Ben A. Jones and the legend of the Kentucky Derby's greatest trainer

Jones in 1902

Jones in 1902

Jan. 24, 2013

By John Hirn
Ram Alumni Athletes Association

As you dig into the archives of CSU athletic history, there is no telling what kind of great treasures can be found deep in the newspapers and photos of former athletes. It was about 112 years ago on the dusty Colorado Agricultural College campus when a young man from Parnell, Mo., rode his bicycle into Fort Collins after more than 500 miles of pedaling to enroll as a student-athlete for the Aggies.

In the fall of 1901, 19-year-old Ben A. Jones came to what is now Colorado State University, after spending his formative years in the town of Parnell which his father, Horace Jones, founded and was also the banker. The senior Jones wanted his son to be a banker too, but Ben found more thrill and excitement racing horses on the streets of Parnell for $5 a winning purse.

When Ben arrived at CAC he found a friend named Merlin who loved football and a good time on the college campus. Merlin had few other choices for a school at that time because his father, Barton Aylesworth, was the college president at CAC. So Merlin Aylesworth and Ben Jones became fast friends and decided to join the Aggies football team as freshmen while they “whooped it up” on the campus. By their sophomore year, they made it to the varsity squad and played under head coach Clarence Griffith.

The 1902 Aggies football team did not fair very well, finishing 1-3-2 with their only win over Utah State. Jones and Aylesworth played a little, but they never received letters nor did their teammates for that matter. Football was not taken very seriously then, even though President Aylesworth was a big fan of the game.

By 1903, Ben Jones decided that his fun at Colorado Agricultural College was over, so he got back on his bicycle and rode home another 500-plus miles to Missouri. His friend Merlin, who completed degrees at CAC, Wisconsin, CU and DU, opened a law office in Fort Collins in 1908 and became the founding president of the National Broadcasting Company in 1926. (We will save the full story of Aylesworth for another day.)

Meanwhile, back in Parnell, Mo., Ben Jones went to work for his father at the bank, but still longed to race horses. He joined the “Pumpkin Show” circuit racing horses from Missouri to Idaho for $100 purses that were split among the other racers. When thoroughbred horse racing was almost completely banished in the United States, Ben Jones decided to head south of the border and race horses in Juarez, Mexico.

From 1909 to 1912, Jones cut his teeth in the horse racing circuit of Mexico, even running into Pancho Villa one time when Villa came to town to steal horses. After three years in Juarez, Jones invited his parents to come down to visit and see his work. After his prized horse won an impressive race, Jones’ father staked him by buying a stallion and some mares to begin a long career in the business.

By the 1920s, Jones had received a reputation as one of the finest trainers in the thoroughbred racing business. In 1938, his horse Lawin won the Kentucky Derby, which opened Jones up to a career that spanned another 20 years with the famed Calumet Farms stables where he built it into America’s finest place to train horses. With 140 horse and 55 people on staff, Calumet Farms won $1.2 Million in purses in 1948 and a record for the time of $1.4 Million in 1947; which is nearly $14 Million in today’s money. 

Jones went on to win five more Kentucky Derby’s and is the only trainer to win six Derby’s in a career. His horse, Whirlaway also won a Triple Crown in 1941 and in dual training with Horace “Jimmy” Jones, the father and son team won a second Triple Crown in 1948 with Citation. Ben Jones was awarded as the US Champion trainer in 1941, 1943, 1944 and 1952. He retired from the sport in 1953 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1958; his son Jimmy followed in 1959.

Ben Jones died in 1961 at the age of 78 and still remains as one of the greatest trainers of horses in U.S. History. Although he is known as a great horse trainer, his time in an Aggies football uniform is one of those unique stories from Colorado State University’s athletic past that cannot be forgotten.

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