Ten years ago, one of the most recognizable names in the sales market handed over the keys to the business he helped build. Russell Jones, 83, has been officially retired since he sold out of Walnut Green, the Pennsylvania-based purchasing and sales consignment company he co-founded with his brother, Richard. Jones worked for the company for three years after the sale to ease the transition to new owner Mark Reid, then decided it was time to step back from a full-time commitment.
He admits there were times when it was tough to see someone else do things their own way under the banner he built, but that's what happens when you sell: if the buyer's check clears, they become the decision-maker.
“I worked hard as the devil for all those years running that agency. My brother and I started it in the ‘70s and we did 30 years in a row at Saratoga,” he said. “At the time, we were the biggest sales agency outside Central Kentucky. People today even come up to me and say, ‘Tell me about this Walnut Green filly that sold last year,' and I say ‘I don't know who she is.' If you spend 30 years building something up, that's likely to happen.”
But Jones's version of retirement doesn't exactly look like the conventional definition. A lifelong foxhunter, Jones still rides for much of the year and has four horses grazing in his backyard – three semi- or totally-retired hunters aged between 18 and 23 years old, and a younger prospect Jones's daughter is legging up for him.
“I'm not ready to start taking on 5-year-olds at this stage of my career,” he quipped. “I need to have 18-year-olds who are just as decrepit as I am, so we take care of each other.”
Jones fell in love with horses as a child and quickly became addicted to the high octane galloping and jumping he experienced in the hunt field. These days, he says his main draw is the hounds, and he rides primarily to watch the dogs in action as close as possible.
When he's not chasing hounds, Jones is still going to horse sales, reading catalogues and scouting for deals at auctions around the world. Jones is now in business for himself, working on his particular brand of pinhooking. He buys 10 to 15 mares each year, breeds them, and sells them in foal the following winter. This year, he's got 13 going to the sales. There are two keys to turning a profit this way, he advised: getting a good price on the mare and picking the right stallion. Jones prefers young stallions, since they have a better chance of increasing in value over 12 months. This season's crop of mares are in foal to Tapiture, Gormley, Nyquist, Will Take Charge, Cairo Prince, Practical Joke, Verrazano, Bayern and Mshawish.
“Your market is limited because not everybody wants an unproven horse. I'm hoping some of these things end up being proven before I get to the market, but some of them won't have runners,” he said. “I get a big chair and I sit there in the back at Keeneland, and I look at horses, look at pedigrees, look at horses. When there's a hole in the market, I step in.
“I don't want my kids to be inheriting a long-range breeding program. They're going to be inheriting something, when the day comes, that could be liquidated in 12 months or less. And it's fun. And I'm making a little money doing it, so I'm happy with that.”
Part of Jones's strategy is also keeping stud fees modest – and fitting them properly to mares.
“Because I managed [Grade 1 winner] Union Rags, I have a lifetime breeding right,” he said. “This is the first year I didn't use it. None of those mares belong with a $60,000 stud fee. Nyquist is the highest priced horse in there, and he's $40,000. I don't mind using $40,000, but he can't spoil his copybook between now and the time I sell that mare.”
Jones partners with Noel Murphy on several of the mares, and the two work together to research family history on interesting prospects. Jones also owns pieces of four fillies in Ireland, where he has traveled regularly to foxhunt and scope out breeding talent.
As if riding and traveling the sales circuit didn't keep him busy enough in retirement, Jones is also an active member of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, where he is serving his second term. The commission recently announced its funding of research into gene doping, which Jones believes will soon become a major problem in equine and human sports.
He also expressed frustration with the sometimes-critical reputation the group has received in the media and peanut gallery.
“The spirit of this commission I think warrants praise, because every one of them has an equine connection. There's nothing happening in the state that someone in this group doesn't know about. I've got a great deal of respect for the other people on this commission,” he said. “We've been inheriting problems from commissions we succeeded, and that's like trying to roll a rock uphill. There are things that happened just shouldn't have happened, but we don't like getting tagged for it.”
Jones believes his busy and varied schedule is part of what keeps him young. As he sits in his sun porch overlooking his farm near Kennett Square, Pa., Jones makes it clear he's not going to be enjoying the view from a rocking chair anytime soon.
“Just before you came in, I got back from walking. Every afternoon I do 2.5 to 3 miles, just to keep my heart pumping and the joints lubricated,” he said. “You don't slow down. I learned that. You slow down, you're finished. I see old people hobbling around and I say, ‘You need to kick [butt] and get moving.'”
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