MILTON, January 17, 2024— Desiree Jones had every reason to believe the stars would align for her and her horses in 2023.
Although she can’t recollect the exact day last year, the 30-year-old trainer does remember the month in which she took a momentary pause to look at the season ahead.
And when she did, it prompted a wide smile.
“Around the end of January – and it was very early that I felt we had a nice group of babies – is when I thought it could be a good year. We had about four or five standout two-year-olds who felt very strong. Sitting behind trotters with my dad – I had never felt two-year-olds who had done it that easily.
It wasn’t only the rookies who gave Jones reason for optimism.
“We also brought back some nice three-year-olds, about seven or eight of them. They weren’t stakes horses, but they were decent racehorses and we felt that we could have success with them as well.”
Hopefulness, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into winning results on the racetrack.
But it did for Jones.
Her 2023 campaign was chock full of career-best numbers. In 189 starts, Jones won 23 races and recorded $578,957 in purse earnings, the latter number higher than her first six previous years combined.
Jones, daughter of longtime Standardbred horseman Norm Jones, had no shortage of highlights to look back upon.
One of them came when she sent out a pair of hopefuls to contest the fourth edition of the Mohawk Million, a unique event which sees connections purchase a slot in the $1 million race for two-year-old trotters.
Top Mast, sent off at 163-1, was fourth. Tactical Strike, at 171-1, who had led into the stretch before a break in stride, finished eighth.
“It’s such a hard race,” said Jones. “The horses in it have such wide-ranging backgrounds – some are further along than others – but it’s a great race to be in. I felt both horses had the ability to finish in the top five and that’s a big accomplishment going up against some of the top two-year-olds in North America, especially trotters.”
Top Mast, a bay son of Walner-Princess Lily, went 3-2-2 from 10 starts in his rookie season.
Along with his fourth in the Mohawk Million, Top Mast was third to Willowtime, a 2023 O’Brien Award finalist for Two-Year-Old Trotting Colt honours, in the final of the Champlain Stakes in September.
“He wasn’t on our radar when his season started,” offered Jones. “He is one of the horses – Gino [driver/owner Toscani] paid $25,000 for him – who kind of did everything right and who you appreciated being around. He fit in well to the barn, but he never stood out.
“We gave him a lot of time off during Christmas and the New Year – we gave him about five or six weeks off. I thought his knees were bothering him because he kept making breaks, so we decided to give him some time. When he came back, he still did everything right and then he really did everything right when we kept going. He surprised me. He didn’t blow my mind early on, but he definitely did later on. He made over $150,000 ($153,246), so we were happy with that.”
Tactical Strike, a daughter of Tactical Landing-Sorceress Seelster, proved to be a challenge for her connections.
Purchased by Toscani for $80,000 at the 2022 Lexington Select Yearling Sale, the filly, who went 1-0-2 from seven starts, repeatedly confounded Jones.
“Tactical Strike was probably the most frustrating two-year-old we had,” Jones said with a laugh. “I know she had all the tools to do it, but she just couldn’t put it together at two, so I’m hoping she grew up a bit and can mind her manners this year.”
The filly, along with others, ultimately gave the young conditioner a confidence boost by year’s end.
“I learned I do have a lot of patience. There have been times when I am training down babies where I question myself. But last year, I didn’t do that as much. I was happy with where we were when we qualified our young horses. I wasn’t thinking that I wished we had done anything differently. In the past, when I had a smaller stable, I would think that.”
With the days of second-guessing in the rearview mirror, Jones has been able to focus her thoughts more on the future.
“You wonder, early on in your career, ‘Is this the right thing? Am I making the right decisions?’ When things start to work out, you start to know that you must be doing something right.”
And not only on the racetrack.
Earlier this year, Jones, just like at the start of 2023, had another reason to smile.
This time, however, was far different.
Jones, along with trainer Cassidy Schneider, are the finalists for the Future Star Award. The winner will be announced on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the O’Brien Awards Gala, which will take place in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Currently stationed in Florida, specifically at Sunshine Meadows in Delray Beach – Jones has been in the Sunshine State since the beginning of November – she found out the news courtesy of Jordan Comegna.
“Jordan, who is my second trainer here in Florida, came into the tack room one morning and said, ‘Des! You are nominated for an O’Brien.’ I was kind of taken aback. I couldn’t figure out what award it was and then he told me it was for Future Star.
“I didn’t know how it worked, so Jordan explained people send in their votes and two finalists are announced. I was kind of shocked. It’s an honour. I am happy for my family too. My dad and my sister are happy, and I have an aunt who follows racing – it is fun for everybody.”
Racing-wise, Jones is all business, working to get her horses ready for their respective 2024 campaigns.
Preparations are right on track for her band of pacers and trotters, a group that includes Tactical Strike and Top Mast.
“We broke all our babies from Lexington back home – we didn’t end up going to Harrisburg. We have 16 babies with us in Florida, and so far, training has been going very well.”
Coming off a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Jones is recharged and ready to set her sights on another strong racing season.
“I have this conversation with a lot of horse people I chat with. I do take time for myself. I want the same for the people who work for me too. The horses will always be here when you get back. As long as you have good, reliable help that you can count on when you are gone, it’s the best thing in the world to take some time for yourself.”
One more way, perhaps, for a Future Star Award finalist to help keep the racing stars aligned.
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms