Although it’s only been six years since Volponi’s stunning shocker in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he demolished a star-studded field at odds of 43-1, the horse has pretty much faded from public consciousness, due in part to the fact that he currently resides in Korea.
Volponi’s victory will always be one of the special moments I’ve experienced in racing. Not only did I love him in the race and pick him in my final column, I also touted him as my best bet of the entire Breeders’ Cup and was the only one to select him on a Chicago radio show. As I ended my column…”I’ll leave you with one word: Volponi!”
Needless to say, I cashed the single biggest win ticket of my life (yes, yes, in retrospect, I should have had the trifecta, but was too focused on Volponi).
But picking Volponi and giving him out to all my friends and co-workers was only a small part of the story. The real story was the horse’s trainer P.G. Johnson, who in trainerdom was a breath of fresh air and never veiled the truth with b.s. He always told it like it was, and was willing to accept any repercussions for doing so. No matter what, you had to love his honesty and integrity. As you will read, no one deserved to win a race like the Classic more than P.G., especially at this point in his life.
In following with my trips down memory lane this week through past Classic recaps, here is my 2002 recap as it appeared in the Blood-Horse and Bloodhorse.com.
Phil "P.G." Johnson had a perfect way to spend his 77th birthday. He decided to buy himself a $40,000 present. No luxury car, no cruise around the world; in fact, nothing at all. This was a gift for himself and his family, paid for with nearly 60 years of blood and sweat, compliments of a horse named Volponi.
Johnson, who bred the colt in the name of his family's Amherst Stable and owns him in partnership with his longtime friend Edward Baier, filled out a Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships pre-entry form, wrote a check, then headed to his local Federal Express office. This was his and Volponi's passport to the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). He stood by the counter for a few seconds, staring out in space, and asked himself, "What the hell am I doing?" When he handed the envelope to the girl behind the counter, he thought back at all he'd been through the past two years, and tears began to well up. The girl asked him, "Are you all right, Mr. Johnson? What's wrong?" He replied, "It would take too long to tell you."
He would have had to go back through six decades of cold, hard winters, first at the Detroit Fair Grounds in 1943, then the tracks in his hometown of Chicago. When "the cowboys moved in," Johnson headed to New York in 1961, where he launched a Hall of Fame career from his familiar Barn 63, the last outpost on the Belmont Park backstretch. Unlike most of the top trainers, he remains in New York year-round, coping with the frigid winds of Aqueduct every winter.
He also would have had to tell her about the recent lean years, when once-plentiful stakes winners became a rarity. And he would have had to tell her about his two-year battle with prostate cancer, which has forced him to undergo three operations and countless hours of radiation treatment. This was compounded by a fall at Saratoga this summer that required therapy four days a week.
So, just six days after his most recent surgery, on his 77th birthday, Johnson bought his ticket to the Breeders' Cup. One day before returning home to Chicago for the biggest race of his career, he and his wife, Mary Kay, watched the post position draw on television. When Volponi drew post 2 in the 12-horse field, Johnson was thrilled. Then he heard track handicapper Mike Battaglia announce the colt's odds at 50-1. "No way!" he said with indignation. When Mary Kay tried to act as the voice of reason by telling him the horse doesn't know his odds, Johnson told her, "Don't worry, at the three-sixteenths pole, you're going to be proud of me." Mary Kay replied, "I'm proud of you now."
That pride, and all her husband has gone through recently, overwhelmed her three days later when Volponi exploded past the 5-2 favorite, Medaglia d'Oro, at the quarter pole, then drew off to a brilliant 6 1/2-length victory, the largest margin in the history of the Classic. Johnson was right about the colt's odds. He was "only" 43-1.
The following day, Phil and Mary Kay returned home and celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. "She's the one who should get the trophy," Johnson said.
"Unbelievable. Unbelievable," was all Mary Kay could get out immediately after the race. She appeared in a daze, her face flushed with emotion. "I'm just so happy for him. It's been a bad two years with all the radiation and everything else. During that time, except for the surgeries, he's missed only five mornings at the barn. He's very tough, and he's made remarkable strides since his last surgery. Then, on top of everything, one day after we arrived at Saratoga, he went flying off a swivel chair and suffered severe whiplash. That was another nightmare. Our daughter Kathy took him to therapy four days a week and he had to wear a neck brace during the meet. He's remarkable. I just can't believe this day."
Most felt the Classic would be a showdown for Horse of the Year honors between Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner War Emblem and Came Home, winner of six of his seven starts in 2002, including the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Pacific Classic (gr. I) against older horses.
Also in the mix for Horse of the Year was Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the Travers Stakes (gr. I). The main question mark surrounding the three big 3-year-olds was that all were attempting to win the Classic off nine-week layoffs, something that had never been accomplished.
Among the older horses in the Classic, only Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Evening Attire appeared to be in the hunt for Horse of the Year.
Volponi had won the one-mile Poker Handicap (gr. IIIT) on the grass at Belmont in a near-course-record 1:32.24. Although he then lost his next four starts--three of them on turf--he turned in big efforts in all of them, including a fast-closing second when switched back to dirt in the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II). Johnson had put him on the grass following a May 30 allowance race in which he finished fourth at 2-5, ripping the skin off his right front quarter so badly the blood spurted back and covered the bandages on his hind leg.
