By Stephanie Shertzer Lawson
Charlie Jones may be 71, but he sounds as excited as a teenager when he talks about his World Champion road horse Mr's Bones, the first horse he's owned in more than 40 years.
"I heard my name announced at Louisville,"-- the World's Championship Horse Show, the pinnacle of competition for Saddlebreds and related disciplines including roadsters -- "not just once but twice. That's something I never thought would happen. I don't care if I ever show again. I still can't believe I did it," he says of his repeat World Grand Championship at the Kentucky State Fair this August. He also won the championship in 2008.
While he was part of the horse show scene through his manure removal business, which services a number of regional horse shows, Jones had had a decades-long vacation from the show ring. "The last time I drove a road horse (before buying Mr's Bones two years ago) was in 1959, just before I went in the army," he said. "I finished second in the class behind my dad." His dad and brother trained Saddlebreds and would occasionally volunteer young Charlie for "catch rides on horses that had killed someone two weeks before. I only got to show the horses whose owners were afraid to take them in the ring."
A couple years ago, after his wife died, he reconnected with Saddlebred trainer Jan Lukens, who he'd known since shortly after high school. "I hadn't thought about owning a horse in 40 years," he said. "Jan talked me into driving a pleasure horse, which is much tamer than driving a road horse." But close enough for him to be bitten by the horse show bug. "I made up my mind to buy a road horse." Horse shopping, he traveled to stables in Kentucky and Tennessee and to shows in Lexington and Louisville, KY in a fruitless search. "All of them were priced high and I haven't heard of any of them since. The ones I did look at, Bones has beat them. We beat one of them at Lexington (Junior League Horse Show), I was so happy," Jones said.
Mr's Bones, meanwhile, had his own troubles. The young horse spent some time in the killer pen after selling for a couple hundred dollars. He was skin and bones, but someone saw something in him. "An Amish guy took him in," Charlie said. "He didn't want him to go where he was headed. He gave him six months turnout, ran him back through the sale, and this time he brought $6,500." His Plain sect owners sent him to Waterford Farm, a Saddlebred barn in Lebanon, PA. Ironically, while Jones traveled the South looking for a horse, Bones was just fifteen minutes from his home in Jonestown, PA. Waterford Farm, owned by brothers Tim, Kerry and Patrick Holahan, bought into the horse's partnership, and Kerry Holahan trained Mr's Bones for the show ring.
"He'd been a lot of places but was in good shape when we got him," Tim Holahan said. "We had him six to eight months. He was here to be sold, but we were going to show him if he didn't get sold. We took him to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show so that some of the Midwest trainers could have a look at him.
"We made a couple videos, with him put to the bike and also under saddle. We sent out three videos but never heard back from any of them. Few people even saw him. Now everyone wishes they'd looked at him."
Charlie watched Mr's Bones work and liked him. His friend, farrier Larry Bender, had seen the horse and liked him. "He told me, if you want a nice horse buy him. I asked if he would be respectable at Lexington. Bender assured me he would and the deal was done," Jones said.
Jones sent the then five year old Standardbred to Jan Lukens' barn in Ravena, NY in 2007. "This was her first road horse, but she had a stall open. She told me I was wasting my time, but I bought him anyway. Three days after he arrived she called and said, 'this isn't a bad horse after all'. I thought ‘Oh good, she'll keep him,' because I didn't know what I'd do with him if she didn't want him. I figured I'd just drive him for fun if he didn't work out as a show horse – he was that much fun to drive. I wasn't thinking I'd ever go to Louisville much less win.
"Jan's a great trainer and she set him up nice. If I didn't have that I wouldn't be where I am today."
Their first show was in Tampa, Fl, three to four months later. "Everyone liked him and was asking about him. I got nervous and broke (stride), and finished second in the first class." They went on to win the amateur qualifier and the amateur stake.
" At Lexington we got fourth, because the acoustics are bad and I never heard them say drive on. I came out grinning ear to ear. Jan said ‘you know you got beat, don't you?' She suggested I show him back in the Novice class. I said, that's stupid, I got fourth, why would I want to go back? The novice class was big for a roadster class with ten or eleven entries. I followed a guy who I knew knew what was going on so I wouldn't make the same mistake. We came out with the blue, and Jan said ‘you want to go back in the stake?' We won the amateur stake, also in a big class."
Charlie hasn't been keeping count, but he's pretty sure Bones hasn't been beaten in an amateur class since the Devon Horse Show in May, 2008.
Now, "He's not for sale. I don't even want to know how much money I'm turning down. I could never get another horse like this for the money and at 71, here I am with a table full of trophies and ribbons," Jones said.
"Bones has a big heart, for someone who came through all that," Holahan said. "He has a lot of charisma, he's always bright, loves to work, and was just a nice horse to train, no difficulties or quirks. He's just a special horse, the kind you'd like to find every day,"
"I love this horse. Like every horse lover I enjoy him and have a good time. He's not a lot to handle. They ride him in the barn, most of his training is teaching people to ride and drive. He has his routine – he wakes up in the morning, eats his breakfast, kicks around the balls they keep in his stall, naps, then he's ready to go. He does his job, rests well, and just stands there til you get him harnessed." Bones is a speed demon in the ring, with lots of motion. Then ten feet past the outgate, he's walking calmly, Jones said.
"He's an owner's horse – he takes care of you and does everything you want. He's probably the most fun horse to come along in years.