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Fair Grounds notes: Returning rider Johnson has newfound success
By Bob Fortus
NEW ORLEANS – Veteran jockey Pat Johnson arrived at the Fair Grounds at the start of this meet with no agent and one prospective mount.
Through Thursday, Johnson had won eight races, including three on extra-long shots, from 62 mounts at the meet. He and agent Laura Ball, who began working for him around Christmastime, are fielding requests from more and more trainers.
Business is trending up, and Johnson and Ball are thrilled with how it’s going.
“It’s unexpected, very unexpected,” Johnson said.
Ball said: “I couldn’t be happier for such a nice person. We work well together. He’s seasoned. He’s done this. He’s been in the Derby. As long as I do my work, I don’t worry for a second about him in the afternoon.”
At age 54, Johnson, who has won 1,579 races in a career that began in 1980, is showing that he still knows what to do on a horse.
In the last several years, Johnson rode sparingly and explored other ways to make a living.
He didn’t ride in 2006, instead operating a horse-trailer business that didn’t take off. Later, he earned a paralegal bachelor’s degree, and in 2010, went to law school.
“Law school is extremely tough,” he said. “A lot of times when I was in law school, I was going to drf.com, bloodhorse.com. I just couldn’t get away from racing.”
He said that his grade-point average was two-hundredths below the acceptable mark – a sign, he said, that he should go back to racing.
“I wanted to be around horses, and that’s what I did,” he said.
That’s also what he did when he left the family farm near Owensboro, Ky., he said.
“When I got out of high school, I went straight to Churchill,” Johnson said. “That’s all I wanted to do was ride.”
Johnson, whose many stakes victories include a win in the Fair Grounds Oaks on Rare Pick in 1991 for trainer Terry Mason, rode in two Kentucky Derbies, finishing 17th on Sea Trek in 1988 and seventh on Blow Out in 1996.
“He ran a good race,” Johnson said of Blow Out, who was trained by Jim Keefer. “I was right behind the winner, and I tried to go with the winner, but Grindstone was a little better.”
When Johnson came to the Fair Grounds, the claimer Humor’s Punch, trained and owned by Johnson’s friend Tom McCarthy, was the only horse lined up by the rider. In mid-December, Humor’s Punch gave Johnson his first win of the meet, paying $21.80, and was claimed.
Victories on much higher-priced horses were coming. Johnson won the last race Feb. 15 on R.C.’s Rebel Ways, who paid $53.40 against bottom-level maidens, and won the first race the next day on Forty One Won, who paid $49.20 against conditioned claimers. Last Sunday, Johnson won a maiden turf sprint on the filly Franky and Jane, who paid $81.40.
On Wednesday, Johnson won again on R.C.’s Rebel Ways, this time at 9-1 against low-level claimers.
“I’m really happy for him,” said trainer Paul McGee, a friend for whom Johnson has been exercising horses. “That’s great. He’s a good rider. He’s been lighting up the tote board.”
Johnson has won at the meet for trainer Larry Jones. Johnson first won a race for Jones in 1981, when Jones was an owner but not yet licensed as a trainer.
“He and I go back a good ways,” Johnson said.
Jones said: “Patrick was a very good rider. He rode day in and day out with Pat Day, Larry Melancon, Mike Smith. . . . He rode with Don Brumfield. All the good guys at Churchill Downs, he rode with them day in and day out, and he held his own with them.”
Ball gives credit to Jones and trainer Angle Montano, who introduced Johnson to her, for helping him succeed at the Fair Grounds.
“We’re very fortunate,” Ball said. “We’re thankful for every door that does open.”
Oaks for Promise Me More
Promise Me More, who finished second in the Rachel Alexandra, will run next in the Fair Grounds Oaks, trainer Wes Hawley said Wednesday.
Hawley had been considering the Ashland at Keeneland as a possible for her next start. Promise Me More closed at 65-1 in the Kentucky Oaks future betting last weekend.
Smitten, who finished eighth in the Allen LaCombe Memorial on turf last weekend in what was to be her Fair Grounds Oaks prep, “would have to really show she’s aggressive” in her training to convince Larry Jones, her trainer, to run her in the Fair Grounds Oaks.
“We’re going to evaluate her real close for the next week or 10 days,” Jones said.
Divine Happiness, who was bumped at the break and raced in tight traffic in the stretch before finishing third in an allowance sprint last Sunday, came out of the race “very sore,” Jones said, and was to be sent Thursday to a clinic in Lexington, Ky. The trainer had been considering the Fair Grounds Oaks for her.
Blue Violet, yet another 3-year-old filly trained by Jones, remains on target for the Fair Grounds Oaks, he said. She is 48-1 in the Kentucky Oaks future betting.
Seaneen Girl has work
Seaneen Girl, who has not raced since winning the Golden Rod last fall and who missed the Rachel Alexandra because of a bruised foot, worked a half-mile Thursday in 50.40 seconds.
“Never even broke a sweat,” trainer Bernie Flint said as the filly was going back to the barn.
The workout was the second this month for Seaneen Girl. Flint said before the workout that the Fair Grounds Oaks is a possibility for her.
◗ Majestic Harbor, who won an optional claiming race March 1 in a solid field of older horses, might run next in the New Orleans Handicap, trainer Paul McGee said.
“It’s been tabled for discussion,” McGee said.
Infrattini, who won the Louisiana Handicap and finished fifth in the Mineshaft, likely won’t run in the New Orleans Handicap, McGee said.
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