When trainer Danny Jones stepped into the winner's circle on Friday, July 30 his smile lit up the entire paddock at Century Mile Racetrack and Casino. "For the next two days he was so busy shaking hands and high fiving everyone on the backstretch that I couldn't get any work out of him," says Dave Nicholson, Danny's morning employer, "it's pretty fun to see one of our own get that much attention after a maiden claiming race!"
What was the fuss about? Well, Danny is a lifer at the racetrack. He is son to the legendary trainer Fred Jones, who trained in Alberta from 1976-2000, and who raised his family at the track. Danny has spent literally his entire life working around the barns and working as a groom, stall mucker and hot walker. He usually has a horse of his own to train, but he hasn't had much success since leaving Northlands Park, a place he trained at for over 35 years. His last win was on September 17 at Century Downs with Red Rambler — September 17 of 2018!
Two years is a long time to wait between wins, so when I'manimperialgirl (Imperialism, out of Alamanda Drive) broke on top and was still there at the top of the stretch Danny got pretty vocal. "I call her Peanut. She's a tiny little thing but that didn't matter that night," Danny says, "I started yelling Go Peanut, C'mon Peanut, I was cheering so loud!" And the cheering worked, because for the first time in four starts, Peanut stayed in the lead and pulled away from the field to win by over three lengths.
"I think they might have heard him in Leduc," laughs Dave. "It was nice to see him get a win but even nicer to see the support from the backstretch for the next couple of days."
Danny has developmental disabilities, but he's no different from the rest of the backstretch in his passion for thoroughbreds. After Danny's father and brother passed away, he continued to work at the track and train his horses. He doesn't drive and it takes a tremendous amount of commitment and work ethic to get from his home near Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton out to Century Mile everyday. "I get up at 5 am, but instead of taking a short ride to Northlands, now I take a bus to the International airport and then the shuttle to the track. It takes over an hour. But, I'm rested up to walk horses when I get there!"
Danny has a hidden talent that fits well with his training work. He loves to run. And he trains for, and competes in marathons. To date, he has ran in 125 marathon races across Canada and the United States. Sometimes he will take in racing if he is visiting a city with a track, but most of the time his travels are to take a break from the track. He started running as a way to get and stay fit, and now it's part of who he is. He is also a member of the 50 States Marathon Club — a group of people who have competed in all 50 US states. His fastest time to date was at the Milwaukee Marathon — crossing the line in 3 hours, 15 minutes. A finishing time in a marathon of under 4 hours is an incredible accomplishment — particularly for a casual runner — and especially for a man who is 62 years old! Danny trains 4-5 days a week when he is prepping for a marathon, so he can relate his training to how he learned to train horses. "You have to keep pushing a bit to keep getting fitter," he explains. Danny then quips, "I don't know if running marathons has made me a better trainer. They've definitely made me a tired trainer!"
Danny's favourite memories of working with his dad were mornings in the shedrow. He still likes walking horses in the morning, when it's a little quieter. He says he learned a lot from his dad, but like any other trainer, he's picked up skills from other trainers and from every horse he has worked with. He likes to have one horse in his care at a time, and he fits his own training around working for other barns.
Exercise rider Kaylea Richardson (Olds College Racetrack Programs graduate and former jockey) is galloping horses for Dave Nicholson, so she takes out Peanut for Danny too. "She's a running runt," says Kaylea, teasing Danny. "She's a gritty little girl, and takes her gallops in the morning very seriously. She knows her job, and she can be pretty aggressive in the morning — keeps me on my toes when she gives a big buck everyday. She has her ears perked until it's work time and then she lays her ears back and gives me all she has."
As we stood at the rail chatting, I asked Danny about what his first win at Century Mile means to him. Danny replied that on a scale of 1-10, it was a 12! It's always a thrill to win a race, but there is extra joy when you can share it with family and friends. And for Danny, the entire backstretch is his family — so he had a couple of hundred people to help him share the victory. Congratulations, Danny!