The Southern California racing community received a one-two punch of bad news in recent days when learning that retired trainers Gary Jones and Barry Abrams had died.
Jones was 76. Abrams was 66.
In recent years, Jones’ failing health included the onset of dementia. He died Sunday at his home in Del Mar, where he had lived since he had walked away from training for health reasons.
As for Abrams, according to Ed Golden’s Santa Anita stable notes, he died peacefully last Friday night at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., “after being taken off a ventilator following a recent fall at home that injured his back.” Abrams had battled throat cancer for 15 years.
Abrams somehow got throat cancer even though he never smoked. Side effects over a 10-year period of cancer treatment took a toll on his throat, eventually reducing his speech to a whisper. But by all accounts, Abrams never complained throughout his difficult cancer battle.
Not only did Jones and Abrams achieve much success as trainers, they each, in their own way, were colorful characters. As such, they both richly added to the SoCal racing scene during their involvement in the sport.
In addition to their horsemanship, Jones and Abrams were both kind men who were popular with their colleagues, owners, breeders, fans and members of the media.
Of the hundreds of trainers I have interacted with during my decades in racing, Jones and Abrams were two of the friendliest. I always enjoyed talking with them. But like just about every single other trainer I have ever known, they both also could rant and rave with the best of them, if so inclined.
In terms of Jones’ personality, I would describe him as being a high-strung individual who tried to do just about everything as fast as humanly possible. This included driving. It was no secret that when Jones traveled the freeways in the Los Angeles area, he did so as if he were trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, a trait that resulted in an accumulation of many speeding tickets.
I can vouch for Jones’ need for speed. One time in the 1980s, he invited my wife and me to accompany him and his wife, Joan, to a formal Thoroughbred racing awards banquet at one of the swanky hotels in Beverly Hills. Jones said he would be happy to drive all of us to the function.
That’s one car trip that I will never forget.
If they gave out a Beyer Speed Figure for how fast we got to the hotel, Jones would have received about a 145, which is what I think I saw the speedometer read at one point.
Other than Jones’ willingness to “put the pedal to the metal,” it really was a fun evening. One of the highlights for me is I met actor and racing fanatic and owner Jack Klugman. I only wish that my uncle had taken it a little slower behind the wheel, both to and from the dinner.
You didn’t know that Gary Jones was my uncle?
Okay, technically that’s not true. Let me explain.
Before Jones retired as a trainer in 1996, I found out one afternoon that he had been hospitalized at Arcadia Methodist, which is located across the street from Santa Anita Park.
I pictured Gary Jones probably being bored out of his mind at some point during his hospital stay. Heck, back then, he would not have even had a cell phone to help pass the time. And so I decided to take him some reading material. I grabbed a couple of Daily Racing Forms, a couple of Santa Anita programs and a couple of overnights (a sheet the shows a race day’s entries).
I walked into the hospital with my reading materials and learned that Jones was in the ICU. On my own, I somehow made my way to the ICU and found him.
“What are YOU doing here?” he asked, with a look of total surprise on his face.
“I brought you some stuff that I thought you might like if you happen to need something to read,” I said.
“That’s great,” he said. “Thanks.”
Just then, Joan showed up.
“Hi, Jon. What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I thought your husband might like this stuff I brought for him if he gets bored.”
Before I could say anything more, a nurse suddenly appeared out of the blue.
“Are you two relatives?” the nurse asked of Joan and yours truly.
I thought, “Oh, oh. I’m going to get kicked out here.”
Without the slightest hesitation, Joan said as quick as can be, “Yes. I’m his wife and this is his nephew.”
“Well, okay,” the nurse said before walking off.
I chatted a bit longer with my “uncle” and his wife, then departed. I was pleased that I had accomplished my mission to get that reading material to the hospitalized trainer.
As I started to walk away, Gary said, “Hey, thanks again for the stuff you brought me!”
A DESERVING HALL OF FAMER
Gary Jones was born on June 16, 1944, in Long Beach, Calif. His father was Farrell Jones, who won a multitude of training titles at the Southern California tracks.
As an example of how others trainers have found it hard to keep up with the Joneses, when Gary won 47 races at the 1975-76 Santa Anita meeting, he broke the record of 44 that had been set by none other than his father at the 1970-71 meet.
That’s what you call keeping it in the family.
Gary Jones paid his dues when working for a number of years as an assistant trainer to his demanding father.
