07/02/2003 11:00PM

It took vision to make Volponi great

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Phil Johnson has been blessed throughout his career with good vision.

He gave $8,000 for a New York-bred yearling filly named Prom Knight at a time when New York-breds weren't nearly as popular as they are now. Her pedigree further limited her general appeal. Her sire was the Irish Derby winner Sir Harry Lewis, a source of stamina in a market that much prefers speed.

She made only one start, developed a knee problem, and was retired. Shopping for a sire, Johnson chose Cryptoclearance. He wouldn't have been everyone's choice, because his get tend to mature later, but Johnson is not keen on 2-year-old racing, and it looked like a good fit to him.

The foal from this union is Volponi, a winner of $2.8 million, hero of the Breeders' Cup Classic of 2002, and a leading candidate in Saturday's $500,000 Suburban Handicap at 1 1/4 miles. He took his time coming to hand, but since he got there he hasn't run a bad race, and his best form sparkles.

He ran well last month to finish second in the nine-furlong Brooklyn Handicap, his second start of the campaign. Johnson sees improvement in the Suburban, not only because of the longer distance but because the trainer is adding blinkers to Volponi's equipment again.

"He wore blinkers in the Breeders' Cup and it helped him focus on the job," Johnson said. "He didn't wear them in his first two starts this year because he was too fresh. He would have been pulling and doing other things a good horse shouldn't do. But with those races behind him, the blinkers should help."

Volponi will need all the help he can get. The Suburban has attracted a strong field, including such achievers as Mineshaft, Harlan's Holiday, and Evening Attire, and there will be widespread interest in Dollar Bill's performance for his new trainer, Bobby Frankel.

But Volponi's quality and consistency, bolstered by the services of Jose Santos, give Johnson a formidable hand. And he has been there before.

Forego, Horse of the Year for three consecutive seasons, was the 3-10 favorite in the Suburban Handicap of 1977 despite his topweight assignment of 138 pounds. Quiet Little Table, a 4-year-old gelding by Mr. Leader, was mildly regarded at almost 9-1. But Johnson, his trainer, saw a way to win.

He instructed Eddie Maple to place Quiet Little Table just off the pace established by Nearly on Time. When Quiet Little Table rallied, Forego, conceding 24 pounds, also went to a drive but just missed by a neck.

Johnson has been the motivating force behind many other memorable victories since he moved his stable from Chicago to New York in 1962, and the Hall of Fame horseman has a good chance to add to his laurels when Volponi goes postward Saturday in the Suburban.