05/02/2012 12:36PM

Kentucky Oaks: On Fire Baby gives jockey Johnson a shot at spotlight

Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Joe Johnson gallops On Fire Baby on Wednesday at Churchill.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ask a sports fan who Garrett Gomez is, or John Velazquez, or Edgar Prado, and they might say a jockey. But ask the same person about Joe Johnson, and the majority surely would acknowledge the six-time NBA All-Star forward for the Atlanta Hawks.

But a Joe Johnson has been plying his trade as a jockey for 23 years, albeit to far less fanfare than the more elite riders in North America. For a few precious moments Friday, however, this Joe Johnson stands a chance to be in the racing spotlight after the Kentucky Oaks is run for the 138th time at Churchill Downs.

Johnson, 44, has the mount aboard On Fire Baby, one of the top contenders in the Grade 1, $1 million Oaks.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities like this for the little guy, so to speak,” said Johnson, who literally weighs less than half of the more famous 240-pound Joe Johnson. “When you get a shot like this, you’ve got to sit on it.”

Johnson, winner of 948 races in his career, has seen his mounts dwindle in recent years while riding primarily for Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage, who trains On Fire Baby for breeder-owner Anita Cauley and is based at Churchill throughout the year, except for winters at Oaklawn Park. A native of the small western Kentucky town of Philpot, Johnson is the younger brother of Patrick Johnson, who rode twice in the Kentucky Derby (1988, 1996) and still works in racing as an exercise rider.

Johnson, a married father of two, laughed when asked just how familiar he is with the tendencies of On Fire Baby. Aside from riding the filly in all six of her career races, “I’ve been getting on her every morning since Jan. 3,” he said. “I know her pretty well.”

Johnson said he is “just fine” with post 1 in a field that will max out at 14 starters, reasoning that the inside hole is “a lot different than in the Derby,” where circumstances differ with the 1 1/4-mile distance, a chute that can be tricky for inside-drawn horses barreling toward the inner rail, and the crush of a 20-horse field.

“My filly has some speed, but I’m sure there’ll be some outside of us, too,” he said. “I’ll take a look at what happens the first sixteenth of a mile and take it from there.”

[KENTUCKY OAKS: Get PPs, watch analysis video, and read pre-race reports]