07/29/2011 4:36PM

Fort Erie: Late bloomer Kirk Johnson makes impact in jockey standings


FORT ERIE, Ontario – Kirk Johnson, 36, has been proving to himself, trainers, and owners at Fort Erie, that he has the talent and the ability to win races. Johnson is currently second in the jockey standings at the Fort with 30 wins, one back of the leading Chris Griffith.

His agent, Kevin Buttigieg, is very pleased with Johnson’s year to date.

“He is a tireless worker and that makes my job much easier,” said Buttigieg, “not only by his winning races, but also by his morning work ethic where he arrives early, finishes late, and never complains.”

Johnson’s riding career started much later in life than many of his fellow jockeys. He had reached his late 20s when his life began to change. Leaving his home in Jamaica, he arrived in Ottawa, Ontario, determined to find a way to become a jockey, a challenge he had once set for himself as a teenager.

“I’ve always wanted to ride professionally,” said Johnson, “but the opportunity never arrived until Canada.

“Thankfully, I was offered a job at Thoroughbred farm near Ottawa, where I did just about everything. I galloped, groomed, and cleaned stalls. Often, I was on my own with over 20 horses. It was exhausting work, but it gave me a start towards the role I now have and love.”

Following the farm experience, Johnson moved to Woodbine for a short stint, knowing that he still had plenty to learn.

Trainer Norm DeSouza took him under his wing and recognized that more work was needed before an apprentice license could be granted. He suggested that his novice take his tack to Winnipeg and Assiniboia Downs.

“It is tough to break in at a track, especially as an apprentice,” said Johnson. “I arrived not knowing anyone, but promised myself that I would make every effort to make my dream come true.”

It took a while and then his first ride at the Winnipeg track came in August 2005. He remembers it vividly.

“I rode a 55-1 shot and finished fourth,” said Johnson. “The next day, on my third lifetime mount, I won.”

Recognizing the need to extend his apprentice allowance, Johnson hung up his tack after winning his fourth race, two short weeks after winning his first. He was on his way.

His desire to succeed was emphasized in his second full season at Assiniboia when he won 78 races, only three back of the leading rider, Alan Cuthbertson.

Johnson returned to Ontario after the Winnipeg sojourn, having gained experience and confidence. Once again, he was a stranger, beginning all over.

“I did not have an agent for a while and it is tough breaking in on your own,” said Johnson.” Thankfully, things gradually improved and I have now settled in Fort Erie and developed some solid relationships. This is turning out to be my best year here by far, and my goal is to win the leading rider honors in 2011.”

◗ Monday’s six-furlong, $30,000 Bob Summers Memorial Cup for colts and geldings drew a field of nine, including the Woodbine-based Molinaro Warrior, who won his two previous starts at the Fort by a combined margin of 8 3/4 lengths. Summers, longtime correspondent for the Buffalo News, died suddenly last year. He had covered Fort Erie racing and other tracks for many years.

◗ The new tiki tar has been a solid attraction this season. Tuesday nights are particularly busy and a new band is on scene each week.

This week, Toronto’s “ Off the Wall” will be featured.