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Acclamation's injury a bittersweet end to big season
Buddy Johnston was making his way through the box seat section of the Santa Anita clubhouse one recent afternoon, accepting congratulations from all manner of horsemen and fans for the exploits of his homebred stakes star Acclamation.
Carrying the familiar Old English Rancho colors, Acclamation had just won his fifth straight major California event in the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship and was in all likelihood on his way to a Breeders’ Cup appearance at Churchill Downs. Johnston was clearly enjoying himself, so he was asked, after his 54 years in the business, what it was like to be an overnight sensation. He laughed.
“One thing’s for sure,” Johnston said. “If you want to be popular all you have to do is own a good horse or a big boat.”
A few days later the boat sprung a leak, and Johnston had the sad duty to inform Acclamation’s fans that dreams of 2011 Breeders’ Cup glory were done. As Johnston knew too well, after handling thousands of fragile, unpredictable Thoroughbreds through the years, all the high hopes encouraged by their rare talents eventually came down to having four good feet on the ground. In Acclamation’s case one of those feet was troubled.
“It’s disappointing, sure,” Johnston said this week, when the news was announced. “He’s been such a sound horse for us − never had a needle in a joint, never a steroid. The X-rays didn’t show any fracture, so we’ll go ahead and send him to the farm, turn him out in a grass paddock, and wait until next year. I’ve always said he’d be a better horse at 4 than 3, and at 5 than 4, but that he’ll really come into his own at 6.”
The 5-year-old version of Acclamation was pretty choice. His run of victories leading up to the Hirsch included the Jim Murray Handicap and Charles Whittingham Memorial at Hollywood Park, and the Eddie Read and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, at distances of nine to 12 furlongs on both firm turf and synthetics.
Such campaigns take their toll, however. Acclamation joins a handsome roster of outstanding runners who played hard all season long and then went wrong on the eve of a Breeders’ Cup start, dating back to the defection of John Henry from the first Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1984.
Since then, fans have seen the rug pulled out at the 11th hour on Breeders’ Cup appearances for Seattle Song, Phone Trick, Gorgeous, Singspiel, Formal Gold, Gentlemen, and Mineshaft, among others. This year the names of Blind Luck, Cape Blanco, and now Acclamation join the list.
“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you’d better listen to the horse,” Johnston said. “And our horse was telling us he needed some time off.”
If nothing else, it would have been a treat to have seen the Old English Rancho red silks with the white belt and bars on the sleeves in one of the marquee races of the Breeders’ Cup festival. They have been around, without interruption, since 1938.
“I’ll tell you where my dad got the idea for those silks,” Johnston said.
“Dad” was the late Ellwood B. “Pie Man” Johnston, who during the Great Depression parlayed the purchase of a used delivery truck into one of the most successful independent pastry companies in Southern California, then pivoted to the Thoroughbred business to establish the equally robust Old English Rancho breeding and racing operation.
“Dad drove a delivery truck for the Fry’s Pies,” Johnston explained. “It was black. Plain, ugly black, and one day my dad suggested to Mr. Fry that he paint the truck, brighten it up, and put the name of the company on the door as free advertising. Mr. Fry said dad could go ahead and do it but he wasn’t paying for it. So dad painted it red and white and put his own name on it.”
Not long after that, E.B. Johnston bought the truck and went into the pie business for himself. It was Los Angeles, and the year was 1929.
“He built up a good-sized route with a lot of customers, but it was still the Depression and cash was scarce,” Johnston said. “Nobody would pay, and he went bankrupt. He went to Mr. Fry and asked him for a $10,000 loan. Mr. Fry wrote him a check right there. Dad was out of business for exactly one day. Later on, when he started buying horses, he said, ‘I was lucky when I bought that truck. Why wouldn’t I want the horses to carry the same colors?’ ”
So began Old English Rancho, named for the first horse of substance purchased by the elder Johnston, an import named Old English. When Old English went to stud, the Johnston spread near the Riverside County town of Chino did not have an official name. That detail did not sit well with Oscar Otis, columnist for Daily Racing Form. In his first story about Johnston, Otis christened the establishment, and it stuck.
Through several permutations, including major sell-offs and relocations, Old English Rancho persists as one of California’s bedrock breeding and racing enterprises. Buddy Johnston maintains that his primary business is selling Thoroughbred racehorses, and the numbers prove him out. On any given day in California the entries will be represented by more than a few runners bred at the farm. In Acclamation, however, the Johnston legacy has reached heights Buddy’s father could only have imagined.
Every so often a truly exceptional Thoroughbred bubbles up from one of the varied breeding regions of the 163,695 square-mile California landscape. Swaps hit the ground in Chino, 40 miles east of L.A. Native Diver hailed from a little ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Best Pal was born and raised in the shadow of the boulder-studded hillsides of Ramona, in northeast San Diego County, and Cavonnier emerged from wine country, near the hippie-rich Northern California town of Sebastopol.
Acclamation is the latest in a long line of outstanding Thoroughbreds cultivated in California’s Central Valley, near the agricultural mecca of Fresno. The list includes Kentucky Derby winner Decidedly, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quicken Tree, and the champion British miler Hill Rise, winner also of the Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Handicap and runner-up to Northern Dancer in the 1964 Kentucky Derby.
