If there was racing at Ellis Park, Cowboy was here. That’s how everybody knew him. No need to identify him by his first name, Robert. Or initials, RA And while there are a lot of Joneses, and while there might be a fair number of cowboys at the Pea Patch, there was just one Cowboy with the capital C.
Ellis Park honors a true Tri-State titan with Saturday’s $70,000 RA “Cowboy” Jones Overnight Stakes.
Cowboy Jones died April 25 at the age of 79, leaving legions of fans with countless memories of and affection for the track’s No. 1 personality. Other jockeys have won more races and riding titles than Jones’ three meet championships at Ellis Park. No one comes close as a folk hero.
The Evansville Courier & Press’ headline announcing his death hailed Jones as “Larger than Life,” with sportswriter Gordon Engelhardt calling him “a rock star in stirrups. A legend. A perpetually hard-working throwback” regarded as “one of the most colorful and celebrated jockeys in Ellis Park history.”
“The fabric of Ellis Park is Cowboy Jones,” Ellis racing secretary Dan Bork said in the article.
Jon Court, now the dean of Kentucky riders and a seven-time Ellis Park champion, said he sought advice from Jones after arriving on the circuit in the late 1990s.
“I give him credit for helping me be a leading rider for many years at Ellis Park,” Court said. “He was always loved, will always be remembered and we’ll always have a place in our hearts for Cowboy Jones.”
Jones, who officially began riding in 1959 after spending time at the bush tracks around South Dakota, won at least one race in six different decades and fell short of his attempt to make it a record seventh. For the last part of his career, he’d ride only a few races a meet but was out every morning to get on horses until the stewards made him finally hang up his saddle.
But Cowboy wasn’t finished with the sport he loved. You’d see the longtime Henderson resident out every day that Ellis Park ran, always smiling, talking with fans, reveling in getting his photo taken while wearing a huge cowboy hat and serving as ambassador for the track and racing.
“He was an icon at Ellis Park and let’s not forget Miles Park,” trainer Rick Hiles, who first met Jones in the 1970s, said in reference to the long-shuttered track in west Louisville where Cowboy was the king. “He was fearless, and he was the kingpin – one of the top riders around. He gave it his all. That was what he loved doing, and he was a character.”
When he was rolling, Cowboy was famous for driving around in a white Cadillac convertible during the summer mornings with the top up, the windows closed tight, the heater at full blast and wearing a rubber suit in order to get down to his riding weight.
“He’d do anything to keep riding, because that’s all he wanted to do,” Hiles said.
Cowboy endured scores of broken bones and was often quoted as saying his injuries shrank his height five inches. Trainer Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage said one of his first memories of Jones came in the 1960s at Toledo’s Raceway Park. Jones walked haltingly into the paddock.
“He was broken down even then off a spill,” Hartlage recalled. “He came out of the jocks’ room with a dog. Someone threw him up on the horse, and he went about his business. He was a tough old bird. Always had a happy face on him, too.
“He was a fixture. Cowboy was Cowboy. He was there every morning. Just good for racing. Everybody liked him. He’d be at the races every day. You go to Ellis Park, Cowboy was there, walking around with his cowboy hat on — and dog, if he wanted to. He was a people’s people.”
Equibase statistics for Jones only go back to 1976, reflecting just the last 38 years of his 55-year riding career, but it’s estimated he won around 1,800 races. He last rode on July 26, 2014 at Ellis Park, finishing fourth in a $4,000 claiming race. He last won a race Sept. 15, 2004 at Turfway Park, taking a $5,000 claiming race by a nose at age 61.
Correction. He won a race as a part-owner of the Bryan Cole-trained $5,000 claimer Matt’s Honey with Dennis O’Keefe’s O’Keefe Circus at Ellis Park on Sept. 1, 2019. The crowd on hand went wild.
“First time I’ve been in the winner’s circle on foot,” Jones said afterwards, adding of Edgar Morales, “I told that jock, ‘I’ve never thrown a jock up on a horse before. I hope I don’t throw you over.’ It was fun. My riding days are probably pretty much being over. I enjoyed talking to the jock before the race. We agreed on everything. I said, ‘She can run, but she hasn’t put forth any effort.’ He rode perfectly to instructions. He couldn’t have rode any better if it had been me on it.”
Moreso than his notable riding achievements, Jones is an Ellis Park icon for being a character, his longevity and his overwhelming popularity. He received the ultimate honor by being immortalized with an Ellis Park bobblehead.
For many years, as his business waned, Jones served as the “room rider” – a jockey paid by the track to stick around through the last race to ensure there would be a rider in case a horse would suddenly need one. Throughout his race-riding career, and well past, he continued to gallop horses in the morning.
Steve Krajcir, a former clerk of scales at Ellis Park and now a jockey’s agent, noted that there long has been a sign in the jocks’ room that proclaims “Home of RA Cowboy Jones.”
Well into his 70s, “he was still wanting to get licensed, and the stewards finally said no more,” Krajcir said. “It was in Cowboy’s heart and in his mind that he wanted to keep riding. Because that’s what Cowboy did: ride races.
“He was definitely a fixture there… I’d like to have a nickel for every time he put one around there on the racetrack in the mornings. He’d get on 10, 15, 20 horses a day — just hustle one after another. He loved it down there at Ellis, and the fans loved him.”