04/27/2004 11:00PM

Johns gelding learning to run

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CHICAGO - In no time, Justin Johns has risen from gallop boy to head trainer. Johnathan, the best horse in the Johns barn, morphed from oaf to racehorse.

Johnathan - named for owner and breeder Carlene Kelley's favorite apple - is a callow gelding, 4 years of age. In a relative sense, Johns is even younger - 24.

"I was galloping, and I'd buy a couple cheap horses, horses with problems, and run them myself, but last fall was my first meet as a licensed trainer," said Johns. "I never really worked for anybody, not in the traditional way of somebody coming up and being an assistant trainer. I kind of learned things through trial and error."

This all comes out with utmost modesty from young Johns, who seems somewhat surprised at his present position - a sweet 15-3-0-5 record at the National Jockey Club at Hawthorne meet. Surprising, too, was the evolution of Johnathan, whom Johns broke as a yearling and who races Friday.

"He wasn't one of those colts that really catch your eye," Johns said. "He was big and lazy. Even working him the first couple times, he wouldn't want to get into the bit and work. He was awkward - he didn't hit the ground real good. But when we got him up a little farther - it might have been his second or third work at five-eighths - it seemed like all of a sudden, a light went on."

It has stayed on. Johns figured his ungainly youngster would need the slower paces of route races to run fast enough to win. Not so. Johnathan quickly settled into the niche of one-run closing sprinter. He won his second start by more than eight lengths, and after three losses, has won two more, knocking out his first and second statebred allowance conditions.

Friday, in Hawthorne's featured eighth race, Johnathan takes that great leap forward, from the friendly confines of Illinois-bred races into open company - kind of. Five of the eight horses entered in this third-level sprint allowance race (with a $35,000 claiming option) are Illinois-bred. And the horse Johnathan has to catch, Red River Aggie, was bred in Oklahoma.

"I wondered if he'd be able to compete after he won the [Illinois-bred] two-other-than," Johns said. "But when he won that so easily, I started to think he'd be okay."

Johnathan has a powerful five-sixteenths-mile kick that starts midway on the far turn and lasts to the finish. Jesse Campbell, a surprising contender for leading rider here with 27 wins, has timed things perfectly in the last two. When Johnathan moves, he moves quickly - much like his trainer.