The daughter of trainer P.G. Johnson, who died in August of 2004, Karen Johnson grew up at the racetrack. Her father started training horses in 1943, long before she was born, and it is fair to say, I think, that growing up in the household of a Hall of Fame Thoroughbred trainer gives you some insight into the breed—of the trainer, not the horse.
Johnson conceived of the book early in 2008, and she began with a list of trainers about whom she wanted to write. She got nearly everyone on that list, and the book is a result of in-depth interviews with the elite of U.S. Thoroughbred racing: Steve Asmussen, Rick Dutrow, Bobby Frankel, Neil Howard, Allen Jerkens, Carl Nafzger, Todd Pletcher, and Nick Zito.
“I got lucky,” said Johnson recently from California, to which she recently re-located to work at HRTV as an editorial producer. “I started on the book early in 2008 and Rick [Dutrow] agreed to be a part of it. This was before [Big Brown’s] Florida Derby, so having him as one of the trainers worked out really well.”
Johnson deliberately included trainers who could be considered controversial. “I wanted trainers with interesting stories,” she said. She noted that some of the men have stories that are well-known: Dutrow’s Big Brown steroids controversy; Asmussen’s list of violations. Those stories are here, but they are reported not in isolation, as they frequently are in the press, but in the larger context of the trainers’ careers.
She already knew most of the trainers; the exception was Carl Nafzger. “Before the book, I didn’t have a relationship with him, though I knew the stories. He’s been great, and even came to book signings when we were promoting the book in Kentucky.”
Allen Jerkens was quite another story. “He and my father were good friends. His son Jimmy and I are close to the same age, and we grew up together; I used to go over to their house when I was little.” Even so, she says, “I was struck by so many things that I didn’t know, so many stories that I hadn’t heard.”
Even those who follow the sport closely are likely to hear stories and to discover things about these trainers that we didn’t already know. The oft-vilified Dutrow on claiming:
If he senses that a horse isn’t reaching his or her potential in another
trainer’s barn, and he believes he can do a better job with that horse, he will
swoop in for the claim.
“There are trainers out there who we think are complete clowns, so you’ve got to
be interested in claiming off of them,” he said. “I don’t want to name any
names. But they know who they are, and so do we.”
Dutrow is quick, though, to name the trainers from whom he won’t claim:
There are certain trainers I won’t claim from, and it is building up more and
more. That’s another reason that I’m not so interested in claiming anymore. I
won’t claim off guys I have a relationship with. It’s mostly the good guys in
the game,” he said, reeling off a string of names: Allen and Jimmy Jerkens, Bill
Mott, Todd Pletcher, and Kiaran McLaughlin. “Those kind of guys, I would never
claim from them…I like these guys, and we get along good.”
Johnson knew that the trainers weren’t going to reveal their secrets in print; this isn’t a book about training strategy and techniques. It’s a book about people, about their stories, about how they see themselves and what they love about racing. Sure, some of the stories are familiar…but really, who could tire of Allen Jerkens’ talking about Sky Beauty and Society Selection? “I loved fast fillies,” he told Johnson.
Having recently spent so much time at Saratoga with Frankel, learning of his recent death was tough for Johnson. “I liked and respected him, and it was huge to have access to him, to have him in the book. He agreed immediately, and it was great to spend all of that time with him at the racetrack…none of our conversations took place outside the gates of a racetrack. He could be acerbic, but he could be kind. He was a good man.”
While Johnson’s book has been reviewed throughout the racing world, she felt most touched and rewarded when she saw the book lying on a table at Frankel’s memorial service last week. “I knew then that he must have liked it,” she said.
When asked what she hopes that readers will get from her book, Johnson pauses. “Not only are these trainers passionate about the game and their horses, not only are they hard workers—they’re from all walks of life. Frankel’s from the streets of Brooklyn; Pletcher’s father was a trainer; Asmussen has a racing background. I didn’t want all the stories to be the same.”
And they’re not. The story of Neil Howard’s relationship with Lane’s End’s Will Farish, of Howard’s role at Farish’s private trainer, is made all the more poignant by the recent news that Howard is taking his stable public; Johnson captured a trainer/owner relationship the likes of which the racing world will likely not see again.
Breezy in spots, serious in others, The Training Game is an easy read, written accessibly for a wide audience, for those who know these men, for those who’ve seen them only on television, and for those with, perhaps, only a slender awareness of the men behind the horses. Its anecdotes make human men who can seem iconic, and add dimensions to what we think we already know about them. On sale now for 30% off at the DRF store, it might make the racing fan in your life happy this holiday season.
The Training Game: An Inside Look at American Racing’s Top Trainers, by Karen M. Johnson. Published by DRF Press, 192 pages. Image of the book cover taken from the DRF site. I received the book as a review copy from the DRF press.