08/12/2004 12:00AM

Packing a lifetime of friendship into a year

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It would be too much to say that P.G. Johnson saved my life, but not enough to say that he merely enhanced it.

The truth is, during the last year of his own life, he taught me, by example, the importance of living every day as if it was the only one you'd ever have, and of never forgetting to smile as you did.

His attachment to his horses showed me how vital it was to remain passionate about one's work, and his attachment to his wife of 59 years, Mary Kay, made me appreciate, perhaps more than I ever had before, the unsurpassable power of love.

I hadn't known him in my youth and he'd never mentored me and he never preached, but my mornings with P.G. at Saratoga last summer, and later at Belmont in the fall, were like Tuesdays with Morrie.

He was 77 when I met him for the first time, last July. I was 60. It was not quite enough of an age difference for a father-son relationship, but P.G. would have made a hell of an older brother.

I came to Saratoga planning to write a book about the six-week meeting. I hadn't written about horse racing since Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977, and over those 25 years I'd paid very little attention to the game. Among the things I did not know when I arrived were that P.G. Johnson had been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1997, that he remained active as a trainer, and that a horse he bred, trained and owned, Volponi, had won the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic.

That was a lot to not know about him, and he had no reason to give me the time of day. But his instinctive generosity was so great that he wound up giving me a book. And he never asked for anything in return, not even to read the manuscript before publication. He had nothing to gain - Disney already had bought film rights to his life story, and he wouldn't let me buy him even a cup of coffee -but personal gain had never been P.G.'s top priority. Doing the right thing in the right way always was.

In terms of results, last summer was not among P.G.'s better ones at Saratoga: his big horse, Volponi, was beaten twice, and although he extended to 36 his record for most consecutive years with at least one winner at Saratoga, he wound up with only two wins for the meet.

But he told me it had been a splendid summer, nonetheless. "I taught Emma, my 15-year old granddaughter, how to drive," he said. "That made me happier than any race I could have won."

Then, realizing he'd perhaps drifted a bit too close to sentimentality for comfort, he amended his comment: "Let me put it this way: If I'd had horses that could've run the way that girl can drive, I'd have given Pletcher a fight for leading trainer."

He'd beaten two forms of cancer within three years, but the sudden death of his wife, Mary Kay, in May, proved to be the one thing he could not long survive.

The first time I saw him after she died was the day before the Belmont Stakes. I went to his home in Rockville Centre, Long Island, in late afternoon to give him an advance copy of my book. There was a picture of a morning workout at Saratoga on the front cover, and a picture of P.G. standing in his first winner's circle, at Hawthorne Park, in Chicago, in the early 1940's, on the back. Among the photos inside was one taken of P.G. and Mary Kay on their wedding day.

While writing the book, I'd often thought ahead to the moment when I'd be able to give the first copy to P.G. and Mary Kay.

Now she was gone. He was alone in the house when I arrived. The sadness in his eyes was indescribable. I told him that the book might be hard for him to read because there was a lot of Mary Kay in it.

"I'll read it," he said. "If it gets too tough, I'll put it down. But then I'll pick it up again and go on."

That was his way: P.G. would always pick it up again and go on.

I saw him once at his barn during the first week of this summer's meet. His daughter Kathy had driven him to the Oklahoma track so he could watch two of his horses breeze. He could no longer walk unassisted. A few days later, he attended the family's memorial service for Mary Kay in a wheelchair. He hated that. As an only child growing up without a mother, P.G. had learned independence early and he fought mightily against giving any of it back.

When he saw that it was becoming a fight he could not win, he simply died. I felt I'd lost a lifetime friend. I can't believe I only knew him for a year.

Joe McGinniss is the author of "The Big Horse," a recently released biography of P.G. Johnson.