In the final chapter of his celebrity life, Davy Jones of The Monkees spent many years helping Thoroughbreds who rarely saw a glimmer of the limelight he knew so well.
Plain bay Kentucky bred Uncle Bill was one such Thoroughbred.
All but forgotten after 68 starts in the dogfights of Florida tracks and beyond, people drove by Bill’s field time after time without ever noticing the old warhorse.
But the pop idol noticed.
“David found Uncle Bill when he was six or seven years old. He was in an Indiantown pasture, and he used to drive by everyday,” says Marion Nguon Seidel, an exercise rider and trainer at Jones’s Florida farm from 2010 until the singer’s unexpected death in February 2012.
“The horse showed a lot of signs of stress and his personality was such that he wasn’t happy in a pasture as a lawn ornament; he needed to have a job to do.”
Jones went out of his way to find the owner and purchase Uncle Bill so he could retire the gelding into a herd of horses he loved so much; often re-naming each one with his own last name.
Seidel, who trained as an apprentice jockey in her native Germany before relocating to Florida in 1992, found her way to a position on Jones’ farm after she resigned her job as exercise rider at Calder Race Track.
New name: Billy Jones
Sire: Pleasant Colony
Dam: Alem Da Lenda
Foal date: May 8, 2000Though her time working for Jones was brief, the man’s horsemanship philosophy, which eschewed the use of drugs and force on a racehorse, left an indelible mark on Seidel’s life.
A generous and kind man, Jones gave Seidel a place in the horse world that allowed her to continue working at the thing she loved, while avoiding the track itself, which for certain reasons, she disliked.
The European exercise rider didn’t feel comfortable working with American racehorses who had been medicated, or who were made to perform at their outer limits, so it was with great joy that she exercised some of Jones’s older horses who showed signs of sadness, and needed something to do. In a sense, he gave both her and Uncle Bill a place to belong.
When she first started riding Uncle Bill, she found a spitfire who would occasionally gallop sideways and unleash other behavioral traits tending in an unhappy and distracted horse.
Trying to help Bill relax so he could learn new things soon became the central and positive focus for Seidel, and eventually, the easily bored racehorse, who she worked so hard to keep engaged, soon became her favorite.
“We became very close,” she says. “He never knew anything but racing, and he had come out of his previous life with a lot of baggage, and he had the deepest eyes that when you looked into them, it felt like you could see his soul.”
The pair formed such a friendship that when the time came to possibly relocate Uncle Bill with the rest of Jones’s herd following the star’s death, Seidel felt an unexpected crush of sadness. Years spent working with all kinds of horses, surely would have prepared her to say goodbye to just another horse.
“It was an indescribable feeling I had when I found out the horses would be leaving” to relocate to California, where Jones’s four daughters would look after them, she says. Through the charity Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation, the sisters raise funds to care for their father’s horses. “I didn’t think Billy was ready to make that trip, and I asked his daughters if I could keep him with me.”
Though Jones’ daughters still technically own Uncle Bill, they granted permission to Seidel to continue training her favorite as a riding horse, and in Natural Horsemanship techniques, and agreed to support the horse as well.
In the dark time that followed Jones’s passing, Seidel and Billy have spent their time learning so much. “I’ve taught him to stop and go and move backwards with my body language, without holding a lead rope,” she says. “We have so much fun, and he is such a fast learner!”
And when Uncle Bill has one of those wonderful moments of discovery, figuring something out or performing so well, Seidel admits she nearly imagines Davy Jones is still watching over the horse he loved so much.
“Sometimes I say quietly to myself, when Billy does something great, ‘Davy, did you see what he just did?’ Working with Billy, I’m holding onto memories, and the past, but I’m also working forward, and trying to accomplish what Davy Jones set out to accomplish when he took this horse in in the first place.”