“As assistant to his father, Gary did not receive official credit for running the stable in part of 1974 and most of 1975, when Farrell was sidelined with a heart attack and forced to retire,” BloodHorse’s Jay Hovdey wrote. “In 1996, the son faced a similar health challenge and decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
“In retirement, living in Del Mar with his wife, Joan, Gary played the stock market with vigor and golf with pals who knew Gary was good for an entertaining round. He maintained a vested interested in the racing game through his sons, David Jones, an attorney with racetrack clients, and Marty Jones, who stepped in to his dad’s shoes as a head trainer.”
(It is at times like this, after someone like a Gary Jones dies, when it becomes abundantly clear that the Daily Racing Form made a huge mistake in cutting Hovdey loose. Fortunately, BloodHorse snapped him up, which means we are able to read what Hovdey has to say about Gary Jones as a trainer and person.)
In 22 years as a trainer before he retired at the age of just 52, Jones was credited with 1,465 wins and 102 graded stakes victories from 7,900 starters. He won multiple training titles on the fiercely competitive Southern California circuit of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
Jones once told me how intense the claiming battles he had with Bobby Frankel in the 1970s were before Frankel transitioned into training mostly stakes horses.
While Jones took a back seat to no one when it came to the claiming game, he also did extremely well when it came to higher-class runners, having trained such graded stakes graded winners as Best Pal, Fali Time, Lakeway, Kostroma, Time to Explode, Turkoman, Quiet American and Stuka.
Jones once managed to beat a Triple Crown winner, sending out Radar Ahead to upset Affirmed in the 1979 San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita. Jones also trained multiple graded stakes winner Wishing Well, who became the dam of 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence.
Turkoman was voted a 1986 Eclipse Award as champion older male. He almost certainly would have been voted 1986 Horse of the Year if he had won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. But when Turkoman finished second to Skywalker in the Classic, Lady’s Secret, who won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff earlier on that card, was elected Horse of the Year. (I called the official Daily Racing Form chart for those two Breeders’ Cup races.)
A PACIFIC CLASSIC WIN WITH BEST PAL
Jones was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. He joined a Hall of Fame that already included probably the best horse he had ever trained, Best Pal, who was inducted in 2010.
Jones was one of three who trained Best Pal during his racing career. Ian Jory and Richard Mandella also conditioned the popular California-bred gelding.
There was a lot of pressure on Jones when he saddled 3-year-old Best Pal for the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 1991. Best Pal raced for John and Betty Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm. As one of the founders of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, John Mabee had a huge desire to win the new Pacific Classic, Del Mar’s first $1 million race.
The first Pacific Classic was another official chart I called for the Daily Racing Form. Best Pal won by one length at odds of 9-2 while defeating, in order, these seven older foes: Twilight Agenda, Unbridled, Festin, Farma Way, Itsallgreektome, Anshan and Stalwart Charger.
The following year for Jones, Best Pal won four Grade I races -- the Charles H. Strub Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup.
Another of my memories of Jones involves Lakeway. One morning at Santa Anita in the fall of 1993, I saw Jones pacing in front of the grandstand. He was doing a wonderful impersonation of a stall walker or expectant father. That fall I had left the Daily Racing Form to go to work at Santa Anita as a television commentator.
It was already a very hot morning as I walked up to a hot Gary Jones and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, I have a 2-year-old filly who hasn’t run yet who’s supposed to work six furlongs from the gate with that goofy filly of Frankel’s,” Jones said, while smoking a skinny brown cigarette, as he did with regularity. “Look over there,” Jones said, pointing to the backstretch. “That’s Frankel’s filly, frozen at the five-eighths pole.”
The “goofy filly of Frankel’s” was 4-year-old Toussaud, who was known for such uncooperative behavior, a characteristic similar to what we have seen from time to time this year in Southern California from the filly Hard Not to Love.
Earlier in 1993, Toussaud had won three stakes races on Hollywood Park’s turf course -- the Grade I Gamely Handicap, Grade II American Handicap and Grade II Wilshire Handicap.
As Toussaud continued to balk at moving, I asked Jones who the sire was of the 2-year-old filly he was about to work.
“Seattle Slew,” he said.
That certainly got my attention. But what Jones said next got my attention big-time.
“And this might be the best filly I’ve ever trained.”
“Holy cow,” I thought.
I continued to look on as the Jones-trained 2-year-old Seattle Slew filly was waiting near the starting gate for Toussaud to show up for their team drill.
