow the yard and stuff, to see that I could still drive. I kept trying to take it one thing at a time. I needed a lot of sleep, there's a lot of those days that I slept maybe 18 to 20 hours a day. I'm making up for it now because I get about four hours, so I guess I was getting ahead of time.”
Doctors warned Jones not to continue galloping, or even to ride a horse ever again, but the lifelong horseman never planned to heed that advice.
“They told me to never ride horses again,” he said. “I told them, I says 'the riding horses is not hurting me. It's the falling off that's hurtin' me.' They said, 'Well, I don't know if you got another fall left in ya.'
“I said, 'Oh yeah, I got another fall. I may not have any more get ups, but I got another fall!' And so far I've gotten up from every fall.”
Jones has a lot to look forward to this summer as top 3-year-old prospect Super Steed is expected to return to his barn at the end of May. The late-running winner of the G3 Southwest Stakes made a big statement early on the Derby trail, but a relatively mild case of bone bruising shortly thereafter took him out of consideration for the Run for the Roses.
Super Steed is healing well and should target some of the late-summer stakes for sophomores this season, so Jones is excited about both that colt and the future for his Oaks runner Street Band.
He didn't say it out loud, but watching Jones on the track and in the barn with his horses, it's obvious how grateful he is to still be a part of the sport he loves. He may not ever get back to the way he felt before the head injury, but retirement is still a long way off for the East Coast cowboy.
“I never was too smart to start with, so I can't tell any real difference there, and if I'm forgetful I never know now if it's genetics, or if it's from that (head injury), or if it could just be old age,” said Jones, laughing good-naturedly. “I don't know if I've gotten back the way I was before the thing, but a lot of that is age too. You know, look, I'm old, so I don't figure I'm gonna feel like I did when I was in my mid-50's. Basically, everything is good.”
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