02/09/2012 4:30PM

Hovdey: Acclamation's owner has plenty of lucky stars to count

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Benoit & Associates
Trainer Don Warren and owner Buddy Johnston (right) celebrate Acclamation's win in the Eddie Read at Del Mar in July. Johnston suffered a heart attack that required emergency surgery two weeks ago.

On Monday night in Pasadena, Eclipse Award champion Acclamation will receive another honor when the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association names him its 2011 Cal-bred horse of the year. To be accurate, the envelope is still sealed, and the Eclipse Award champion sprinter Amazombie deserves a standing “O” as well. But if there is another name other than Acclamation’s inside, look for a recount, or a riot.

Buddy Johnston, the man who bred and races Acclamation in partnership with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, would love to be there to accept the honor on behalf of his horse. Stir in the fact that Johnston, the son of California racing pioneer Ellwood “Pieman” Johnston, is to be inducted into the CTBA Hall of Fame, and the evening takes on even greater significance.

Johnston will be forgiven, though, if he sits this one out. Right now, he’s busy counting his lucky stars, and there are many, having tiptoed right up to the edge of the abyss as a result of heart attack two weeks ago that required emergency surgery to open an arterial blockage and, well, save his life.

“I was scheduled that day for eye surgery, but the night before I wasn’t feeling good at all,” Johnston said Thursday morning. “My doctor canceled the eye surgery and had me injected with the isotope dye to find where a blockage might be. I was sitting there, waiting my turn, when I must have made some sort of gasping sound. I guess my heart stopped.

“The next thing I knew I had about a dozen people around me, with somebody administering CPR,” Johnston continued. “They put me on a gurney and instead of wheeling me through the crowded hospital, about five of them ran me outside in the rain and down the blacktop service roads to where they did the angiograms. They told me I started to fade again, but they got the angiogram done, found the blockage, and got a stent in there. If I’d been anywhere else but that hospital corridor, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Johnston was telling this story with the same wide-eyed wonder with which he describes Acclamation’s ascension to the level of Eclipse Award champion. Johnston was front and center on the evening of Jan. 16 in Beverly Hills to accept the award, and while he did not exactly dance until dawn, he was feeling fine at the time.

“People asked me if I saw the light at the end of the tunnel while my heart had stopped,” Johnston said, doing his best to lighten the tale. “I told them I didn’t, which made them laugh. ‘You know where you’re going,’ they said.’ ”

Heaven, hell, or alternatives aside, Johnston would prefer to be going to Santa Anita on Saturday to watch his first-class second-stringer Norvsky, winner of the recent San Gabriel Handicap, tackle a tough bunch of grass runners in the San Marcos Handicap. Johnston would rather suit up for that banquet on Monday night, rubber chicken and all, and he definitely would like to get back to his usual morning visits to the track where Acclamation, now 6, continues to enjoy the good life at Don Warren’s Santa Anita barn.

“I haven’t been able to bounce back from this as quick as I’d hoped,” Johnston said. “I’ve been to the track a couple mornings, and a couple afternoons when we had a horse in a race. But I get pretty tired.

“I was out to see Acclamation the morning before last, and he’s looking great,” Johnston went on. “He’s jogging right now, and he’ll go to galloping soon, getting ready to come back this spring.”

Johnston foresees a 2012 campaign for Acclamation along lines similar to his 2011 season when he won five major California stakes on turf and synthetic and only stumbled when he shipped to West Virginia for what turned out to be a disastrous mess in a casino rich race in the slop. While Acclamation’s primary arena will be the grass, nothing Johnston has seen so far would discourage him from trying any main track race again.

“I think Acclamation will run on the dirt,” said Johnston, who has made no secret about wanting to run him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November. “When you watch both him and Norvsky train on the dirt at Santa Anita, their strides are so good, so smooth, you can tell they love the surface.”

It also helps that both Acclamation and Norvsky have early speed, and that just last weekend the front-running grass horse Ultimate Eagle made the transition to win the nine-furlong Strub Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths over proven dirt runners like Tapizar and Prayer for Relief.

Johnston even holds out the possibility that Norvsky would carry the stable’s colors in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 3, if he runs well Saturday. But then, Johnston is just glad there’s going to be a Saturday at all, or a 75th birthday celebrate in May.

“My dad died at 75, but every one of his brothers and sisters lived to be in their 90s,” Johnston noted. “He’s the only one that died young, compared to the others. If I’m not careful, I might want to blame it on the horse business.

“Maybe it was the excitement of winning the Eclipse Award,” Johnston added. “But now that I’ve got another 50,000 miles on the odometer I can look forward to things like the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita for Acclamation. And who knows, if he’s the 6-year-old I’ve always thought he’d be, maybe even Horse of the Year.”