11/01/2002 12:00AM

Special story by Dad's girl reporter


Karen Johnson, a staff reporter, is asked not to write about her father, trainer P.G. Johnson - except on one special occasion.

NEW YORK - A few hours after Volponi won the Breeders' Cup Classic, I said to my dad at dinner, "I wish I could bottle the feeling" I had when Volponi was alone on the lead as the wire loomed.

Dad, never one to rest on his laurels, said, "Don't worry, there will be more times like that."

Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that the pride and joy I felt for my 77-year-old father last Saturday at Arlington Park will last a lifetime.

Of course, I didn't need my dad, P.G. Johnson, to win the biggest race of his 58-year career to be proud of him. I've always thought the world of him as a father and as a trainer.

I had faith in his decision to run Volponi in the Classic, rather than the Mile, even though the majority of the horse's races were on the turf this year. I knew my father wasn't sending Volponi to Chicago because he thought the horse could pick up a piece of the purse. He told me repeatedly in the days leading up to the Classic that Volponi had a huge chance to win, and my father rarely makes statements like that.

I believed. Not because he is my father, but because he is a dedicated horseman.

Over and over again, I've observed him placing his horses in spots where they belong. I've seen him give a horse time off - even if it meant losing an entire season and making an owner mad - because if he didn't, the horse would get hurt. I've heard him tell owners straight up when a horse wasn't cut out for New York and needed to find a home on an easier circuit.

Before the Breeders' Cup, the Johnson family celebrated many incredible moments, including dad's induction in the Racing Hall of the Fame five years ago, victories in Grade 1 races, and training titles won. But there have been crummy times, too: horses getting hurt, difficult owners, prolonged losing streaks, and controversial disqualifications.

No matter what has been thrown my dad's way, he has handled it with integrity, strength, and humor. That includes his biggest battle. In January 2001, he found out he had prostate cancer. My mother, sister Kathy, and I sat with him in the doctor's office and were relieved to learn that the disease hadn't spread.

When the doctor outlined the extensive treatment, my dad said, "I can't miss much time at the barn. I'm not like most 75-year-olds - I'm active. Hey doc, I really can't sit at home because my wife would kill me if was around all the time."

Well, he didn't sit at home. Despite three operations and daily radiation sessions that lasted five weeks and left him tired beyond belief, he missed only a handful of days at work. Some days he looked so weary I would say to my mother that he was working too hard. They have been married for 57 years, and she said, "Training those horses is what keeps him going."

So to watch Dad's blue eyes twinkling as he accepted congratulations after winning a $4 million race in Chicago - where he was born and began his career - with a horse he trains, bred, and co-owns was simply amazing. As he hoisted up the Breeders' Cup trophy in the winner's circle, I was overwhelmed.

Volponi's win at 43-1, which obviously took many by surprise, was a popular one, nonetheless. My family and I have been flooded with phone calls and e-mails. I've had so many people say, "Your father is so deserving of this win."

Even before the race, Dad had a slew of well-wishers come up to him in the paddock, including Bobby Fielding, a jockey valet who galloped horses for him 50 years ago, and Bobby Baird, a retired jockey who rode for him in the 1940's in Chicago.

Being his daughter has been a wonderful experience. I was dad's shadow as a child, following him around the barn in the mornings and at the races in the afternoon.

My job as a reporter brings me to the barns of many trainers, but my first stop each morning when I am at Belmont Park is barn 63, where, without fail, my dad greets me with, "Hello, girl reporter."

It's nice finally to be able to write about my father, whom I have loved for 39 years and has made me so proud - not just last weekend, but every day.