Johnson pre-entered Volponi in both the Classic and Mile (gr. IT), but desperately wanted to get in the Classic. "The mile and a quarter will suit him, he's sharp and dead fit, and I don't like the 3-year-olds being away that long," he said shortly after sending in the pre-entry payment.
Volponi has always been a horse in search of an identity. Going into the Classic, he had switched to and from the grass seven times; switched riders 11 times; run at seven different distances on the dirt, from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and run at five different distances on the grass, from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. And he was about to have his fifth equipment change, getting blinkers on for the third time. The last time Johnson added blinkers, Volponi won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Saratoga by 13 1/2 lengths. When he took them back off, he won the Poker by 2 1/4 lengths.
"He doesn't need the blinkers on the turf," Johnson said. "He's very cooperative. But that stuff flies back at him on the dirt. It was a wake-up call, and probably a lucky guess putting them back on."
The Johnsons--P.G., Mary Kay, and daughters Kathy and Karen--could have lost Volponi after several parties showed an interest in buying the horse. "Buckram Oak tried to buy him after he won the Pegasus Handicap (gr. II) last year," Johnson said. "I knew there was no point selling him, so I told Mohammed Moubarak, representing Buckram Oak, that I already had an offer of $2.5 million, which I made up. He got up and nodded, and I never saw him again."
When an offer was made this summer from an agent the Johnsons had dealt with before, Mary Kay told the family, "I'm not voting for that."
"I didn't even want to know what the price was," she said. "I told Karen and Kathy, 'I want to keep this horse for your dad. He makes him feel good.' I guess I kind of dreamed something like this would happen. I was right."
Also dreaming were Johnson's longtime assistants, Heriberto and Debbie Cedano, who "met in the shedrow" and have been married for 19 years. Heriberto, who is called Ocala, has worked for Johnson for 32 years, while Debbie has been there for 28 years.
"We want the horse to win so badly for P.G., because he deserves it," Heriberto said two days before the race. "It's been several years since we've had a real good horse. P.G. is such a great guy. He never lies to you and never breaks a promise. In 32 years, I've been with him every day, except for three months one year when he went to Florida and I couldn't go. This horse is so sharp right now. When you have the right horse in the right race, you dream. Sometimes, it comes true."
Debbie, who remained in New York, knew something was in the stars, literally. "Right before the horse left for Arlington, I saw a shooting star and told P.G.," she said the morning after the race. "He asked me, 'What does that mean?' I told him you get to make a wish. Then, the next day I saw another shooting star. I couldn't believe it. I felt something big just had to happen. I'm just so happy for P.G. He's been through a horrible two years. But he kicked everyone's butt. He out-trained them all.
"My son's birthday was yesterday and P.G.'s and Mary Kay's anniversary is today. Can you believe that? When he made that move at the three-eighths pole, oh my God, I don't know why the neighbors didn't call the police. I jumped up and started screaming and scared all my animals."
The Classic horses trickled into Arlington all through Breeders' Cup week. Evening Attire was one of the first arrivals. Trainer Pat Kelly and his brothers, former trainers Larry and Timmy, wanted this badly for their father, 83-year-old Thomas J. "T.J." Kelly, like Johnson, a Hall of Fame trainer.
"To have this horse come along when we all needed a helping hand is a miracle," T.J. said. "Even if he gets a piece of it, I'll be happy."
Medaglia d'Oro shipped in the Monday before the race. When veteran blacksmith Ray Amato showed up a few days later to shoe the colt, he couldn't believe the power he felt. "This is the strongest horse I've been around since Seattle Slew," he said. "He has awesome power in the back. I've been around a lot of horses, but when he pulls you in the back, you better just go with him or you'll be holding on to nothing. Seattle Slew could pick you right up off the floor like a rag doll, and this is the first horse that's reminded me of him."
War Emblem arrived on Wednesday and was stabled in Barn 1A, looking right out at Bobby Springer's barn, which was his first home on the racetrack. Springer came by the following morning to see the horse for the first time since a 90% interest was sold by Russell Reineman back in April. He hopped in trainer Bob Baffert's van and headed to the chute to watch the colt school at the gate. "I wish nothing but the best for him," Springer said shortly after watching War Emblem school perfectly. "I'll sure be pulling for him."
Breeders' Cup morning was overcast and raw, with a bone-chilling wind whipping in from the west. At Barn 10, Came Home had his game face on and was looking for action. After trainer Paco Gonzalez removed the colt's poultice and put him back in his stall, the son of Gone West went down and rolled vigorously back and forth several times, then reared, narrowly missing an overhead pipe.
Following two days of rain, the track on race day, Oct. 26, was listed as muddy, but eventually would change to good, then fast. All the horses looked and acted well in the paddock. War Emblem, again, was a bit rambunctious in the gate. At the start, E Dubai broke like a bullet and sprinted clear of War Emblem, who had to be nudged by Victor Espinoza to keep up. Right then, Baffert knew he was in trouble. "What the hell is wrong with him?" he thought. "He's just not running like he usually does." Baffert could only conclude that the colt has "just soured up."
