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It Shapes Up as a Classic to Johnson

After leaving California 12 years ago, the trainer returns with Perfect Drift, who could make a strong pitch for horse-of-the-year honors with a victory in the $4-million race.

October 25, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Until this week, trainer Murray Johnson hadn't spent a night in California since he won the California Derby with Green Alligator in 1991. Johnson had worked for himself and other trainers for several years along the backstretches of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, but left for Kentucky disillusioned and bitter, believing that several owners had betrayed him.

Now the 43-year-old Australian has returned, if only for a one-day stand. He'll saddle another Green Alligator -- a horse on the cusp of something great -- when Perfect Drift runs in the $4-million Classic, the richest stake on the eight-race Breeders' Cup card. Perfect Drift is undefeated on dirt this year, and will become a bona fide horse-of-the-year candidate with a victory in the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

"Perfect Drift is why you go to the barn every day," Johnson said Friday morning at Santa Anita. "He's that top-level horse that you're always looking for."

If this were golf, Mineshaft would be sitting in the clubhouse, leading the field. Retired to stud last month, Mineshaft is the horse-of-the-year favorite, but the door is open for a few others because he isn't running at Santa Anita. Perfect Drift defeated Mineshaft, in June, and is on a four-race dirt winning streak. Johnson's 4-year-old gelding hasn't lost on dirt since he threw a shoe early in the race and ran 12th at Arlington Park in last year's Breeders' Cup.

After winning the California Derby, Green Alligator ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby and won only one more race before he was retired to stud. Perfect Drift, bred and owned by William A. Reed, a Kansas City heart surgeon, was gelded before he ever ran a race, and should have a lengthy career ahead of him if he stays sound.

Johnson recalled Friday how dismal his prospects were around the time he left California 12 years ago.

"I had four horses," he said. "One of them broke down in a race. Another was a no-pay horse. I had inherited him from an owner who couldn't pay his bills. Another one was claimed away from me. And the fourth was Green Alligator."

Even Kentucky was no immediate rose garden. Before Perfect Drift came along, earning $2.2 million in 17 races, Johnson had borrowed from Reed to keep going. Being 60 days behind in paying his horses' feed bill was a common occurrence. But now Perfect Drift has cemented Johnson's relationship with the 76-year-old Reed, whose racing-breeding operation began with the $115,000 purchase of two yearlings in 1990.

Before taking out his own trainer's license, Johnson had worked for more than three years in California as an assistant to the successful John Gosden, who's running Oasis Dream in today's Breeders' Cup Mile.

When Gosden returned to his native England in 1988, Johnson assumed he would inherit some of those California horses.

Gosden said he'd run the operation at Hollywood Park while Johnson was in charge of the stock at Santa Anita.

"John gave me a lot of responsibility," Johnson said. "The first year, we'd talk on the phone every day. The second year, we'd talk once a week. The third year, we talked sparingly. By then, he said, 'Just make sure you don't keep any of the owners in the dark. Do what you want, but keep them informed.' "

As Gosden left, Johnson said, some of the horses went to trainer Neil Drysdale. Juddmonte Farm hired Bobby Frankel as its U.S. trainer and he got what horses it had with Gosden. Other Gosden horses were transferred to Richard Mandella and Ron McAnally.

"Sure, they were all well-known trainers," Johnson said. "But I felt I had done well by those owners and deserved a chance to show what I could do on my own. I got Mr. Wonderful, a horse with a lot of problems, ready to race again, but when he won a stake [the American Handicap at Hollywood Park], Mandella was the trainer. After the race, Mandella gave me credit for the job I had done."

There's no question about where the credit lies with Perfect Drift. He has been with Johnson from the start, for nine victories and three seconds. To reach Santa Anita, the horse got on an airplane for only the third time, bringing his trainer back to California, back to the land of unfulfilled dreams.

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