Jeff Jones steps away from the deck outside the Western Montana Fairgrounds race office on Tuesday afternoon, engrossed in a cell phone conversation about recent changes to the horse racing schedule. He returns a few minutes later looking visibly stressed. Politics, he says. In jockey parlance, he's referring to the draw, a delicate balance of barn loyalty and the best odds for a win.
"For me, it's probably the most nerve-wracking part because you don't want to aggravate people," says Jones, a 15-year veteran of the sport. "But at the same time if certain horses go in certain races, you got a chance to ride a different horse...And I always try to ride as many as I can."
Jones, 49, has the steely look of a seasoned strategist. He's already put roughly 200 races behind him since May—including 39 wins—and came out the leading rider at Montana Downs' six-day meet in Great Falls last month. Playing the draw right for Missoula's much anticipated return to horse racing August 13 and 14 could mean more victories—and more purses—for Jones.
"Some call it cherry-picking," Jones says of his desire to choose the liveliest horses. "I call it taking care of business."
Racing culture seems old-hat for Jones, who bagged his first Montana win in 1982 on a horse called Boss of All. He took a 14-year hiatus from the sport starting in the 1990s and wound up in Wyoming with two young sons and a job breaking horses.
But three years ago, he landed back in Billings and felt the itch to make bigger bucks for his family. He's since become one of Montana Downs' most prominent riders.
Jones recently developed a preference for Gifter, a seven-year-old California bred gelding. Part of racing is finding that rare runner that makes drawing the checks the second best thing about racing, Jones says. He calls Gifter a "big, good-looking bastard."
"He's just a real dream to ride," Jones says. "Every rider deserves a horse like him; they just don't deserve him."
With that Jones turns his attention back to the race office interior, intent on jockeying for the best position even off the racetrack.