Former Kentucky Governor and Airdrie Stud founder Brereton Jones died at age 84 on Monday.
His Sept. 18 passing was announced via social media by current Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
No cause of death or details about services were listed, although the current governor’s posting said the Jones family would release a statement in the coming days.
Jones was governor from 1991 to 1995, and is best remembered in politics as a reformist who advocated for universal health care in Kentucky. He had previously served as lieutenant governor under Governor Wallace Wilkinson from 1987 to 1991.
In the Thoroughbred world, Jones will be remembered for taking a gamble in 1972 along with his wife, Libby, on transforming a farm on Old Frankfort Pike near Midway, Kentucky, into what would eventually become a well-respected, 2,500-acre bloodstock operation that has bred and/or raised 215 stakes winners, including 24 Grade 1 winners.
Jones was also a 2004 co-founder of the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP), chairing that group’s board of directors until 2011.
“Brereton Jones was a true champion for the horse-racing industry at all levels for decades,” said Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Rick Hiles, who at one time trained horses for Jones.
“Yes, he was an owner and breeder himself, but he also understood how vital the breeding and racing industries are for the economy and tourism throughout the state,” Hiles said. “He was a great horseman, was great for the industry and bred and raced a lot of great horses. It was so fitting that he won the [GI] Kentucky Oaks three times-like a well-deserved lifetime achievement award that kept multiplying. He was just so friendly and respectful of everyone at the racetrack, whether they ran the track or mucked out stalls. He will be sorely missed.”
Brereton Chandler Jones was born June 27, 1939 in Gallipolis, Ohio, but grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. He was one of six children born to E. Bartow Jones II, who served two terms in the West Virginia Senate, and to Nedra Wilhelm Jones.
After graduating from high school as valedictorian, he attended the University of Virginia on a football scholarship. While still in his 20s, Jones had already begun to make his mark in politics, being the youngest delegate at the time ever elected to West Virginia’s lower house.
In a July 2022 profile of Airdrie on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, TDN’s Chris McGrath captured the spirit of the early years of Brereton Jones’s life in an interview with Bret Jones, Brereton’s son, who now serves as Airdrie’s vice president.
“As a little boy in Point Pleasant, he’d ridden his pony Trixie around the hills pretending he was Roy Rogers,” Bret Jones told TDN. “He started showing, but then somebody told him about Lexington, Kentucky, and at that moment he made the decision: ‘If that’s where the best horses are, that’s where I need to be.’ So after university he decided that he needed to make some money before he could come out here and live the life he’d set his heart on.”
After his marriage to Elizabeth “Libby” Lloyd in 1970, the Joneses moved to Airdrie Farm, which was then part of Libby’s family’s estate in Woodford County, Kentucky.
“Mom’s family had a farm,” Bret explained in the fiftieth anniversary profile. “Not a Thoroughbred farm, an agrarian one. Dad never wanted to be viewed as someone who had just married into this, so he negotiated a 30-year lease with my mother’s father and found a way to work 25 hours a day. And as he began to have some success, he was able to purchase more land on the back of investments he’d made. So that was always a great point of pride: that he’d worked for everything he had, and done it by working harder than everyone he competed with.”
Bret Jones recalled that, “In the early ’70s, this was a tough game to break into if you weren’t a central Kentuckian. And Dad was aggressive. He would go out there, he’d put partnerships together, and he’d compete for stallions that the big farms were also after. And I’m sure there were tensions that came from that. I’m sure plenty of people said, ‘Who’s this West Virginian upstart that’s come in here shaking things up?”
Jones eventually added to the Airdrie land by acquiring the famed Woodburn Stud, home of the famed Lexington during his 16-year tenure as America’s leading sire in the 19th century. Woodburn was also the home of five 19th Century Kentucky Derby winners.
“When so many in the industry had their struggles, in the early ’90s, Airdrie had them too,” Bret Jones said in the 2022 profile. “But that was when Dad brought Silver Hawk over from Europe, just a Group 3 winner, the absolute antithesis of the modern-day commercial horse: wasn’t particularly attractive, wasn’t particularly correct, and struggled mightily for mares. But Dad believed in him and bred his own mares to the horse. And Silver Hawk came through for him, really took off and became Dad’s first major stallion.”
Bret Jones admitted that trial and error played a big part in his father’s shaping of Airdrie, too.
“Nothing teaches you a lesson faster than investing your own money,” Bret Jones said. “I can’t imagine how many mistakes he made along the way. But they were his mistakes, and they made him very good at the business he loved. Dad had tremendous trust in his instincts. There were plenty of times where he would invest in something that probably didn’t make a lot of sense to other people. And those others may have been exactly right. But he was fearless. He would trust his own gut.”
Bret Jones said his father had a knack for transforming horses from humble beginnings into top stallions.
“Dad would take a horse like Harlan’s Holiday, whose sire Harlan didn’t really have time to prove himself as a sire of sires,” Bret Jones said. “Indian Charlie was by In Excess, and now you look at Upstart, only a Grade II winner on the track. Some of these perhaps weren’t quite shiny enough for a more deep-pocketed farm. But there was always a belief that with the right support, they could make it. Upstart always struck us as a tremendously talented horse, so our great hope was that he was a Grade II winner with a Grade I future.”
That same long-shot mindset also helped to shape Jones’s political career. When he first threw his hat into the ring for lieutenant governor in 1987, one of the initial polls gave him only a 2% chance of winning.
Mottos like “If you believe you can, you can,” and “No such word as can’t,” were mainstays in the Jones household.
Despite growing up in a household where his dad ran the state, Bret Jones recalled that “Mom and Dad did a pretty incredible job making it not seem as crazy as I’m sure it was. Though it would be hard to be in a busier profession, Dad always made time for us. He never scheduled anything for Sunday, that was always family day. And luckily the governor’s mansion was about 12 minutes from the back gate of Airdrie Stud. I can’t imagine the stress that he and Mom were under, balancing it all, but I never got a hint of it because of how positive they always were.”
In 1992, Jones narrowly escaped death when a helicopter in which he and members of his staff were riding crashed in Shelby County after it lost one of its tail-rotor blades.
While hospitalized, Jones issued a statement in which he said he was convinced that God had spared him because He had a plan for him.