"He told me if I came back the following week, he'd meet me at the same bench," Mary Kay recalled. "He brought his father with him to meet my parents, and a year and a half later we were married. And did we ever struggle back then."
Johnson's career stalled in recent years. In 2001, his earnings plummeted to $828,986. But there was a diamond beginning to shine through all the glass stones. Two years earlier, Johnson had received a phone call from another of his longtime employees, Willie Otero, who breaks his yearlings in Ocala. Otero told him he had a yearling colt by Cryptoclearance, whom he had been riding for about two weeks, and who needed to be gelded because he was biting everyone around him. "You ain't cutting that horse," Johnson told him. "He's bred to be a good horse."
When Johnson finally got the colt, he was looking around for a name. At that time, a New York racing writer named Paul Volponi, who was writing for the New York Thoroughbred Observer, had come up with the idea of giving out his annual Volponi Award. Volponi in Italian means "sly, old fox," and he bestowed his honor on Michael Dickinson for the trainer's amazing training job bringing Da Hoss back to win the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). The following year, when Johnson brought back five horses from a layoff to win, it earned him the Volponi Award. Johnson read the story and liked it, and asked Karen who this Paul Volponi was. The two met and hit if off, and the following year, when Johnson was searching for names, he thought of Volponi and liked the sound of it. He submitted it for the Cryptoclearance colt, and in doing so immortalized a member of the media.
Johnson had leased the colt to his daughter, Kathy, for racing purposes before selling half-interest to Baier, a certified public accountant from Floral Park, N.Y., for $75,000.
When Volponi captured the Pegasus Handicap in October of 2001, Johnson capitalized on the victory by selling the colt's dam, Prom Knight. He had bought her at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga preferred yearling sale for $8,000, and with one stakes victory by Volponi, sold her for $425,000.
A year later, Volponi brought P.G. and Mary Kay home to Chicago, where he would win the richest race in America. Washington Park and the Johnsons' bench are long gone, but the memories remain.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Even after 40 years, you can go home again. After the Classic, Johnson ran into an old friend, Arlington Park's longtime vice president of racing, Bill Thayer. The two embraced, and Thayer said to him, "It's been a long time, old buddy. How have you been? I finally brought you home."