10/28/2002 12:00AM

P.G.'s big triumph fools even his wife


ELMONT, N.Y. - The phone in trainer Phil Johnson's Belmont Park office rang non-stop, and the door was opened and closed in a revolving-like fashion. Well-wishers from near and far were still congratulating Johnson Monday morning, some 40 hours after 43-1 shot Volponi pulled off an improbable 6 1/2-length victory in Saturday's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park.

Among the well-wishers was Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

"You left the media speechless," Turner said as he shook Johnson's hand.

"Well, he's no Seattle Slew," Johnson answered.

"He made more money in one day than Slew made in a lifetime," Turner said.

While Saturday's win was the biggest financial windfall for the 77-year-old Johnson and his family's Amherst Stable, this victory was certainly about more than money. It was about an experienced Hall of Fame trainer trusting his ideals while teaching his younger, higher-profile colleagues a lesson.

"It's $4 million, but I won races like the Alabama, the Brooklyn, the Suburban, and the American Derby and the Hollywood Derby," Johnson said. "They weren't $4 million races, but they were equally prestigious races and I was very proud of winning them. This gives me more money . . . and it puts you back on the map."

Johnson was so confident in Volponi's chances that in the days leading up to the Classic, he told his wife of 57 years, Mary Kay, that Volponi would win the race.

"I kept telling her all week, because she keeps hollering at me, that at the three-sixteenths pole on Saturday you're going to be proud of me," Johnson said. "She didn't yell at me yesterday. I don't know how long this is going to last."

Johnson felt confident about Volponi's chances because he felt the horse was a natural 10-furlong horse who was coming off a good second-place finish in the Meadowlands Cup. Also, he believed trainers Bob Baffert, Bobby Frankel and Paco Gonzalez were making a mistake trying to train their horses to the Classic off nine-week layoffs. The horse that won the Classic off the longest layoff was Black Tie Affair, who hadn't raced in seven weeks before the 1991 Classic.

"Those guys are good trainers, at the top of our game," Johnson said. "But you can't do what they tried to do."

Ed Baier, a 68-year-old accountant from Floral Park, N.Y., is half-owner of Volponi. He has owned horses with Johnson for more than 10 years. In the early 1990's, Baier was part of a syndicate that had horses with Johnson, but he left the syndicate when it pulled its horses from Johnson.

"He's a real horse trainer, he's not a [public relations] agent," Baier said. "He out-trained those guys."

For Johnson, the Classic victory was only the second biggest win of the month. Johnson had been battling prostate cancer for two years. On Oct. 3, Johnson underwent his third operation in two years, this one dealing with complications from radiation treatments. Johnson said he is now cancer-free.

Adding satisfaction to the victory was that Johnson did it in his hometown of Chicago, where he starting training horses in the 1940's. At around 6 a.m. Sunday, Johnson was sitting in the Arlington Park kitchen drinking coffee when five guys sat down next to him.

"It was one trainer that I know and the other four were sons of trainers that I raced with," Johnson said. "It meant very much."

Johnson said Volponi came out of the race in great shape, and added he could run in the $350,000 Cigar Mile on Nov. 30 at Aqueduct. Either way, Volponi will definitely run next year when Johnson believes he'll be better as a 5-year-old.