Steve Haskin's Classic Story: Sweet Home Chicago

Steve Haskin's Classic Story: Sweet Home Chicago
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Volponi owner Phil Johnson receiving the BC Classic trophy.
Published in the Nov. 2 issue of The Blood-Horse
Phil "P.G." Johnson had a perfect way to spend his 77th birthday. He decided to buy himself a $40,000 present. No luxury car, no cruise around the world; in fact, nothing at all. This was a gift for himself and his family, paid for with nearly 60 years of blood and sweat, compliments of a horse named Volponi.

Johnson, who bred the colt in the name of his family's Amherst Stable and owns him in partnership with his longtime friend Edward Baier, filled out a Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships pre-entry form, wrote a check, then headed to his local Federal Express office. This was his and Volponi's passport to the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). He stood by the counter for a few seconds, staring out in space, and asked himself, "What the hell am I doing?" When he handed the envelope to the girl behind the counter, he thought back at all he'd been through the past two years, and tears began to well up. The girl asked him, "Are you all right, Mr. Johnson? What's wrong?" He replied, "It would take too long to tell you."

He would have had to go back through six decades of cold, hard winters, first at the Detroit Fair Grounds in 1943, then the tracks in his hometown of Chicago. When "the cowboys moved in," Johnson headed to New York in 1961, where he launched a Hall of Fame career from his familiar Barn 63, the last outpost on the Belmont Park backstretch. Unlike most of the top trainers, he remains in New York year-round, coping with the frigid winds of Aqueduct every winter.

He also would have had to tell her about the recent lean years, when once-plentiful stakes winners became a rarity. And he would have had to tell her about his two-year battle with prostate cancer, which has forced him to undergo three operations and countless hours of radiation treatment. This was compounded by a fall at Saratoga this summer that required therapy four days a week.

So, just six days after his most recent surgery, on his 77th birthday, Johnson bought his ticket to the Breeders' Cup. One day before returning home to Chicago for the biggest race of his career, he and his wife, Mary Kay, watched the post position draw on television. When Volponi drew post 2 in the 12-horse field, Johnson was thrilled. Then he heard track handicapper Mike Battaglia announce the colt's odds at 50-1. "No way!" he said with indignation. When Mary Kay tried to act as the voice of reason by telling him the horse doesn't know his odds, Johnson told her, "Don't worry, at the three-sixteenths pole, you're going to be proud of me." Mary Kay replied, "I'm proud of you now."

That pride, and all her husband has gone through recently, overwhelmed her three days later when Volponi exploded past the 5-2 favorite, Medaglia d'Oro, at the quarter pole, then drew off to a brilliant 61?2-length victory, the largest margin in the history of the Classic. Johnson was right about the colt's odds. He was "only" 43-1.

The following day, Phil and Mary Kay returned home and celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. "She's the one who should get the trophy," Johnson said.

"Unbelievable. Unbelievable," was all Mary Kay could get out immediately after the race. She appeared in a daze, her face flushed with emotion. "I'm just so happy for him. It's been a bad two years with all the radiation and everything else. During that time, except for the surgeries, he's missed only five mornings at the barn. He's very tough, and he's made remarkable strides since his last surgery. Then, on top of everything, one day after we arrived at Saratoga, he went flying off a swivel chair and suffered severe whiplash. That was another nightmare. Our daughter Kathy took him to therapy four days a week and he had to wear a neck brace during the meet. He's remarkable. I just can't believe this day."

Most felt the Classic would be a showdown for Horse of the Year honors between Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner War Emblem and Came Home, winner of six of his seven starts in 2002, including the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Pacific Classic (gr. I) against older horses.

Also in the mix for Horse of the Year was Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the Travers Stakes (gr. I). The main question mark surrounding the three big 3-year-olds was that all were attempting to win the Classic off nine-week layoffs, something that had never been accomplished.

Among the older horses in the Classic, only Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Evening Attire appeared to be in the hunt for Horse of the Year.

Volponi had won the one-mile Poker Handicap (gr. IIIT) on the grass at Belmont in a near-course-record 1:32.24. Although he then lost his next four starts--three of them on turf--he turned in big efforts in all of them, including a fast-closing second when switched back to dirt in the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II). Johnson had put him on the grass following a May 30 allowance race in which he finished fourth at 2-5, ripping the skin off his right front quarter so badly the blood spurted back and covered the bandages on his hind leg.

Johnson pre-entered Volponi in both the Classic and Mile (gr. IT), but desperately wanted to get in the Classic. "The mile and a quarter will suit him, he's sharp and dead fit, and I don't like the 3-year-olds being away that long," he said shortly after sending in the pre-entry payment.

Volponi has always been a horse in search of an identity. Going into the Classic, he had switched to and from the grass seven times; switched riders 11 times; run at seven different distances on the dirt, from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and run at five different distances on the grass, from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. And he was about to have his fifth equipment change, getting blinkers on for the third time. The last time Johnson added blinkers, Volponi won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Saratoga by 13 1/2 lengths. When he took them back off, he won the Poker by 2 1/4 lengths.

"He doesn't need the blinkers on the turf," Johnson said. "He's very cooperative. But that stuff flies back at him on the dirt. It was a wake-up call, and probably a lucky guess putting them back on."

The Johnsons--P.G., Mary Kay, and daughters Kathy and Karen--could have lost Volponi after several parties showed an interest in buying the horse. "Buckram Oak tried to buy him after he won the Pegasus Handicap (gr. II) last year," Johnson said. "I knew there was no point selling him, so I told Mohammed Moubarak, representing Buckram Oak, that I already had an offer of $2.5 million, which I made up. He got up and nodded, and I never saw him again."

When an offer was made this summer from an agent the Johnsons had dealt with before, Mary Kay told the family, "I'm not voting for that."

"I didn't even want to know what the price was," she said. "I told Karen and Kathy, 'I want to keep this horse for your dad. He makes him feel good.' I guess I kind of dreamed something like this would happen. I was right."

Continued...

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