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Volponi Does End Run Around Odds in Classic

The 43-1 longshot wins Breeders' Cup showcase by 6 1/2 lengths and knocks horse-of-year picture out of focus.

October 27, 2002|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — The last time there was a shock this big in the Breeders' Cup Classic was when Arcangues, a sore-backed interloper from France, won at 133-1 in 1993. Volponi is as American as they come, despite the name that ends with a vowel, and he's sound from top to bottom besides, but that price next to his number on Arlington Park's tote board Saturday was an Arcangues-like payoff.

Against a field that was designed to settle any horse-of-the-year debates, Volponi only jumbled the issue in front of 46,118 spectators, and probably sent the title in the direction of a filly for the first time since Lady's Secret in 1986. Beating the Classic favorite, Medaglia d'Oro, by 6 1/2 lengths -- biggest margin in the 19-year history of the race -- Volponi won a Grade I race for the first time, won for the first time outside greater New York and made his 77-year-old trainer, P.G. Johnson, the oldest conditioner to win a Breeders' Cup race.

Is it any wonder Volponi paid $89 for $2? Thirty-three selectors tried to pick the Classic winner in the Daily Racing Form, and only one nailed Volponi. That her name is Karen Johnson is no coincidence. P.G.'s daughter wouldn't want to get on the bad side of her dad, would she?

As the longest price in the race, at 43-1, Volponi made a shambles of the Classic. Medaglia d'Oro's horse-of-the-year chances went south, as did those of War Emblem, Came Home and Evening Attire. War Emblem, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, finished eighth after running second for about a mile. Came Home, a 3-year-old who had already beaten older horses, was 10th. Milwaukee Brew finished third, missing second by a neck, and after him came Evening Attire, beaten by almost 10 lengths.

When the 250 or so Eclipse award voters cast their ballots in late December, the likely favorite will be Azeri, who began the eight-race Breeders' Cup card with a five-length victory for her eighth win in nine starts this year. Azeri has never faced males, which Lady's Secret did with success during her title year, but the electorate can be expected to overlook that in the wake of Volponi's upset.

"Horse of the year is up to [the voters]," said Laura de Seroux, who trains Azeri. "But my filly has put together a record like we've seldom seen."

P.G. Johnson, who was elected into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1997, had had only two Breeders' Cup starters before Saturday; they finished fourth and sixth in the 1990 event at his home track, Belmont Park. He bred Volponi and races him in a partnership that includes another of his daughters. Edward Baier bought 50% of the 4-year-old colt in the beginning, for $75,000. After running 1 1/4 miles in 2:01 1/5 Saturday with Jose Santos, Volponi earned $2.08 million.

"I could have taken [the Classic purse] a lot of years ago," said Johnson, referring to some lean years. "The horses in front of us were getting tired and my horse was strong. Maybe we caught some horses going the wrong way."

Volponi had won six of 22 starts, two of the wins coming on grass, and Johnson had considered running him in the Breeders' Cup Mile, a turf race.

"He's a natural mile-and-a-quarter horse, and he's as good on dirt as he is on turf," Johnson said. "The Mile is a million-dollar race and the Classic is [almost] $4 million, so just do the numbers."

This year, Volponi had won only two of seven races, and in his last four -- three on grass -- he had been coming close without winning. On Oct. 4, running 1 1/8 miles on dirt at the Meadowlands, he finished second as the favorite.

"He was too far back, and I wasn't happy," Johnson said. "I wanted to blame the jockey [Shaun Bridgmohan], but after I watched the tape a couple of times, I saw he was riding the horse, but the horse wasn't responding. So I decided to run him in this race with blinkers, like I had earlier."

Santos, who had ridden Volponi twice before, regained the mount because Bridgmohan elected to stick with Evening Attire, his regular mount.

"I wasn't surprised [to win] at all," Santos said. "I told my wife three days ago that he would win. This horse has been doing wonderful. I think the blinkers back on made the difference. I've ridden him on the grass, but he never had that kick."

Johnson and his wife Mary Kay, who met on a paddock bench at the old Washington Park track in their native Chicago, are celebrating Volponi as well as their 57th wedding anniversary today. Late Saturday, Mary Kay got teary-eyed as she told about how tough the last couple of years have been for her husband. Johnson has undergone three operations for prostate cancer, the most recent about three weeks ago, and he was walking around Saratoga in a neck brace this summer after falling in their leased home near the upstate New York track.

"Through all of this, except for the days he spent in the hospital he missed only five days at the barn," Mary Kay Johnson said.

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