03/07/2008 12:00AM

Johnson moves on after 'dream come true'


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The March routine for Murray Johnson had been to bring Perfect Drift to the Trackside training center after a few months on the farm and get him ready for another year of making plenty of money.

But this year, Johnson is nowhere near Trackside. Instead, he is in Florida, selling a horse massage therapy system. He recently retired from training, probably for good.

"I had an amazing journey with Perfect Drift," said Johnson, 48. "For what I saw, ever coming close to that again was going to be impossible."

After graduating from high school in his native Australia, Johnson had every intention to attend college after taking what he called "a one-year deferment" to work with horses. He eventually went to Ireland, then the United States, and "30 years later, I'm still working around horses."

Dr. William Reed, the breeder and owner of Perfect Drift, took the now 9-year-old gelding from Johnson last summer, shortly after a fifth-place finish in a July 8 allowance race at Churchill Downs. Perfect Drift, an earner of $4,680,691 from 46 starts, had the start of a fracture in a cannon bone, said Johnson, adding, "I thought he was going to be retired."

Ultimately, however, the gelding was turned over to Richard Mandella in Southern California, where the horse trained briefly before undergoing surgery to have one screw inserted in the hairline fracture.

Mandella said Thursday that Perfect Drift has been back galloping "for about five weeks now. He's doing real well. He looks and acts like a 3-year-old. I'd say he's about two months away from a race. He came to me with the instructions that, if he's not capable, to stop on him, and that only if he's enthusiastic and happy would we do this. And he's been exactly that."

Perfect Drift, by Dynaformer, began his career in November 2001. Among his career highlights were a third-place finish in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, a record five straight starts in the Breeders' Cup Classic (2002-06), and six graded stakes victories, including a narrow triumph over the eventual Horse of the Year, Mineshaft, in the 2003 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill. At one point late in his career, and until Lava Man passed him last year, Perfect Drift was the leading active earner in North America.

For Johnson, Perfect Drift was the horse of a lifetime.

"A fairy tale, a dream come true," he said.

But the economic reality for Johnson was that he needed Perfect Drift to stay ahead of his bills, and with his meal ticket gone, the handwriting was on the wall. Over the last few months, Johnson remained the trainer of record for a small stable at Trackside, although he was traveling extensively while selling products for Niagra Equissage, a British company specializing in therapies for horses of all disciplines.

"I've actually been a rep for the last three years, but it's basically all I've done the last six months or so," said Johnson. "I wanted a bit of transitional time before I got out for good, and I had some good clients that wanted me to finish up with their horses. Plus I've had some employees for up to 17 years, and it was hard to put them out of work. I waited until they got good jobs with other folks."

Johnson, who has raised two daughters, now 19 and 17, as a single father in Louisville, said the "economics of horse training have changed so much over the last 20 years. . . . I don't need to put my money up for the right to make 10 percent of what an owner is going to make. It just doesn't make sense for a whole lot of people trying to make it in this game."

Nonetheless, Johnson said he would not trade his experience as a trainer for anything.

"I've seen a lot of the world and have absolutely no regrets," he said. "But why prolong it? Why try to relive something so great? There was really no way for me to re-create that, so I have to put it all behind me."

Lebron pulls away

Victor Lebron has taken control of what once was a tight jockey race at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. After riding four winners Wednesday and another two Thursday, Lebron held a 57-49 lead over Tommy Pompell atop the standings. John McKee, the leading rider at the holiday meet in December, was a clear third with 41 winners.

Lebron, a 23-year-old native of St. Croix, is seeking his first riding title in Kentucky. He was the leading rider last year at Indiana Downs.

Limited-edition bottle honors Bench

Turfway and Maker's Mark are honoring Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds by using his photograph on their fifth annual limited-edition bourbon bottles commemorating the 37th running of the Lane's End Stakes on March 22.

Bench, a key member of the famed Big Red Machine in the 1970s, will be available for autographs from 10 a.m. to noon Eastern on the morning of the Lane's End.

* After more than two months of regularly scheduled down time, Churchill Downs reopened its stable area Friday. Each year, Churchill closes Dec. 31 for routine backstretch maintenance. Typically, the reopening draws only about 200 horses, although the population grows weekly as stables begin filtering back from their winter destinations.

* The Sunday feature at Turfway is a $24,600 entry-level allowance at one mile. Voice of Faith, back in Kentucky after spending much of the winter in South Florida with trainer Eddie Kenneally, adds blinkers as one of the prime contenders in a field of six. Nine races are on tap.

* A makeup program will be held at Turfway next Monday, March 17, on what normally would be a dark day.