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From Kentucky to Seymour - Murray Johnson's tale

Even by horse racing standards, this trainer has a remarkable story.

CHALPAT SONTI June 5, 2014 3:58am

Murray Johnson with recent dual city winner Correggio.


Even in the diverse and broad church that is the local thoroughbred horse industry, Murray Johnson has a story — and then some. It takes in many of the great horse-racing establishments of the world, the great horses and the great people. Now he’s in Seymour, re-establishing himself as a trainer from Peter Ilsley’s old property on Kobyboyn Rd, locally famous for the Group One winner Bar Landy. CHALPAT SONTI caught up with him to share a remarkable tale.

What do Australia’s middle-distance championship horse race, a sprinter perhaps only ever superseded by Black Caviar, the ‘‘greatest two minutes in sports’’ and Seymour have in common?

Murray Johnson, that’s what. He might be a relative newcomer to horse training ranks locally, but when you talk about racing royalty, he gives that a fair shake.

It probably starts with the 54-year-old’s grandfather, William Stanley Cox, the former secretary of the Moonee Valley Racing Club and himself a grandson of the man of the same name who founded the club (and owned it) in 1883, and whom the great race takes its name from.

If any inspiration was needed, that’s the start of the racing bug.

‘‘We would go and visit ‘Pops’, walk the course proper, head up through the grandstand and grab a bottle of Coke — they were great memories,’’ Johnson said.

His uncle was Murray Cox, who succeeded his father at Moonee Valley and then went over to a similar role at the Victoria Racing Club for the most prestigious job in racing administration at the time.

That’s all on his mother’s side of the pedigree. His paternal grandfather Walter and great-uncles Fred and George bred a horse or two, including Vain, considered the greatest Australian sprinter of all time — even including Black Caviar, in whose pedigree he appears — by many judges.

So there was little doubt what path he would follow.

‘‘From an early age we were talking about racing, my parents loved racing and Vain was just an amazing thing to be part of,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘Naturally we ended up following everything he did. I was about eight or nine when he was racing but we didn’t get to see him race because kids didn’t go racing. We were meant to go up for the Golden Slipper (which Vain won by four lengths in 1969 in a display of speed still talked about with awe) but my oldest brother had appendicitis. Mum and Dad (who owned the Kooyong licensed grocery store) would go to the races and we would listen on the radio.

‘‘He would keep winning and you thought everybody’s horses did that.’’

But they got to see Vain in the flesh plenty of times.

‘‘On Sundays we would head down to the (Mornington) Peninsula. We would stop in at (trainer) Jim Moloney’s and on the way we would buy Steamrollers (peppermints). Jim Moloney gave him a couple before he ever raced and he liked them, and if you produced a Steamroller he would lick it out of your hand.

‘‘I can still remember what box he was in, and Jim’s brother Bill took care of him. Every time he won, the treat for the family was to go to KFC, which was very new in those days. For us it was good the horse won because we would get to go there.’’

The love of racing only grew stronger as Johnson went to Melbourne Grammar and made friends with the likes of Michael Ramsden, Steven and Peter Hobin and Steve Hains, whose fathers Andrew, Des and David have all left their mark on the turf.

After secondary school Johnson was meant to go to Monash University, but deferred for a year and went to the Hunter Valley instead, working at Yarraman Park stud and then Redbank and Timor Creek (which later became Emirates Park).

At the latter he worked for John Kelso, who was involved in plenty of interesting deals at the time, including buying US stallion Raffindale for $1million and Golden Slipper winners Fairy Walk and Vivarchi.

‘‘We had an amazing bunch of horses before it all went kaput,’’ Johnson said. Kelso eventually ended up in jail for his financial dealings.

Johnson left the stud about 1980 and headed to the Emerald Isle and the Irish National Stud. He went to further his education, and did he ever.

‘‘None of the agricultural colleges here had equine programs then and I knew that horses was what I really wanted to do. The Irish National Stud had a tremendous course in stud management and people I worked with there have become leaders in the industry all over the world.’’

Johnson loved Ireland and rode out for esteemed trainer John Oxx, something that was to put him on a different career path.

‘‘I saw what the training part of it all was and that strated me thinking that was the way I wanted to go,’’ he said.