More recently, the region can lay claim to Tiznow, the two-time Horse of the Year, and Lava Man, winner of three Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita Handicaps, and a Pacific Classic. They were both bred and raised a short drive from the current incarnation of Old English Rancho, where the young Acclamation roamed the fields. Johnston will tell you it’s no accident.
“We always looked to the soil and the water,“ Johnston said, “and I tested all over the state.
“Our place in Fresno is on the King’s River,” he said. “There’s not one factory or a single thing to pollute that water between its source at Pine Flat dam and where it gets to us. The water’s at 10 feet, and we can irrigate all 400 acres of the farm with gravity flow. I tell people the last place in California that’s going to dry up is our ranch.”
Johnston began running the farm end of the Old English Rancho operation in 1957. Their Chino neighbor was Rex Ellsworth, perennially among the nation’s leading breeders. After selling his pie company in 1959, the elder Johnston increasingly occupied himself with training the horses, although his name never appeared in that regard on the program. Nary a day went by without the father and the son conferring.
“I’ll never forget the day I sold Fleet Treat for a hundred thousand dollars,” Johnston said, harkening to a time, in the late 1960’s, when such a sum for a stakes-winning mare was deadly serious money. “When I called and told him that evening he says, ‘Oh yeah? Well, guess what? I just sold Forgiving for a hundred thousand dollars.’ We had a good laugh.
“Dad never believed you had to spend a lot of money for a good mare, though, as long as she had some pedigree,” Johnston said. “He went to Caliente one weekend then called me. ‘Hey, I claimed a couple mares. They’re on their way to the farm.’ One of them had a crooked, popped knee as bad as mine, and mine are pretty bad. I wondered how I was going to breed away from that. Her name was Solidity.”
Solidity was a daughter of Solidarity, winner of the 1949 Hollywood Gold Cup. Among her first five foals were the stakes winners Fleet Treat, Chief Hawk Ear, and Impressive Style, and in 1974 Solidity gave birth to Lady With Style, the dam of stakes winners Stylish Stud and Stylish Winner, as well as the unraced Winning in Style. In 2006, at age 18, Winning in Style produced the colt that turned out to be her first stakes winner − Acclamation.
“The other mare was Alabama Gal, and she was the dam of Gummo,” Johnston said, summoning the name of the California stallion who gave the game Ancient Title, Flying Paster, and Golden Act. “Twelve-fifty for one of those mares and fifteen hundred for the other.”
Johnston is asked often if he thinks Acclamation is as good as the John Hertz cast-off Fleet Nasrullah, an Old English runner who set track records, won the Californian and the San Pasqual, and was second, beaten a head, in the 1960 Santa Anita Handicap. Fleet Nasrullah later became an outstanding sire in California and Kentucky.
“In my opinion there was no comparison,” Johnston said. “Fleet Nasrullah was a wild, crazy horse, with a bad disposition. There was no doubt about him being brilliant. But as far as pure talent, Acclamation’s got it all over Fleet Nasrullah.”
Which means Acclamation’s also got it all over the parade of other Old English Rancho stars, which includes Real Good Deal, Darling June, Ruth Lily, Imaginative, Impressive Style, Consider Me Lucky, Something Lucky, Softshoe Sure Shot, and Disturbingthepeace. In the summer of 1970, the stable was so deep the Johnstons could sell their best 2-year-old filly, June Darling, and beat her the following week in the Del Mar Debutante with their second best, Generous Portion. June Darling went on to defeat colts in the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes.
“A lot of this business is luck, and we’ve been very lucky,” Johnston said. “Something just as easily could have happened to Acclamation as a yearling. The best yearling I ever had in my life, the one that got me more excited than any I’d ever had − he was shot and killed by a kid from across the street with a .22 rifle.”
The killing occurred in March 2005, about the same time Winning in Style was pronounced in foal to Unusual Heat. The youth who killed Johnston’s colt served six months in a juvenile detention facility.
“I’d written in my notes, ‘This is our Derby horse,’ ” Johnston said. “And I never wrote that kind of thing.”
It has been 30 years since E.B. Johnston died, in 1981, after a debilitating battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 75. His son is 74.
“We were more than father and son, more than business partners,” Johnston said. “We were best friends.
“I’d visit him every day in the place where he was cared for toward the end,” he said. “He’d begun to wander around some, going into the wrong rooms. I showed him a big wall clock on the wall outside his door and told him, ‘Now, Dad, if you see that clock, you’ll be at your room. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s half your room, too.’ ”
It is now Buddy Johnston who spends most of his time at the tracks in L.A. while letting his staff handle the day-to-day responsibilities at the farm, 200 miles to the north, where Acclamation will rest and rehabilitate. Johnston still can recall how the 2-year-old version of Acclamation caught his eye on one of his trips there in early 2008.
“When I saw him under tack for the very first time I thought he had the potential to be any kind of horse,” Johnston said. “I told my wife, ‘This could be the one I’ve been waiting for.’ She’ll tell you how I couldn’t get to sleep that night thinking about him.”
Johnston paused, remembering that sleepless night.
“Sometimes there’s something in a horse that just strikes you,” he said. “I only wish my dad was here to share it.”