By T. D. Thornton
John T.L. “Big Johnny” Jones, Jr., who parlayed humble cowboy origins as a Quarter Horse trainer into a high-profile bloodstock career as the owner of Walmac Stud International, died Friday at his home in Quanah, Texas.
He was 84, and the cause of death was congestive heart failure. His son, John Jones, III, confirmed the death to TDN, adding that his father passed in the town where he was born and in the company of family members.
As a Texan whose personality and presence often seemed to be as large as the Lone Star State itself, Jones first began leasing farmland in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1960s. Under his direction, the Walmac operation grew to 248 lush, rolling acres on Paris Pike in Fayette County, and his venture subsequently gained prominence during a decades-long run as the home of stallions Nureyev, Miswaki, and Alleged.
Jones was a member of the Texas Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and was formerly on the boards of both the Breeders’ Cup and Keeneland Association. He had served a stint as the vice-chairman for the Kentucky Racing Commission, and was a director of both the Association of State Racing Commissioners and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. He was also a founding partner of Four Star Sales, a Lexington-based consignment company.
When asked how he thought his father would like to be remembered, John Jones, III gave a long, thoughtful pause and said, “Man, that’s like trying to condense a book into one sentence.”
Then he added: “He had an extraordinary amount of empathy and understanding for his fellow man, always. That was his greatest strength, and it carried him a long way. He had a real open heart to any guy on the street, rich or poor. He had a big personality, and was very accepting of all kinds of different people. I think he realized that was his greatest asset, and I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered. At the end of the day, personality and emotions are what drive the horse business. And because of his personable nature, my dad fit into that climate very well.”
Born July 7, 1934, John Jones, Jr., credited his father with getting him interested in horses. Even though his dad was a businessman, the family kept a ranch on their north Texas land near the Oklahoma border. Jones graduated from Abilene Christian University, and when his father died in 1958, he decided to immerse himself in the family’s Quarter Horse business, devoting all of this time to caring for a stable that had grown to about 30 head.
Jones himself explained what happened next in a profile published 12 years ago in Trainer Magazine:
“I ended up joint venturing a deal on my farm in 1965 and when my partner got into a financial bind that carried me with him, I lost everything I had. When you wake up one day with four children and no money, you’d better get your ass to work. I went to the track and started training for Walter Merrick in 1966.”
Merrick, who was a legendary horseman in his own right, provided Jones with a stable that grew from competing in bush-track match races to winning high-profile Quarter Horse races like the Kansas Futurity in 1967.
Jones transitioned to Thoroughbreds for another client in the 1970s and was based at River Dowsn in Ohio, where his blacksmith was the father of an up-and-coming apprentice named Steve Cauthen.
Jones left training when he “figured out if I was ever going to be a factor in the industry it was going to be through stallions,” he told Trainer Magazine.
Once Jones firmly established Walmac in 1976 it grew to lofty status over the next several decades, dovetailing with the overall rise of the North American bloodstock sector during that time frame.
When John Gaines dreamt up the concept of the Breeders’ Cup and presented his idea to industry leaders in the early 1980s, he credited Jones as the person who got everybody to work together after they’d hit a standstill.
“I suspected that the game was going to get global in the early ’70s with global transportation and ease of getting horses over here,” Jones told Trainer Magazine. “I thought that [the Breeders’ Cup] would put the spotlight on a special day, at least have another venue that the public could attach itself to rather than just the [GI] Kentucky Derby, [GI] Preakness and [GI] Belmont.”
Ensuring that his legacy would straddle both international Thoroughbred racing and American-based Quarter Horse racing, Jones later became the only person ever to breed a G1 2000 Guineas winner (King of Kings, co-bred with Ron Con Ltd.) and an All American Futurity winner (Ochoa, who became Quarter Horse racing’s all-time earnings leader).
In 2004, Jones sold Walmac to his son, John Jones, III, and another business partner. The family patriarch remained involved as Walmac’s director emeritus though, and even returned to training for a short stint.
Just last week, the historic Walmac farm was sold at auction for $4.8 million. The sale did not include the assets of the breeding operation, which will shift to a smaller farm near the Fayette/Bourbon County Line.
Jones was predeceased by his first wife, Janice, in 2003. He married Brenda Kinsolving in 2007. He is survived by sons (and their spouses) John III (Mia), Hutton (Paula), Levi (Paula), and a daughter, Julie (Guy); eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren; three stepchildren, and seven step-grandchildren.
Graveside services will be held Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 12 noon, at the Quanah Cemetery. According to John Jones III, a memorial service for his father will be held in Lexington at a date in the future to be determined.