07/07/2011 12:42PM

Q&A: Mark Johnston

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Dan Abraham

British trainer Mark Johnston qualified and practiced as a veterinarian before taking out his trainer’s license in 1987. From his base in Yorkshire, he has trained the winners of the 1000 and 2000 Guineas, Ascot Gold Cup, and Goodwood Cup, among other prestigious races. Most recently, he won a pair of stakes at Royal Ascot: the Group 3 Queen’s Vase with Namibian and the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes with Fox Hunt. Both were purchases from Tattersalls in England, but Johnston shops regularly at U.S. yearling auctions, too. DRF spoke with him about comments at last month’s medication summit in New York that suggested U.S.-bred horses are becoming less popular with British and European buyers because of the United States’ relatively liberal medication policies.

Birthdate: Oct. 10, 1959

Family: wife Deirdre, who also is his assistant trainer; sons Charlie and Angus.

Training base: Kingsley House, Middleham, Yorkshire, England

In your experience, are European buyers losing interest in purchasing American-bred horses because U.S. horses are allowed to run on medications, whereas European horses aren’t? For me, one of the great appeals of buying American-bred yearlings was I would buy them on spec, put them out on my website, and they would be sold far easier than Europeans. This year, I bought three, and I took a long time to sell one of them. So it seems to me to have gotten a whole lot more difficult. But even if it is the case that there is less interest, I’m not convinced that it’s directly related to medication.

A lot of it could be simply fashion and the fact that you don’t have the sexy stallions that raced in Europe and then went on to be world champions, like Storm Bird, Storm Cat, and obviously the Northern Dancer-line stallions. Those were horses who had horses that raced in Europe and then went to stand in the States. Everybody [in Europe] knew them as champions, and if we buy a Storm Cat it sells straight away. You don’t have those big names anymore that are so well known in Europe.

The other factor, I am a little bit concerned that they are less sound. But again, I wouldn’t be totally convinced that that’s down to medication. I think it takes a long time before allowing horses to race on medication comes through as a weakening of the breed.

I have a theory on it, which is no more than a theory. If you look back at the traditional Kentucky-bred, I marveled when I first came to Kentucky and looked at the farms. You have paddocks that are as big as our farms. You have 10 or 20 yearlings out in a 50-acre paddock, where we’d have a 50-acre farm. So American horses were renowned for being tough. I put that down not to the breed, but more to the rearing. They’re out there in large groups, galloping around paddocks. I worry that such a huge percentage of yearlings coming to the sales now have had surgery at some stage. Not only am I concerned that that surgery is detrimental to the horse, but I am even more concerned that the time that horse spent in a box when it should have been running around a paddock is far more detrimental than the surgery or not having the surgery at all. Frankly, I don’t like surgery full stop. I read somewhere that X number of weeks in the box as a foal basically finished a racehorse. I’m not sure what the figures are and I’m not sure whether it’s true, but I can imagine it, and that would worry me terribly. But I also just don’t think we should be correcting minor deformities of the foal. I think that’s more likely to slow a horse down than speed it up.

In the years since you’ve been shopping for horses in the States, have you seen a noticeable drop in soundness? I don’t particularly feel I’ve seen a drop-off in soundness. But as long as I’ve been coming to the sales, maybe 12 years or so, the X-rays and the surgery have been popular throughout that time. It’s more a case of comparing over the last 10 years, the soundness of the American-breds versus the European purchases. It seems to me that the Europeans are sounder.

I don’t know that racehorses are getting less sound overall, and that’s another thing that is hard to evaluate, because we race them harder. People always talk about how sound they were 50 years ago, but they didn’t have the same pressures on them, and they didn’t go as fast. People like to be nostalgic and say the Secretariats and so on went faster than the horses of today, but the fact is, they didn’t. And they weren’t under the same pressure. If you put those horses under more pressure, you’d get more injuries. We’re also so much better at diagnosing things now, and that’s possibly to the detriment, as well. We’re always finding problems with horses today.

Trainer John Gosden, based for years in California and now back in England training, recently was quoted as saying there’s a perception that American-bred horses are tougher in that they will “play through the pain.” Is that true in your experience? I have no evidence for that. I appear to have more niggling soundness problems with my U.S.-bred horses. Whether that’s a true soundness problem or an inability to “play through the pain,” I’m not sure.

Are your concerns about these issues affecting your buying habits in the United States now? A little bit, but I think my buying habits are under a bit of pressure anyway, no matter where I’m buying horses. I’m struggling to sell horses. The recession has hit pretty hard, and it’s hard to find owners. So it’s much more difficult to buy horses on spec. Obviously, there’s a bit more risk involved when we’re buying them on the other side of the Atlantic and have to ship them home and all that.

Are you still planning to come to the U.S. yearling sales this year? Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I still love to come. I love to see so many horses in one place. And even if you don’t have the sexy stallions that we knew just a few years ago, they’ll come again, I’m sure. It’s just such a big market, you can’t not be involved. The horses are so well presented, and you can see so many in a short space of time, I love to be involved.

On a lighter note, what horse in history do you wish you had trained? Sea the Stars. I’m not a great believer that horses of yesteryear were better than horses of recent years. I think Sea the Stars is the best horse I’ve ever seen. In its generation, Nijinsky or Brigadier Gerard − well, no, it would still be Sea the Stars. I think he’s better than them. He was a complete superstar.