02/28/2002 1:00AM

Mom and Pop's top-quality mares


Myron and Jane Johnson will be watching Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap with great interest.

They are passionate race fans who typify the commitment of people who make up the Thoroughbred industry.

The Johnsons own Rivendell Ranch in Fresno, a nursery devoted to the care of mares and foals, which has just added its first stallion, Zone Lord.

They take no offense when Rivendell is referred to as a "mom-and-pop operation." In fact, Myron said he now takes pleasure as describing himself as "just a small farmer from Fresno" after being sensitive when introduced that way one time.

Rivendell is named for a magical land in the Lord of the Rings. "It was a place where it rains at night and was green with sunshine all day. That sounds like a beautiful place to raise horses," Jane Johnson said.

Rivendell has only one full-time employee in addition to the Johnsons.

"We're the ultimate little guys," said Jane. "We don't pretend to be big or fancy, but we are competent."

The Johnsons prefer to deal with quality instead of quantity on their 20-acre ranch in California's San Joaquin Valley where they care for 11 mares, nine of whom are currently in foal or have just foaled.

They have had more than their share of successes helping to develop stakes winners. The latest of those winners is Go Go, the Cal-bred sprinter of the year after winning 5 of 7 starts, including four graded stakes in 2001.

"Hard work, luck, and attention to detail" are the reasons for Rivendell's success, said Myron.

"They're honest, and, in a business like horse racing, you don't want someone telling you your horse will win the Kentucky Derby when he only has three legs," said Brad Goessler, Go Go's co-owner and breeder. "They do all the stuff needed from calling the Jockey Club to making sure you're not double-billed. They take care of you. You could get lost on a big place."

Myron Johnson has an engineering and construction background; he and Jane turned to ranching full-time in 1983. Jane Johnson, a self-described "horse-crazy" kid, grew up clipping out every article she saw about horse racing in newspapers and spending a lot of time at El Peco Ranch in nearby Madera, Calif., where she grew up.

Myron calls himself pedigree and conformation challenged and relies on his wife to help customers in those areas. He runs the day-to-day operations, and with his engineering background, he takes pride in the setup of the ranch and the fact every mare has her own separate feeder. Johnson stepped down this year after serving for 12 years on the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association board of directors.

Johnson was the first director to be elected through the petition process in 1989. Before the process was opened up at the suggestion of Jack Liebau, who was then a director of CTBA, a nominating committee selected candidates.

Johnson was one of six to qualify for the election by collecting 25 signatures on a petition and the only one elected the first year, although several have been elected since.

"I think it brings divergent opinions on the board," Johnson said. "I think it's healthy."

Johnson was a strong voice for smaller operations.

"We are more attuned to the factors that buffet our industry than some bigger operations," said Johnson, who quickly added that he was impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge of many owners of big operations.

CTBA president Wes Fitzpatrick said that Johnson epitomizes the fact that the organization is a "true member-driven association."

Johnson has been involved in helping the CTBA with legislation in Sacramento, and he has serious concerns about the industry.

"We are a creature of government the way we're set up," he said.

He worries about the encroachment of Indian gambling - "We have been outgunned in the capital" - worker's compensation, the infighting between the various segments of the industry, and the lack of continuity when it comes to developing and sustaining stars in the sport.

"I want California racing and breeding to be successful," he said. "We have to overcome some obstacles. We have to get along. It's a matter of survival."