02/08/2017 1:13PM

Johnson goes from the windows to the stalls


If one were to make a list of the most exhausting professions on planet Earth, training horses would be near the top. Not too far from there would be betting horses. Just ask Gary Johnson. Over the course of the last four decades, he’s done both – and for a while he was doing both at the same time.

After a 10-year run away from the backside, during which he made a name for himself in handicapping contests, Johnson has made the decision to hang up a shingle and get himself back in the training game.

“I grew up around Thistledown, and training has always been my passion,” said the 59-year old. “All I want to do is get back to the racetrack. I miss getting up in the mornings and the whole lifestyle.”

The appeal of getting up on freezing cold mornings to shoulder the responsibility of the well-being of delicate creatures isn’t easy for most people to understand – especially when compared with the travel, camaraderie, and fun associated with his time in the contest world.

“I’m going from sitting in a suite at Santa Anita to cleaning a stall at Thistledown,” said Johnson, who counts among his biggest tournament wins a score in the 2015 Preakness Betting Challenge at Santa Anita.

“It’s tough for any normal person to understand,” said Johnson, who started as a hotwalker at age 16, sleeping in a tack room. “I love the mornings on the backside, touching horses every day. There’s just nothing else like those magical mornings.”

Johnson was the leading trainer at Thistledown for seven years in a row during his first run as a trainer. His career highlight was winning six at the Cleveland-area track one day, then taking the two-hour drive to Mountaineer to bag two more that night. He had 150 horses at his peak.

He was also a successful player during his first run as a trainer. Johnson helped a Cleveland-based syndicate cash for $2 million worth of consolations in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup pick seven. His handicapping also helped take down a six-figure score in a gimmick at Tampa Bay Downs back in the day. This time around he sounds committed to focusing on the training side.

“Before I was doing everything,” he explained, “training as well as handicapping four or five tracks, trying to do it all. Now the one thing I want to do is train.”

Of course, handicapping will still play an important role in his life. Even as a horseman, Johnson was known for using his handicapping skill. He’d frequently enter two horses, handicap the race to see which one fit best, and scratch the other. He’ll also use his race-watching and handicapping skills to look for new acquisitions.

“I’m a claiming trainer,” he said, “so I’ll look for horses who’ve been misplaced and find the right spots for them. As a handicapper, I can find excuses for races that weren’t so good and I also have a good idea of horses to stay away from.”

Among the tools Johnson relies on is DRF’s Formulator. “DRF has really excelled since I was training before,” he said. “Nowadays Formulator provides unbelievable information and I try to use it all.”

He specifically cited the ability to watch replays at a click and to look into past race charts and click on the past-performances of all the runners. “I like seeing the competition,” he said. “Seeing who a horse ran against lets me know the difference between a good second and a horse who was second by default.”

Over the last 10 years, many people who know Johnson’s history have asked him, “Why aren’t you training?” Now he anticipates being asked, “Why aren’t you playing in contests?”

“I’ll really miss the people,” he said, "but maybe I’ll get a few of them to get into the horse business with me.”

As Johnson stands on the precipice of his new, old life, he remains unfailingly optimistic – a valued characteristic for both trainers and horseplayers.

“I’ve been so blessed to be able to do both,” he said. “I’ve had over 5,000 starters and over 1,000 wins, but nothing is going to be sweeter than that next one.”