Many in horse racing would say trainer Larry Jones and part-owner Rick Porter, who are bringing Friesan Fire to the Kentucky Derby starting gate Saturday, are the sport's hard-luck connection.
But despite a fair amount of evidence to back that up, Jones and Porter would beg to differ.
The two saw filly Eight Belles tragically go down with two broken ankles after crossing the finish line second at Churchill Downs a year ago and get euthanized on the track, and this month they were forced to retire early Derby favorite Old Fashioned with a knee injury. Still, they see their glasses as far more than half full.
"It may look that way," Jones said of the hard-luck streak, "but we've been very fortunate to get to where we have been - to three Kentucky Derbys. There are people who work their whole lives aiming for the Derby and never get to one."
Even the first Derby appearance Jones and Porter made in 2007 could be viewed as something of a disappointment. With Hard Spun, they finished second behind Street Sense. Two weeks later at the Preakness, they were third with Hard Spun in a race won by the great Curlin. Even before that, Porter had Rockport Harbor, who was 4-for-4 as a 2-year-old in 2004 but never made it to the Triple Crown campaign because of a foot injury.
"We've had a lot of good luck, we've had a lot of bad luck, but to get there, believe me, it's not all skill," Porter said. "We had bad luck with Rockport Harbor, we had horrendous luck last year [with Eight Belles] and now Old Fashioned. But I know we belong this year with Friesan Fire, just like we did last year."
The notion of luck, fate, providence - whatever one chooses to call it - is not lost on Jones. It was a stroke of bad luck that led to the good luck that paired him with Porter and launched him into the big time.
"In 2005, a tornado came through Ellis Park, Ky., where we were headquartered," Jones said. "And that essentially wiped us out.
"We thought this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. But then we packed up and moved to Delaware Park, and that put me right under Rick Porter's nose, and here the first horse that comes through is called Hard Spun. So there was a plan in place long before that tornado."
With Friesan Fire, Jones and Porter have one of top five or so contenders in what could be a 20-horse field. The bay colt has three straight wins in stakes races, including the Louisiana Derby.
Regardless of how the 2009 Triple Crown season works out, though, Jones, 52, insists he plans to retire at the end of the year.
There has been a feeling that the death of Eight Belles drained Jones. Known to eschew medicating his horses in favor of using chiropractic treatment, the trainer still came under condemnation from horse racing critics after the filly died. There was speculation that Eight Belles had run with a pre-existing injury or that she had been on performance-enhancing drugs. Testing after her death disproved those theories.
But the outcry was loud; there were even congressional hearings, and, eventually, further measures were established to help make the sport safer. However, Jones says his decision to quit is not about Eight Belles.
Rather, it's because of the demands on his time from owners who want him and not subordinates to oversee the progress of their horses. Plus, he wants to spend more time with his six grandchildren and his parents.
"There's just not enough of me to go around," he said.
His plans include looking after his brood mares in Kentucky and spending time at a second home in Elkton. He and his wife, Cindy, have some 2-year-old horses and Cindy has a trainer's license, so there's always the possibility they'll be near a racetrack down the road.
Meanwhile, Porter is likewise considering winding down his horse racing.
His reservations are about finding another trainer with whom he has the same connection that he does with Jones.
The owner described Jones as a hands-on trainer who not only frequently rides his horses but also uses manipulation to deal with aches and soreness.
"Whether it's teaching a horse how to split horses or be on the rail or change leads, he's a magician," Porter said. "But before I give up, I will go find Larry and have a long talk with him. I think after Larry straightens out his life a little and he gets some R&R; ... he'll be fine."
"Larry is going to train horses," Porter added. "It's in his blood."
When: Approximately 6:04 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs,
TV: Chs. 11, 4
what to expect
Here are five horses to watch Saturday, three story lines to consider and a look back at the 2008 race:
Five to watch
* I Want Revenge, Joe Talamo (jockey), Jeff Mullins (trainer). : I Want Revenge has momentum going into the Derby with back-to-back victories in the Gotham Stakes and the Wood Memorial.
* Friesan Fire, Gabriel Saez, Larry Jones. : The third Derby entry in three years for trainer Larry Jones, Friesan Fire has three graded-stakes wins in his past three outings.
* Pioneerof the Nile, Garrett Gomez, Bob Baffert. : Running on Santa Anita Park's synthetic surface, he has three victories in three outings as a 3-year-old. Moving to dirt is the obvious concern.
* Musket Man, Eibar Coa, Derek Ryan. : The sleeper has five wins in six starts, including his most recent outing, the Illinois Derby, a Grade II.
* Bonus horse: Quality Road, John Velazquez, Jimmy Jerkens. : The colt would have been one of the top five contenders, but a quarter crack was discovered on the inside of his right front hoof Thursday. This is after a crack just healed on his hind hoof. He beat Dunkirk in the Florida Derby with ease.
Bill Ordine's prediction::
* With Friesan Fire, the hard-luck connection of trainer Larry Jones and part-owner Rick Porter bring their third straight starter to Churchill Downs. After finishing second with Hard Spun in 2007, Jones and Porter saw their filly, Eight Belles, finish second last year, break down after crossing the finish line and be euthanized. A few weeks ago, Jones and Porter retired colt Old Fashioned, a favorite for this year's Derby, with a knee injury.
* General Quarters is owned and trained by Tom McCarthy, 72. In fact, General Quarters is the only horse he owns. The horse had just one win in seven starts in 2008, but, as victor in the Blue Grass Stakes, he will be the Louisville crowd's favorite son.
* Joe Talamo, 19, the jockey aboard presumptive favorite I Want Revenge, is making his first Kentucky Derby start. Part of the Derby lore are teenagers who rocketed to fame, such as Ronnie Franklin and Steve Cauthen, and Talamo, the latest in a line of Cajun riders, has a head start on stardom having been featured in an Animal Planet reality TV show called Jockeys.
A look back
The 2008 Kentucky Derby was marked by Big Brown's powerful performance and the tragic death of filly Eight Belles. Big Brown lived up to his billing as favorite, overcoming his far outside post position as the No. 20 horse and sweeping past the field to record a 4 3/4 -length triumph. But also impressive was that a filly, Eight Belles, had hung on to finish second. However, once the field crossed the finish line, Eight Belles broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized on the track, setting off an outcry among critics of the sport, congressional hearings and further measures to make horse racing safer.