When the course ended, nearly all the participants headed to the US. Johnson worked at Crescent Farm, owned by John Gaines, where he looked after the retired champion racemare Priceless Gem, who was also the dam of the great New Zealand-based sire Noble Bijou, and a Northern Dancer yearling that was to become known as Snaafi Dancer, who was useless as a racehorse, even worse at stud, but found fame as the first yearling to sell for more than US$10 million.

‘‘Even then (early 1980s) it was showing how small the racing world was getting when I’m sitting in Kentucky looking after the leading sire in New Zealand’s mother,’’ Johnson said.

From there, he moved to the racetrack.

‘‘An Australian I met over there said ‘can you ride?’ and I said ‘I can, but I’m too big for the racetrack’.

‘‘He said ‘not here in America, they like the bigger riders’ and that’s how I started.’’

Initially it was at Kentucky’s ‘‘other’’ racecourse, Keeneland before moving to South Carolina where the big breeders and trainers wintered their two-year-olds.

‘‘There was no racing there, but the climate was better and it was a sand-based area so it was very good for young horses,’’ Johnson said.

Famous trainers in the old-moneyed East had stables there, including Woody Stephens and Max Miller. Johnson got to watch champion Swale there as a two-year-old while some trainers also sent good older horses there.

‘‘One of the ones we had there won the Queen’s Plate in Canada (the premier three-year-old race there) and another was champion older horse in America. The next thing after that was that I was back at Keeneland working for Carl Nafzger.’’

The future Hall of Fame trainer was to take out the Kentucky Derby twice in later years with Unbridled and Street Sense, the latter eventually bought by Darley, and working for him was almost like a holiday for Johnson, who also spent time with Shug McGaughey.

‘‘We travelled a lot, in wintertime it was Florida and Arkansas and summer was Chicago and Kentucky. You were working four or five hours a day then doing the tourist things and having a good time.’’

Before his training career went further, he returned to Victoria to run the family’s Ealing Park operation near Euroa. Or so the plan went.

‘‘I quickly announced to them that I wanted to be a trainer, not a farm manager and I went to work for Bart in Sydney.’’

There is only one Bart, of course, and while Johnson was at the Cummings stable, he was offered an assistant trainer role with the British-born, California-based trainer John Gosden ‘‘through people we mutually knew’’.

‘‘I thought that was a great opportunity to get in to the training game and he turned out to be a great guy to work for.’’

Gosden tasted success a couple of Spring carnivals back with Gatewood, who won the Geelong Cup, but has been one of the great trainers firstly in the US then his homeland after returning in 1988, winning countless big races. And that doesn’t surprise Johnson.

‘‘I’d still be working for him if he didn’t leave (the US),’’ he said.

‘‘Because he was that good to work for. It was all about the horse with him.’’

An example of that was Gosden’s handling of superstar mare Triptych.

‘‘She stayed with us after the Breeders Cup and I had her in my care but we never raced her,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘She had some issues and John showed his class. He recommended to her owner that US racing wasn’t suitable and to send her back to Europe, where she was a champion again.’’

Zoffany and Bellotto were later to become familiar stallions in Australia and both were ‘‘beautiful horses’’, Johnson said. Royal Heroine won the first Breeders Cup Mile for Robert Sangster, whom Gosden first got to know when an assistant to Vincent O’Brien and travelled the combination’s Epsom Derby winner The Minstrel.

Gosden was also the ‘‘trainer’’ of several horses which in reality were prepared by Johnson to win races - ‘‘I got paid the 10 per cent (stake paid to the trainer) and the owners just paid him’’ - but Johnson’s first official winner was Mr Wonderful, who won a feature race at Hollywood Park in December 1988.

But even that wasn’t quite as it seemed. ‘‘I was out here for my brother Tim’s wedding so my ex-wife saddled it,’’ Johnson said.

Johnson also became a dad himself after this, with the birth of his two daughters. Which was the catalyst for a move away from the bright lights.

‘‘We didn’t want to raise kids in LA,’’ he said.

‘‘I also didn’t have the support of owners that you need to have with the top class racing in California.’’

But he went out with a bang. The last horse raced there was Green Alligator, who won the California Derby.

‘‘We went to Kentucky in the spring of 91 and the Kentucky Derby was only a possibility,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘We weren’t going to run but there were a couple of scratchings and we decided to run. We were a longshot.’’

Green Alligator ran a huge fourth behind Strike the Gold in the hands of Corey Nakatani, coming from last in the field of 16 to finish just over two lengths behind the winner.