“I’ll tell ya, all this waiting isn’t good for a 2-year-old filly, especially when it’s so hot,” Jones said.
After what seemed to be an eternity, Toussaud finally became unfrozen, so speak, and headed to the starting gate for her workout in company with the 2-year-old Seattle Slew filly.
As I recall, the 2-year-old Seattle Slew filly pretty much worked head-and-head with the older Toussaud all the way to the wire. That 2-year-old Seattle Slew filly was Lakeway.
What happened next is yet another excellent example of Gary Jones’ class. I asked him if he would be willing to have me interview him in the paddock before Lakeway’s first race.
“Sure. No problem,” Jones said.
I can tell you that a lot of trainers would have declined that request. Many trainers are hesitant to talk about a horse before a race. For instance, I asked Frankel many times for an interview before a race. He always said no, explaining that he didn’t want to jinx himself.
Thus, in an interview in the paddock before the fourth race at Santa Anita on Oct. 24, Jones told those watching Santa Anita’s simulcast broadcast that Lakeway might be the best filly he had ever trained.
Lakeway did her part. She won a six-furlong maiden race in a sparkling 1:09.26 as a 7-10 favorite.
The next year, Lakeway became one of the leading 3-year-old fillies in the country. In addition to winning the Grade I Mother Goose Stakes, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and two other Grade I races, she lost the Grade I Kentucky Oaks by a head as the 7-10 favorite when she finished second to Sardula.
Toussaud would go on to become one of the greatest broodmares of all time. She produced Grade I winners Empire Maker, Honest Lady, Chester House and Chiselling, plus Grade II winner Decarchy. (Decarchy’s Grade II win came in the Santa Anita’s Frank E. Kilroe Mile, which is now a Grade I event.)
ABRAMS REMEMBERED FOR CLAIMING UNUSUAL HEAT
A successful Thoroughbred and Standardbred trainer, Barry Abrams probably is best known for shrewdly claiming Unusual Heat in 1996, chiefly as a future stallion prospect.
Abrams once told me that, prior to claiming Unusual Heat, he spent a considerable amount of time researching the horse’s pedigree in the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s library located across the street from Santa Anita Park.
Unusual Heat, a son of the accomplished racehorse and influential sire Nureyev, won four of 10 starts and was a two-time stakes winner in Ireland prior to coming to the United States.
After losing his first three starts in this country for trainer Richard Mandella, Unusual Heat raced for an $80,000 claiming price at Hollywood Park on June 10, 1996. Abrams won a two-way shake for the 6-year-old Kentucky-bred horse. The new owners were Abrams and his brother, David, plus James Auerbach, Andy Hillas’ Team Green and Russell Wolkoff.
Unusual Heat made just two starts after joining Abrams’ barn.
Only six days after being claimed, Unusual Heat started in Hollywood Park’s Grade I Shoemaker Mile. He finished sixth behind the victorious Fastness. Running a horse back in six days or even quicker was nothing unusual for Abrams.
Considering Abrams’ main interest in claiming Unusual Heat was as a stallion prospect, you might be surprised that after the Shoemaker Mile, Abrams risked losing Unusual Heat in a race 13 days following the Shoemaker Mile in which he could have been claimed.
Well, it really was not much of a risk. The claiming price was $125,000. Unusual Heat won as an 11-10 favorite, but “returned lame,” according to the race chart. Retired to stud, he became perhaps the most successful sire to ever stand in California.
Years ago, I was shooting the breeze with trainer Mike Mitchell one afternoon between races at Santa Anita when Unusual Heat’s name came up.
“You know, I’m the one Barry outshook for him,” said Mitchell.
“Really?” I said.
“And it’s a good thing Barry won that shake,” Mitchell continued.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because I would’ve gelded him and dropped him [in class],” Mitchell said, laughing heartily.
I later mentioned this to Abrams, long after Unusual Heat had become a huge success as a sire.
“Mike tells me that all the time,” Abrams said with a big grin.
Mitchell died of brain cancer on April 14, 2015.
Unusual Heat was California’s leading sire in progeny earnings for six straight years from 2008 to 2013.
Abrams was born in Minsk, Russia. He lived in Poland and Israel prior moving with his family to Burbank, Calif., in 1963.
“While attending California State Los Angeles and studying business, he groomed Standardbreds in the mornings,” BloodHorse’s Tracy Gantz wrote. “Abrams trained harness horses from 1978-87, his best horse being Guts, an earner of more than $2 million.”