Jerry Bailey put Medaglia d'Oro right in the hunt, with Perfect Drift on his inside. Volponi broke a bit sluggishly under Jose Santos, who had ridden the colt twice this year. Santos let him settle in stride, then moved him into striking range, about three lengths off the lead, while enjoying a clear trip along the rail. Down the backstretch, after a quarter in :23.07 and a half in :46.63, E Dubai was still winging on the front end, with War Emblem a length and a half behind. Medaglia d'Oro was ready to pounce, with Perfect Drift inching closer on his inside.
They hit the three-quarters in 1:10.20, as War Emblem began closing in on E Dubai. But Medaglia d'Oro was on the move right behind, and it became apparent that the Kentucky Derby winner was in trouble. Santos pushed the button on Volponi, and he moved out, cruising past Perfect Drift. Medaglia d'Oro, meanwhile, had taken over the lead passing the five-sixteenths pole, and looked as if he was on his way to victory. But Bailey could feel him slipping and sliding over the wet-fast track. "I was hoping it would be either sloppy or dry, but it was in between," he said.
Volponi was now in full gear and ready to strike. He charged between a tiring E Dubai and War Emblem, shoving E Dubai out of the way. Then, with an electrifying move inside Medaglia d'Oro, he blew by the favorite in a flash. "I could have waited and gone to the outside," Santos said. "But the hole was there, I fit there, so we went."
And went he did, quickly opening up by 2 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, then increasing his margin with every stride. Santos, after several right-hand whips, put the stick away and hand-rode him to the wire, covering the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.39. Medaglia d'Oro just held on for second by a neck over stablemate Milwaukee Brew. It was three lengths back to Evening Attire in fourth. War Emblem faded to eighth, with Came Home a distant 10th.
Gonzalez said the following morning the colt had apparently suffered a knee injury. Hawk Wing, from Aidan O'Brien's powerful Ballydoyle stable in Ireland, never was in the hunt, finishing seventh.
Volponi's stunning victory also helped revive the career of Santos. Once one of the most sought-after riders in the country, Santos' career took a dramatic nosedive in the mid-'90s after a bad spill. "My business went down terribly," he said. "Then, this year I started to get up, and believe me, it's like I'm rejuvenated. It's been a blessing, and my family has kept me going."
For the Johnsons, this also has been a blessing, to have this homebred colt come along when they desperately needed him. Mary Kay, still overcome with emotion well after the race, couldn't help but think back to the 19-year-old girl who was at old Washington Park with her parents when a young, struggling trainer, all of 18 years old, sat down on a bench next to her and struck up a conversation.
"He told me if I came back the following week, he'd meet me at the same bench," Mary Kay recalled. "He brought his father with him to meet my parents, and a year and a half later we were married. And did we ever struggle back then."
Johnson's career stalled in recent years. In 2001, his earnings plummeted to $828,986. But there was a diamond beginning to shine through all the glass stones. Two years earlier, Johnson had received a phone call from another of his longtime employees, Willie Otero, who breaks his yearlings in Ocala. Otero told him he had a yearling colt by Cryptoclearance, whom he had been riding for about two weeks, and who needed to be gelded because he was biting everyone around him. "You ain't cutting that horse," Johnson told him. "He's bred to be a good horse."
When Johnson finally got the colt, he was looking around for a name. At that time, a New York racing writer named Paul Volponi, who was writing for the New York Thoroughbred Observer, had come up with the idea of giving out his annual Volponi Award. Volponi in Italian means "sly, old fox," and he bestowed his honor on Michael Dickinson for the trainer's amazing training job bringing Da Hoss back to win the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). The following year, when Johnson brought back five horses from a layoff to win, it earned him the Volponi Award. Johnson read the story and liked it, and asked Karen who this Paul Volponi was. The two met and hit if off, and the following year, when Johnson was searching for names, he thought of Volponi and liked the sound of it. He submitted it for the Cryptoclearance colt, and in doing so immortalized a member of the media.
Johnson had leased the colt to his daughter, Kathy, for racing purposes before selling half-interest to Baier, a certified public accountant from Floral Park, N.Y., for $75,000.
When Volponi captured the Pegasus Handicap in October of 2001, Johnson capitalized on the victory by selling the colt's dam, Prom Knight. He had bought her at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga preferred yearling sale for $8,000, and with one stakes victory by Volponi, sold her for $425,000.
A year later, Volponi brought P.G. and Mary Kay home to Chicago, where he would win the richest race in America. Washington Park and the Johnsons' bench are long gone, but the memories remain.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Even after 40 years, you can go home again. After the Classic, Johnson ran into an old friend, Arlington Park's longtime vice president of racing, Bill Thayer. The two embraced, and Thayer said to him, "It's been a long time, old buddy. How have you been? I finally brought you home."
(As a postscript, P.G. continued to battle on, and, sadly, it was Mary Kay who passed away first, in May, 2004. A grief-stricken P.G. died three months later).