‘‘That sort of jump-started my career. Between Green Alligator and Perfect Drift I had no superstars but a lot of nice horses.’’

And a canny strategy. In the winter most of the good horses went to Florida but Johnson stayed at his Louisville base and raced at Turfway Park, near Cincinnati.

‘‘My horses won a lot of races there and I was the third-winningest strike rate trainer there. My horses were among the better horses there but if they’d gone to Florida they wouldn’t have been able to cope.

‘‘It also meant I was able to stay with my family, I was a single father by then and I needed to be around and it meant I would.’’

Fast forward to the early 2000s as Johnson made another tilt for the biggest prize in North American horse racing with Perfect Drift. The son of Dynaformer was owned by a heart surgeon who Johnson had started training for about five or six years previously and had got Johnson and another horseman to buy some mares for him.

They bought Nice Gal in foal to Salt Lake for $18 000 and the resultant progeny won about $100 000.

‘‘Then a couple of years later I recommended breeding as many mares as possible to Dynaformer, who was standing at $12 000. The next thing we had Perfect Drift.’’

Almost a perfect horse. Like all the others he was gelded, as none were bred with stallion potential in mind.

‘‘That probably was a godsend as he was a very big horse, but he showed potential from the get go,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘He pretty much impressed you every time you were around him, he was the most intelligent horse I’ve been around. He’d do something once and he would know how to do it better than most horses could ever do it.’’

In November 2001, Perfect Drift got beaten on debut in a two-year-old race at Churchill Downs, venue of the Derby, but Johnson believed he would have won the race on protest had it been held here. The winner went on to win three or four more in a row.

Following the usual formula Johnson took him to Turfway and he led all the way over about 1200m before stepping up to 1300m and winning just as well. Two of those that finished behind him that day would race in a Breeders Cup Sprint a couple of years later.

‘‘That’s when I knew I had a horse of very superior quality,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘He’s bred to go long (stay) but here he was showing world class speed. The job after that was to get him to go from behind.’’

That took a couple of runs for the horse to get used to then he lined up in the Group Two Spiral Stakes with Eddie Delahoussaye in the saddle. While held at Turfway it had the good horses back from Florida in it. Perfect Drift gave them a galloping lesson and with the Derby five weeks away, he was right in contention.

‘‘It was a pretty wide open year and it was meant to have lots of speed and I thought he would benefit from that. But it was one of those races where there were seven speed horses, and six went back.’’

The one that went forward was War Emblem, who had a cakewalk out in front. Perfect Drift, with Delahoussaye swinging in the saddle waiting for the others to come around him, was left behind the leader all the way. He went for a run inside the winner, was checked and had to come to the outer but in Johnson’s words ‘‘War Emblem said ‘see you later’ and we got nipped on the wire for second’’.

‘‘It was a great thrill and there were no regrets,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘To be part of that race twice was great, after the first time I never thought I’d be back.’’

Perfect Drift beat some some top horses in that Derby, including Medaglia D’Oro, Harlan’s Holiday and Johannesburg and by the time he retired in 2007 had earned more than $4.7 million, winning 11 races from 50 starts, including the Group One Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. He also started in a remarkable five straight Breeders Cup Classics, the US equivalent of the Cox Plate, with his best result a third in 2005.

But after that, it was getting time for Johnson to come home.

‘‘The kids grew up and moved out and Kentucky racing was in problems with prizemoney,’’ he said.

‘‘I was going to have to move anyway so I came back here. I worked for my brother (Tim) for a couple of years at Ealing Park to get my feet on the ground. I enjoyed this area and I was looking to start training.

‘‘I got some encouragement from family and friends and I chose Seymour because it’s central to so many racetracks and has great facilities. It’s not too far from Melbourne and I’ve been very happy with the decision. The (recently-announced) masterplan will be good and the swimming pool will be a great help.’’

Johnson has been building his team slowly since moving here last year and has six horses in work. His old schoolfriends Michael Ramsden (Coreggio) and Peter Murray (Family Pride) have been great supporters as have a couple of Ealing Park clients.

Family Pride had Johnson back in the big time recently when he tilted at the South Australian Derby, finishing down the track after being prominent early.

‘‘Going in it was a bit of an educational thing, both for him and us,’’ he said.

‘‘It didn’t hurt him and he’ll learn from it.’’