When Abrams switched to Thoroughbreds, he worked as an assistant to trainer Roger Stein, who previously had made a successful transition from Standardbreds to Thoroughbreds. Abrams and Stein became very close. It’s been said that they were like brothers.
Abrams struck out on his own as a Thoroughbred trainer in 1993. He won multiple graded stakes with Famous Digger after she was claimed for $40,000 as a maiden in 1997. Abrams also trained such graded stakes-winning offspring of Unusual Heat as Unusual Suspect, Golden Doc A, and Lethal Heat.
Lethal Heat finished third in Del Mar’s 2009 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes and second in Santa Anita’s Grade I Lady’s Secret Stakes. The great Zenyatta won both races.
During the many years I worked as a television commentator at Santa Anita, I saw many instances in which when an Abrams horse became fractious for a groom in the walking ring, Abrams would take over walking the horse himself. And I do not recall one time in which the horse did not then calm down and become manageable for Abrams.
IMPORTANT WORKOUTS LAST WEEKEND FOR BC CLASSIC
Two equine luminaries from the powerful Bob Baffert barn, Improbable and Maximum Security, recorded workouts at Santa Anita Park last Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, 3-year-old star Tiz the Law had a workout at Belmont Park last Saturday morning.
Improbable currently sits atop the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll. Maximum Security ranks No. 2, while Tiz the Law is No. 8. The next scheduled start for all three is the Grade I, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 7.
A three-race winning streak has propelled Improbable to his No. 1 national ranking. He took Santa Anita’s Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup by 3 1/2 lengths on June 6. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred City Zip colt then won Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney Stakes by two lengths on Aug. 1. Most recently, he rolled to a 4 1/2-length triumph in Santa Anita’s Grade I Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 26.
Maximum Security reeled off six consecutive victories before having to settle for second in the Awesome Again.
Last Sunday’s workouts by Improbable and Maximum Security can be viewed on the XBTV website.
Improbable worked four furlongs in a sharp :47.20 in a solo drill. It was the fourth fastest of 54 works at the distance Sunday morning.
“He just glides,” Baffert said of Improbable’s workout, according to Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen.
Baffert added that Improbable “bounced out of” the Awesome Again “very well.”
Maximum Security worked in company outside Tapitution. They each were credited with a :47.80 clocking for four furlongs. Maximum Security generally does not work too well by himself, hence the company for him.
At the end of four furlongs, Maximum Security was about a neck in front, then galloped out well.
This :47 and change move for Maximum Security actually was quite good for him from a time standpoint. Tapitution is winless in two career starts, but he did a fine job Sunday to help Maximum Security work much better than he almost certainly would have alone.
“Max looked great,” Andersen quoted Baffert as saying.
Baffert also plans to run Grade I Kentucky Derby winner Authentic in the BC Classic. After capturing the Run for the Roses, the 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt finished second to the filly Swiss Skydiver in the Grade I Preakness Stakes on Oct. 3.
Tiz the Law, without company, worked five furlongs in 1:01.54 on the Belmont main track last Saturday. According to NYRA communications, the New York-bred Constitution colt was timed in fractions of :25.00 and :36.40. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:15.30, then went on out seven furlongs in 1:29.14 for trainer Barclay Tagg.
“It was a great work. He went well,” Tagg said. “He’s been very straightforward.”
That Tiz the Law did not work all that fast this time did not surprise me at all after he had zipped five furlongs on the Belmont main track in :57.87 on Oct. 2.
Tiz the Law won the 1 1/8-mile Belmont by 3 3/4 lengths on June 20, followed by a 5 1/2-length victory in Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 8. He finished second to Authentic in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 for his only defeat in five starts this year.
BAFFERT-TRAINED PAIR STILL ATOP NTRA POLLS
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 365 Improbable (32)
2. 271 Maximum Security (2)
3. 218 Tom’s d’Etat (2)
4. 202 Vekoma (1)
5. 191 Monomoy Girl (1)
6. 147 By My Standards
7. 124 Authentic
8. 117 Tiz the Law
9. 104 Swiss Skydiver
10. 71 Rushing Fall
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 342 Authentic (17)
2. 328 Tiz the Law (8)
3. 326 Swiss Skydiver (12)
4. 203 Art Collector
5. 174 Happy Saver
6. 129 Honor A.P.
7. 103 Gamine
8. 80 Shedaresthedevil
8. 80 Max Player
10. 57 Mystic Guide