Last year, my father's funeral was on Breeders' Cup morning. When everything was said and done, I ended the day at Belmont Park to see the Classic. It was a somber time for me. This year, I watched the race from home on TV. When Volponi split horses at the head of the stretch, my entire family rocketed to their feet, raising their voices. Our two German Shepherds began barking wildly. After that, Tom Durkin's call never stood a chance of being heard in my house. Though I cover racing professionally, Volponi is the only Thoroughbred I know personally. I happen to like him very much. He's got plenty of spirit. And it's nice to know that on racing's biggest day, my equine friend reached the pinnacle of being the best racehorse in the world. My connection to the horse began in late 1999. I was writing a column for Robert Fierro's New York Thoroughbred Observer. The previous year, Michael Dickinson had amazingly scored with Da Hoss in the Breeders' Cup Mile off one prep race after nearly two years on the sidelines due to injury. I couldn't recognize him as Trainer of the Year in my awards column, but I didn't want to leave him out entirely either. So I instituted The Volponi Award. In Italian, volponi means "sly, old fox." Readers had a good response to the award, so I kept it going. I gave the next one to P.G. Johnson, writing, "This Hall of Fame trainer has put over a number of nice scores this season. Among fans, he's the Rodney Dangerfield of trainers, getting no respect and taking little money at the windows. That probably makes his barn workers and owners very happy." I had never met P.G. Johnson before, and was a little concerned that he might think I was calling him a put-over artist. A few weeks later, Johnson's daughter, Karen, approached me in the press box about the piece. I was prepared for the worst. She said that her father loved it, and that I should introduce myself to him. A month or so after that, she told me that her father had renamed a 2-year-old in training Volponi. I sheepishly called P.G. Johnson at home. He invited me to his barn with my wife and daughter to meet him and the horse. It didn't take long for me to realize that the best part about a racehorse named Volponi was that P.G. Johnson and his family were behind him. The horse could have run backwards, and I would not have been the least bit upset. The real honor was shaking P.G. Johnson's hand in the paddock before a race and telling him, "Good luck." The first time Volponi raced, he disappointed a lot of fans at 3-5. A railbird called out to him repeatedly, "Volponi, you suck." I was severely tempted to go over and show that knucklehead my driver's license. When he started running in stakes, the name Volponi was spelled out on his saddlecloth. I covered a few of those events. And when he won, it was like writing a review of a dinner party I had hosted.
P.G. Johnson has been training horses for more than 60 years. Most had forgotten about that completely. He has remade Volponi over and over again, switching surfaces, distances, equipment, and riders enough times to leave many wondering if the trainer had any real plan at all. There were few believers when Johnson entered his versatile horse in Breeders' Cup Classic XIX. But anyone connected with the horse would tell you the 43-1 odds were way out of line. At the end of the day, Johnson proved to the racing world that he truly was the sly, old fox, lulling them all to sleep while he stole away with a $4-million hen house. His runner had crushed the best racehorses in training, taking the Classic by its widest margin of victory ever. Three years ago, when I sat down at a keyboard to give P.G. Johnson the Volponi Award, I didn't realize just how right I had gotten it. I'm pretty sure he'll win this year's award too. Paul Volponi is a freelance writer based in New York and regular contributor to The Blood-Horse.