Coreggio, formerly trained by Peter Moody, gave Johnson a winner with his first Australian starter when winning at Seymour in July last year and this time in has won a couple of city races at Sandown. He is responsible for four of Johnson’s five winners this season, with Family Pride winning at Seymour also.

And Johnson is showing some trademark patience.

‘‘I like to bring them up through their classes and let them learn,’’ he said.

‘‘You try to maximise what potential they have.’’

In Australia, to use a horse racing term, we can be a bit blinkered when it comes to discussing and assessing the sport of kings. Surely there can’t be any greater race than the Melbourne Cup, we say. No greater race meeting than Victoria Derby day. The atmosphere on our race tracks (on the big days) is unparalleled, we claim. The rest of the world is lengths behind.

But that does a great disservice to the other great horse racing countries. Take the United States, for instance. Who hasn’t either been at Churchill Downs in early May, or been watching television before the start of the ‘‘Run for the Roses’’, the ‘‘greatest two minutes in sports’’, the Kentucky Derby, heard the crowd sing My Old Kentucky Home and not had a lump in their throat or a shiver down their spine?

Murray Johnson has been there — twice. And not to watch, but to compete for the most prestigious race on the North American calendar. And he hasn’t been an also-ran, but finished in the placings both times, with Green Alligator (fourth in 1991) and Perfect Drift (third in 2002).

So who better to talk us through the day? And it’s a long one. In typical Australian fashion, Johnson might have set a first in the history of the great race in 2002. And that isn’t counting the rare strategy of prepping the horse from the Louisville track over winter.

‘‘The race doesn’t run until 6pm so the second time (when he was based at Louisville, home of Churchill Downs) I went home for a little bit after getting my work done in the morning,’’ he said.

‘‘Because of the traffic it’s pretty dangerous to leave the facility as you might not get back in time, but I was a local so I left.

‘‘But I was too anxious to sit down and relax so I went out and mowed the lawn. I might be the only trainer to ever have done that.’’

It was part of the plan to relax. With family, friends and a host of well wishers around, there needed to be some quiet time.

‘‘Along the back straight it’s open for owners, trainers and their families so it’s very festive with parties and barbecues going on. A lot of people say it’s the best place to watch the Kentucky Derby.

‘‘Before the race there’s an hour-and-a-half gap with no racing and as you come out there’s wall-to-wall people and you’re in the mile chute. Jack Nicholson’s sitting just over there talking to everybody, there’s lots of famous people and their trainers.

‘‘You walk into the tunnel and into 150000 people, with 50000 inside the track. Everyone’s cheering, everyone’s got their favourite horses, all the different TV stations are there and it’s pretty hair raising.

‘‘You go through the tunnel and through the (saddling) paddock and the horses just seem to take it in their stride. The jockeys come out, get on the horses and head out onto the track.

‘‘That’s when they play My Old Kentucky Home and that feeling is one of the great feelings in American sport. That and the national anthem — until you’ve lived there you just don’t understand how much it means and there’s absolute silence for it.’’

With everything out of his control, Johnson can go and watch the race. Not that it is easy getting a spot.

‘‘You try and get somewhere you can see the horses for a little bit. When they jump there’s a huge cheer, the jockeys say they can physically feel that energy from the noise and it moves them out of the saddle.’’

The runs of Perfect Drift and Green Alligator are covered in the main story on this page. But there are no regrets.

‘‘To be part of that race twice was just great,’’ Johnson said.

‘‘Whether you win, run second or run last you’re just very happy to have participated in such an amazing event. After the first time I never thought I would be back but the beauty of being back was that my daughters, who were just babies the first time were able to enjoy it.

‘‘Not winning is not the end of it, the achievement of just having a runner is just as great. There are 20 three-year-olds in that race from a foal crop of 39000. That made me realise how special it is.’’

And one more thing. California Chrome will on Sunday (Australian time) endeavour to become the first three-year-old since 1978 to win the US Triple Crown of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes when he lines up in the last-named event in New York. There have been plenty in his position in the 36 years since Affirmed became the last horse to achieve the feat, but he might have had a little help on his side at Churchill Downs.

For when the rags-to-riches tale went to the post in the Derby, the ‘‘pony’’ accompanying him was none other than ... Perfect Drift. And California Chrome’s jockey was Victor Espinoza, who happened to be on War Emblem in 2002.

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