It's been more than 20 years since I found myself standing next to John T.L. Jones Jr. in the check-in line at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. We were there as guests of The Jockey Club at the Members Dinner on the eve of the annual Round Table on Matters Pertaining to Racing. Jones was invited because of his role as vice chairman of the Kentucky Racing Commission. I was there as editor of Blood-Horse magazine and author of the weekly “What's Going on Here?” column.
“Aren't these the fellas that tell you what to write every week?” Jones said in his Texas drawl.
“No, Johnny,” I tried to explain. “Blood-Horse is owned by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and we actually have a separate board of trustees that are independent of TOBA. And it's got nothing to do with The Jockey Club.”
“Ray,” he said, pausing for effect while shaking his head disapprovingly. “Stop yanking my pee-pee.”
Johnny Jones knew how to call B.S., and I had tried to B.S. him. He knew that every member of the Blood-Horse's board of trustees was a Jockey Club member – and at least one of them was in a leadership position as a steward of the powerful organization. Even though none of those trustees ever as much as suggested what I should write in my column, I got his drift: The Jockey Club had considerable influence on the industry's leading publication (and, in fact, eventually bought Blood-Horse in 2015).
That was Johnny Jones, a guy who could size up a situation pretty quickly and cut to the chase. It's why he was “the man” when a dispute needed settling in a game where there's as many opinions as there are horses.
Jones died on Friday in Quanah, Texas, a town of 2,500 near the Oklahoma state line, 200 miles northwest of Dallas-Ft. Worth. It's where he was born 84 years ago and where he'll be laid to rest Tuesday at noon. The town's lone mortuary, Smith Funeral Home, is handling arrangements.
“He was a great compromiser,” Kerry Cauthen, managing partner of Four Star Sales in Lexington, said of Jones. “He kept the Breeders' Cup from falling apart in the very beginning when there were different factions. That's one of the things he was proudest of.”
Cauthen first got to know Jones through his father, Ronald “Tex” Cauthen, who like Jones was a native Texan. Tex Cauthen worked the Ohio-Kentucky racing circuit as a blacksmith and met Jones, a Quarter Horse trainer who had come up from Texas and eventually hooked up with banker and horse owner Marvin Warner in Ohio. Jones started prepping yearlings “the Quarter Horse way,” Cauthen said, and he made a big impact at the Kentucky sales.
“They were exercised,” Cauthen said. “He had them hand walked and he worked them into looking like an athlete. His yearlings had great coats. There were little details that we now take for granted. He had them shod properly, put a little gloss on their feet. If you compared his cheaper horses next to a better-bred one, that other one might have a bit of a belly and just didn't look as athletic. He made a lot of money doing that.”
Jones would move to Lexington and become general manager of what was then Walmac-Warnerton Farm on Paris Pike. In addition to Marvin Warner, Roland de Chambure of France and Will Farish (prior to establishing Lane's End) were financial backers of the farm that eventually became Walmac International, and then Walmac. Jones retired from the farm and sold his interest in 2005.
“He lived by his wits,” Cauthen said of Jones. “Those guys gave him access to capital but it was through the partnerships that Johnny orchestrated that led to deals for stallions like Nureyev, Alleged and Miswaki. He loved it.
“My Dad said Johnny could get on a plane with no baggage, no money, no nothing and come back with a stallion,” Cauthen said. “He was a lot of fun to be around all the time, and he was a horse trader. He'd been trading horses, starting with Quarter Horses, all his life. He met a group of like-minded people who happened to be Irish, French or English. He knew how to cut and slice and trade. He epitomized the fun that was the horse business of that era. He made sure everyone had fun, and he had fun with them. He lived four or five lives.”
Along the way, Jones helped a number of people get started in the business.
Cauthen started working for Jones in college, was a partner in Walmac Bloodstock Services and would later get Jones' help in forming Four Star Sales.
“He was very good at giving opportunities,” Cauthen said, “and he was proud of the fact he helped so many people. If you were willing to work hard, he'd give you what you needed and support you.”
Among those who passed through “Walmac University” were David Ingordo of Lane's End Bloodstock, Francis Karon of Four Star Sales, Newmarket-based trainer David Lanigan, Donato Lanni of Donato Lanni Bloodstock, Bobby Miller of Millennium Farm and bloodstock agent John Moynihan.
“I showed up at his office and asked for a job in the late 1990s,” said Lanni, who works out of Hill ‘n' Dale Farm in Lexington and buys horses for a number of major clients. “He didn't know me. I had no stake in the game, but he decided to give me a chance. He gave me a phone and a cubicle and I went to work.
“He's an amazing person,” Lanni said. “He helped everybody – especially the little guy. Helped so many people get started – if you were willing to work and dedicate yourself. He made it fun though. You worked hard, but you had fun. And I never saw him lose his cool. Ever.”
Jones was a “natural horseman,” Lanni said. “He'd sit off to the side and critique horses based on their athletic ability. If you were there with him and willing to learn, he was always willing to teach. And he knew how to talk to people. He's a legend, a true, true legend.”
“The first farm Mike Pegram and I went to in Kentucky was Walmac, where we met Johnny,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert remembered. “I told him I didn't like certain sires and he told me don't let that stop me, that they all throw one good one. I've been very lucky doing that.”
“Johnny said, ‘Don't be a pedigree snob,'” Lanni said.
Cauthen and Baffert both used the same word that Lanni did in describing Jones: Legend.
“He was the consummate horseman,” said Cauthen. “And he just made you smile.”
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