08/05/2004 11:00PM

Training great Phil Johnson dies

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Ray Woolfe Jr.
Hall of Fame trainer Phil Johnson died Friday morning after a three-year battle with cancer.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Phil Johnson, the Hall of Fame trainer whose career spanned seven decades and included the upset victory by Volponi in the , died Friday morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

Johnson died in his home in Rockville Centre, N.Y. He had undergone a minor surgical procedure Thursday and was preparing to return to Saratoga on Friday when he passed. Johnson was eager to see Port Chester run in Friday's fourth race. Port Chester finished fifth.

Johnson had won at least one race at Saratoga for the last 36 years heading into this meet. In 1983, he was the leading trainer here with nine wins. Johnson also won four training titles at Belmont and three at Aqueduct.

Johnson's death comes less than three months after his wife, Mary Kay, died. The two were married for 59 years. On Tuesday, a memorial service for Mary Kay was held at Saratoga at which family members spoke. Johnson attended, but did not speak.

There was a moment of silence held in honor of Johnson before Friday's first race. The New York Racing Association flag was lowered to half mast in the infield in his honor.

Johnson, a Chicago native, began training Thoroughbreds in 1942. He spent time in Detroit, Chicago, and Florida before moving permanently to New York in 1962. Johnson won more than 2,300 races and his horses accumulated purse earnings exceeding $47.5 million. Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.

In the mid-1970's, Johnson established the family operation known as Amherst Stable, named for the street on which the family lived in Rockville Centre. Amherst bred many horses, including stakes winners , who won stakes on both turf and dirt and upset the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic at odds of 43-1.

Johnson and Volponi are the subjects of a recently published book, "The Big Horse," written by Joe McGinniss.

"A trainer is all I ever wanted to be since I was 16 years old, and I think if you can do exactly what you want in life for 60 years, you're one lucky son of a [gun]," Johnson says in the book.

In addition to Volponi, Johnson campaigned dozens of other stakes winners, including Quiet Little Table, who upset Forego in the 1977 Suburban Handicap; Maplejinsky, who won the Alabama; Nasty and Bold, the 1978 Brooklyn winner; and multiple stakes winners A in Sociology, Dismasted, and Kiri's Clown. Told, another Johnson trainee, still owns the 1 1/16-mile turf world record.

Jean-Luc Samyn was aboard many of those winners. Samyn estimates he won about 430 races for Johnson and at least 75 stakes.

"I got a special place in my heart for P.G. going back to the years of success and good times we had together," Samyn said. "It makes me feel real sad."

Heriberto "Ocala" Cedano, who worked for Johnson for 33 years, said Johnson was like a father to him and his wife Deborah, who also worked for Johnson.

"I was in trouble many times, and he did his best for me, my wife, and my kids," said Cedano. "I'm going to miss him."

Johnson's death created a pall on the Saratoga backstretch on what was an otherwise gorgeous summer morning.

"He took me under his wing and cared for me like a father," said trainer John Hertler, who worked for Johnson for 11 years before going out on his own in 1976. "He did everything he could to help me. I feel like I lost a dear friend. I could always go to him at any time if I had a problem. You always learned something from him."

Barclay Tagg, the trainer of 2003 champion 3-year-old Funny Cide, called Johnson "a great guy. I've always respected his ability. He's an accomplished man, a nice guy, and he had a lovely family. I'm proud to have known him."

Neil Howard, who trained 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, said it was Johnson who helped get him his first clients. Johnson, based in New York, trained for two men from Cincinnati who wanted to have horses stabled closer to home. Johnson recommended Howard, who worked for Mack Miller at the time. Howard's wife, Sue, galloped horses for Johnson in the late 1970's.

One of Johnson's favorite horsemen was Allen Jerkens. The two met at Tropical Park in the early 1950's.

"I thought he was real smart about breeding," Jerkens said. "I thought they did very well. He assembled all the mares they got."

Johnson is survived by his daughters Karen, who is a reporter for Daily Racing Form, and Kathy; sons-in-law Don Brockway and Noel Michaels; and granddaughter Emma Brockway.

Funeral arrangements are private. The family expects to plan a memorial service later this summer. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Grayson-Jockey Club Equine Research Foundation.

Philip G. Johnson

Born: Oct. 9, 1925, in Chicago, Ill.

* Elected to Hall of Fame, 1997

* Won 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic with 43-1 shot Volponi

* Upset Forego with Quiet Little Table in 1977 Suburban

* Won at least one race at Saratoga from 1968 to 2003

* Leading all-time stakes-winning trainer at The Meadowlands

* Won 12 straight stakes in which he was entered, 1978-79

* Trained Grade 1 winners Far Out Beast, High Schemes, Highland Talk, Kiri's Clown, Maplejinsky, Match the Hatch, and Nasty and Bold

* Won over 2,300 races and over $47 million in purses