08/23/2006 11:00PM

Free-speaking trainer proves talk isn't always cheap

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Racing could use a few more free-speaking horsemen such as Murray Johnson. The game could use a few more guys who say what's really on their mind.

And if Johnson sounded like a sore loser after the Pacific Classic on Sunday, you should have heard him before the race.

Johnson, the trainer of Perfect Drift, crossed the imaginary line of political correctness after the 7-year-old gelding finished a dull fourth. He accused Del Mar of manipulating the racetrack to benefit the front-running winner, Lava Man, and insinuated that Lava Man had extra veterinary help. The first allegation was based on what Johnson deemed unusual maintenance of the track Saturday night before the big race.

The Kentucky-based Johnson did not realize that track superintendent Steve Wood tinkers with the racing surface persistently. Tractors work the surface at night, in the early morning, in the afternoon, and points in between.

Johnson was unaware.

"Ask Del Mar why they needed to grade this track the night before a Grade 1 race," he said. "It made it more like Hollywood Park, and [Lava Man] loves that kind of track."

Actually, Lava Man also loves the track at Santa Anita, where he won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. Lava Man also loves the turf at Hollywood, where he won the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap. And yes, Lava Man does love the Hollywood main track, where he has won back-to-back Gold Cups.

Johnson apologized to Del Mar management the next morning. Remember, one must strive to be politically correct. But while Johnson's track-maintenance discourse was misguided, he may have unwittingly verbalized what others keep to themselves - that there is far too much tinkering with Southern California racing surfaces.

Johnson also speculated that Pacific Classic winner Lava Man's bicarbonate level would be inordinately high. A high bicarbonate level suggests veterinary improprieties. High bicarbonate levels can result from "milk-shaking," the administration of a mixture of baking soda and electrolytes which many believe starves off fatigue. Johnson recanted his statements the following morning.

"I was totally wrong to make those comments," he said.

Perfect Drift's owner, William Reed, said, "I was embarrassed and my family was embarrassed by the comments."

Johnson apologized to Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill. In the moments after the Pacific Classic, Johnson should have been guarded. He should have uttered tedious "congratulations to the winner" quotes similar to quotes from other nonwinners. He forgot to be boring.

Johnson is not the first person to mistrust Lava Man and O'Neill. But it came off sounding like sour grapes. And as it turns out, Lava Man was clean from excessive carbon dioxide, according to the California Horse Racing Board's chairman, Richard Shapiro.

Shapiro released a statement Wednesday about the Pacific Classic that read, "All eight horses were tested for total carbon dioxide, or bicarbonate levels, and all eight tested below 35 millimoles - well within the legal limit. Of the eight, the horse testing with the lowest level was Lava Man."

That is interesting information that probably would not have been released except for Johnson's post-race remarks.

As for Johnson, he did have a tough week. His father suffered a near-fatal heart attack Friday, and his best horse ran another substandard race on Sunday.

Johnson's concerns about racing surface and medication were not his only contentious statements. Two days before the Pacific Classic, the cantankerous trainer addressed speed figures, and revealed the gap between longtime horsemen and new-age handicapper-trainers.

Johnson does not use speed figures, even though they have become racing vernacular. And he was incredulous that trainer Todd Pletcher contemplated the Ragozin sheet numbers of Flower Alley before final analysis of the colt's dull seventh-place finish on Aug. 5. After reviewing the Ragozin figures, Pletcher said Flower Alley did not run as bad as it looked.

Johnson mocked the review.

"When one of the leading trainers in the countries justifies his best horse ran okay because the sheets told him it ran okay . . . if you can justify your horse ran okay after visually running that bad . . . golly. . . good luck to you," Johnson said.

As for the Beyer Speed Figures published in Daily Racing Form, Johnson has no use for them, either.

"If those numbers were any good, do you think Andy Beyer would have a job?" he said. "Come on. And why would you tell everybody?"

The comments were candid, and under-informed. Speed figures provide an objective tool to measure a horse's ability. The double-digit Beyer Figures earned this year by Perfect Drift are several lengths slower than the triple-digit figures he earned last year, and far slower than the figure usually required to win the Pacific Classic.

Johnson showed that people continue to run horses in races they are not qualified to win. Johnson may not believe it, but Beyer Figures indicated his horse was too slow to win.

And when a bettor can throw out a horse like Perfect Drift, even one that is a borderline 8-1 shot and fourth choice in the betting, it provides an edge that traditionalists may never discover.

Racing could use a few more free-speakers such as Johnson - politically incorrect and firmly entrenched in the old school.

A lifelong horseman, Johnson is right about one thing: "It's a different game from when I started."