08/05/2004 11:00PM

New York racing loses a gem

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Last Tuesday at Saratoga, about 60 of P.G. Johnson's friends and relatives gathered at the racetrack to remember his wife of 59 years, Mary Kay, who died in May. Though he was stuck in a wheelchair from two long bouts with cancer that had weakened his body and reduced his raspy growl to a barely audible whisper, he was alert and feisty as ever. His shoulders rocked with laughter at an old story about stealing a Christmas tree in his younger days, and he warmly greeted his favorite racetrack running buddies, fellow trainers Allen Jerkens and Barclay Tagg.

Three days later, he sat down on the couch at his home on Long Island, waiting for a son-in-law to drive him back to Saratoga, where he had won a race for 36 consecutive years. He closed his eyes for the final time. New York racing will never be the same.

P.G., who would have been 79 in October, will be remembered as many things: half of one of racing's great marriages, a sire of two Grade 1 fillies in his daughters Kathy and Karen, a mentor to young trainers he deemed worthy, and a special friend to the press, which voted him every "Good Guy" award on the books. Horseplayers who weren't lucky enough to know him will remember him as the guy who was always dangerous at a price first time on the grass and as the trainer of Volponi, who shocked everyone but P.G. winning the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic in his trainer's home town of Chicago.

He had earned his way into Racing's Hall of Fame five years before that race. Starting out in 1942 with a single stall at Lincoln Fields in Crete, Ill., and a horse he bought for $75 at the Chicago stockyards, P.G. got his first winner at Hawthorne in 1944. In 1962 he came to New York for good, where he developed such notable stakes winners as Dismasted, Geraldine's Store, Kiri's Clown, Maplejinsky, Match the Hatch, Naskra, Nasty and Bold, and Quiet Little Table.

He did it all without ever compromising his principles. Along with a few intimates like Jerkens and Tagg, P.G. was among the last of a breed of trainers who ran their barns the way they saw fit and took no guff from anyone. He fiercely protected his loyal owners, saving them on more than one occasion from unscrupulous traders who tried to take advantage of them, but people who tried to tell him how to run his operation would be cordially invited to remove their horses from the barn as soon as possible.

He never pulled his punches, whether with friends, family, or the racing secretaries who often ran the other way when they saw him coming. He had little use for organized religion or politics but was a rare vocal critic of anti-Semitism and right-wing politics in the racing world. At the height of the "Freedom Fries" days when merchants were boycotting French products, P.G. delivered a memorable public tirade about patriotism when a local Italian restaurant stopped serving his beloved Grey Goose vodka. Before he was finished, a busboy had run down the street to a liquor store to rectify the error.

The only owner whose meddling he had to tolerate was his family's Amherst Stable, named for the Rockville Centre street where they lived. As the economics and sociology of stakes racing changed in the 1980's, P.G. decided he could no longer make it as a 10-percent trainer of other people's horses, and began buying and breeding his own. He was a keen pedigree student, a disciple of Federico Tesio, and he loved picking out athletic horses with unfashionable but academically promising pedigrees. He was proud when they turned out to be runners and unsparing when they didn't. He once referred to an untalented half-brother to Volponi as having "the competitive instinct of a cow in the slaughterhouse."

Many of P.G.'s best lines have been preserved in "The Big Horse," a book by Joe McGinniss published last month. McGinniss came to Saratoga last year after a 30-year absence from the track intending to write about the racing scene in general, but found himself so drawn to P.G. that he ended up writing a virtual biography. P.G.'s health was already declining but his few ruminations on age and mortality were as hopeful as they were wise.

"When I die," he told McGinniss, "I want my ashes scattered over Bloomingdale's, so I can be close to my family."

More seriously, when asked if he hated getting old, he said simply: "Why waste time hating something you can't do anything about? Besides, there's always going to be the new 2-year-olds in the spring."