11/10/2006 12:00AM

Credit Johnny Collins with a big assist


On Nov. 3, 2005, Miesque's Approval finished sixth of 10 in a turf claimer at Aqueduct. For all intents and purposes, his racing career appeared to be over at age 6. Horses owned by Live Oak Stud rarely race in claimers and usually not for long.

Miesque's Approval was shipped back to Ocala, Fla., where one man believed the horse still had some good racing left in him. Thanks in part to Live Oak trainer Johnny Collins, Miesque's Approval returned to top form in 2006, culminated by his victory in last weekend's Breeders' Cup Mile.

It was the first Breeders' Cup victory for a Florida-bred since Beautiful Pleasure won the 1999 Distaff.

Collins's life story reads like it was written by Mark Twain. Born into a relatively poor farming family in rural Mississippi, he was adopted at the age of 9 by Bill Dardon, a neighbor who perceived something in the rural youngster that pleaded for a chance. Dardon trained Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds and passed on his knowledge of horsemanship to Collins. Together they traveled the Southeast Quarter Horse circuit, and when he was old enough and skilled enough, Collins became a jockey.

"I learned everything from Mr. Dardon," said Collins. "And this learning included my social values and my work ethic."

The time for circuit traveling ended in 1985 in Ocala. It was there that Collins began to hone his overall horsemanship skills. At first, he freelanced to several farms, including Live Oak, as an exercise lad; later he worked his way up the training ladder for the longtime horseman Marty Hershe Jr.

In 1997, Collins was given the job of farm trainer for Live Oak Stud.

"Johnny is one of the most important links in the success of Live Oak," acknowledged farm manager John Rasmussen. "He has an eye for a horse and a rapport with horses that's amazing."

Miesque's Approval returned to Live Oak Stud within days of his poor race at Aqueduct.

"I watched him get off the van," said Collins, "and he was not a happy horse. He was sour and walking pinchy."

Collins went over Miesque's Approval head to hoof and stem to stern.

"I called in an acupuncturist; I put a magnetic blanket on him," Collins said. "I had him reshod, and I got up nights to check him out. Anything to get into the horse's mind."

Within weeks, Miesque's Approval had an attitude change. He began to act like a happy camper. Collins put him under tack, and his report to Live Oak owner Charlotte Weber was positive.

"I informed Mrs. Weber that in my opinion Miesque's Approval's days as a racehorse were not over," Collins recalled. "She asked me 'What's next?' I said I'd like to send him to Marty Wolfson at Calder and let him get the horse ready for the Sunshine Millions in January. Marty knew what to do with him."

Standing a turf-oriented stallion is tough to do, especially in Ocala, so Miesque's Approval will remain in training as an 8 year-old.

"Tentative plans call for him to race through the first six months of 2007," Rasmussen said, "and then we'll see if there is any interest from breeders in the Southern Hemisphere."

"I know my horse," said Collins. "He's not through. There's a lot of class and winning left in him."

In 23 years' worth of Breeders' Cup events, 202 Florida-breds have now competed with 19 wins, 18 seconds, 17 thirds, and collective earnings of more than $23 million.

Prominent lobbyist George Onett dies

George L. Onett had not been well in recent years, suffering mainly from diabetes, a heart condition, and related illnesses.

Onett died as he prepared to vote this past Tuesday. Those who knew him knew that politics was an integral part of his life, even in his 74th year. Missing an election was, for him, unthinkable.

From the 1960's into the 1980's, Onett was one of the powerful movers and shakers in Florida's Thoroughbred industry. He was at one time or another a lobbyist for Gulfstream, Hialeah, and Tropical Park. He also handled legislative matters for Steve Calder in his quest to construct and license Calder Race Course.

Onett was prominent in the breeding and racing end of the Thoroughbred business as well. He was a team captain in the effort to successfully persuade Florida's legislature and governor to fund breeder and stallion awards. He was the first chairman and one of the founders of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co., an officer of the FTBOA, and past chairman of Florida's March of Dimes charity.

For more than 20 years, Onett's Stonegate Farm was a successful Thoroughbred nursery and training center that bred a slew of stakes winners. His last homebred headline-maker was Cherokee Run, the 1994 Eclipse champion sprinter and Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Onett is survived by his widow, Anne, sons Chris and Michael, daughter Linda, and several grandchildren.