Mark Johnston Riding Tall at Santa Anita

(from track report)
Mark Johnston is the biggest thing to hit California racing in years.

The 32-year-old jockey has been riding at Santa Anita for less than a week, but at five feet, nine inches, he's made an impression, especially in the jockeys' room, where he towers over his peers. Johnston, who has won 3,032 races, intends to make his presence felt on the track.

Assistant clerk of scales Charlie McCaul, who has been tending jockeys' rooms for nearly 20 years, says Johnston is the tallest rider on the circuit in his memory.

Johnston was a leading rider in a career centered in Maryland, where he recorded most of his victories. Johnston aims to buck the odds when he rides 50-1 morning line outsider Iron Lad in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles.

Johnston, who was second in his Santa Anita debut in Saturday's first race by a neck aboard Honeyofascore, caught the eye of trainer Jim Cassidy at first glance. That's why the 57-year-old Bronx native opted to give Johnston a leg up on Iron Lad.

"That means a lot to me," said Johnston with an engaging smile. "I haven't won a race (here) yet, but I haven't been on any choice mounts, either. I've ridden horses that have been second, third and fourth-best and still managed a few seconds (three from eight mounts). The response I've gotten has been positive. It will come, but for me it's like starting all over again, because a lot of these people don't keep up with East Coast racing except for New York.

"I rode in Maryland for 13 years and accomplished just about all I could there," said Johnston, who tacks 114 pounds despite his height. "I've been very successful. I love it there. Lexington (Kentucky) is home for me. I love Maryland, love the people there, had a great time, but I've always wanted to take a step to the next level. A real good opportunity to make that move never came along until now.

"It's exciting and refreshing for me to be able to walk into anybody's barn and have a shot to ride for them," he said. "It's a new challenge. Michelle (agent Michelle Barsotti) is happy with everybody's response. She knows the game and I like her a lot. We're going to work hard, break in here and get things started."

Johnston says he's rarely had a problem being an oversized jockey.

"I don't struggle with my weight any more than most guys," he said. "I have to be disciplined, but it's funny, because my height is almost a forgotten thing. I worked real hard to be able to get down low in the saddle and look like the rest of the riders on a horse, to fold up and be able to do it. It takes a lot of work to get your style down."

Johnston took the winter off to regroup after riding seven days a week during the summer at Delaware Park and in Maryland.

"I got a little burned out so I took some time off this winter," Johnston said. "I got refocused, freshened up and spent a little time in Phoenix with my brother-in-law, Seth Martinez (the leading rider at Turf Paradise), rode a couple horses out there and won a stakes for Simon Bray on Secret Garden (the Glendale Handicap on Feb. 8). I was just trying to stay partially fit and have some fun.

"Then my wife, Chamisa – she's Native American – and I drove here, stayed for a couple days and came to the races at Santa Anita, just as tourists. We had lunch, met a few people and I fell in love with the place. This was our first time out here. I said, 'You can't beat the weather and you can't beat the racing, even though the competition is very tough.' I respect that. If I can get going here, there's room for another rider."

With retirements and injuries diminishing the jockey colony, Johnston's timing seems right.

"Where else would I want to be if I had to take my shot?" Johnston said.