Larry Jones hoping for “good surprise” from Midnight On Oconee
Midnight On Oconee won at first asking at Delaware Park. Photo by HoofprintsInc.com.
by Doug McCoy
There’s no month on the thoroughbred racing calendar that features more excitement, exhilarating thrills and heartbreaking disappointments than the month of May. Just ask trainer Larry Jones.
Jones will send out Midnight On Oconee Friday in the 92nd running of the Grade 2, $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, and while he is cautiously optimistic about his filly’s chances, he knows all too well that in the month of May anything can happen.
“It’s true, May’s certainly been a month full of surprises both good and bad for us but it’s also the time of year when you can have horses come of age and start realizing their potential so it’s a time to look forward to,” Jones said after training hours Tuesday at his Delaware headquarters.
The veteran horseman has seen his runners achieve some remarkable successes in May. He has won the Kentucky Oaks three times with Proud Spell, (2008) Believe You Can (2012) and Lovely Maria (2015), all owned by former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones, and also won the 2009 Black Eyed Susan with Payton d’Oro. And Hard Spun ran a game second to Street Sense in the 2007 Kentucky Derby.
But the month has also featured bitter disappointment and tragic loss for Jones. The Jones camp saw a two-pronged chance to win the Derby go down in flames in 2009 with Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire. Old Fashioned was the early choice for the Derby off wins in Aqueduct’s Remsen and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, but that colt suffered a slab fracture while finishing second in the Arkansas Derby. Friesan Fire would go into the 2009 Run for the Roses as the betting favorite only to break awkwardly, get stepped on at the start and wind up next to last in the race won by longshot Mine That Bird.
And, of course, nothing could come close to the pain and anguish Jones suffered after his brilliant filly Eight Belles broke down in both forelegs pulling up after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized. It was a tragedy that deeply affected Eight Belles’ trainer and at the end of the 2009 he actually stepped down from his role as head trainer for a time, turning over the duties to his wife Cindy.
Then n 2014 Jones spent the month of May recuperating from injuries suffered in a near fatal spill during training hours in mid-April at Delaware Park.
In the case of Midnight On Oconee, who is 15-1 on the morning line, Jones says Friday’s race will go a long way toward telling her trainer just how good the Midnight Lute filly really is.
“We’ve been trying to gauge just what quality level Midnight On Oconee belongs at,” the horseman observed. “She was very precocious early on and while she’s run some good, solid races, this race Friday should tell us a lot. It’s really come up tough. There are a couple of very nice horses in this group, so if she runs well in here it would say a lot about her talent level.”
Land Over Sea, who impressed in winning the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks before finishing a good second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, is the 2-1 morning line favorite. But Go Maggie Go, the speedy Gulfstream Park Oaks winner who was fourth in Kentucky, isn’t far behind at 5-2.
Midnight On Oconee has won two of seven starts and finished second three additional times. She has displayed a high turn of speed in most of her races, but her best career effort came in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra at 1 1/16 miles when she stalked a pace duel for five furlongs before driving to the lead into the stretch. She held a clear lead into the final sixteenth before 76-to-1 shot Venus Valentine rallied up the rail to be up by a length in the late stages.
Jones feels his charge can be equally effective in front or racing just off the pace. There doesn’t appear to be an overabundance of speed types in the Black Eyed Susan field, which is just fine with him.
“She’s got good speed but she’s not one dimensional, she can sit just off the lead,” he pointed out. “It all depends on how the race plays out. It doesn’t look like there should be any wild battle for the early lead. Pletcher’s horse (Kinsley Kiss) and Asmussen’s (Cced) look to be quick, so we may be able to sit just off them. But you never know: when the bell rings, anything can happen.”
Midnight On Oconee, who will have Gabriel Saez up, has been off seven weeks since tiring badly to finish seventh behind Land Over Sea in the Fair Grounds Oaks and Jones hopes she’ll come back off that break a fresh, sharp filly.
“We’d been busy with her, and she needed a little break,” he pointed out, “She’s been doing good, training good, and hopefully she’ll run good.”