Meat and potatoes, with a schmear

Despite a decade-long detour in the bagel business, Richard Johnson has spent most of his life training horses. Today, he’s second to Ron Burke’s powerhouse stable in the Meadowlands’ trainer rankings.

by Dave Little

Richard Johnson is one of the leading trainers at the current Meadowlands meeting. His 23 wins are second only to Ron Burke’s 32, and Burke has more than twice as many starts. Yes, things are good for Johnson, who has been involved in the sport since his teenage years.

“My boss from ShopRite was a gambler,” said Johnson, 55. “To this day, we’re good friends. I started going to the track with him when I was 16. We’d go to Freehold on Wednesdays, on his day off, and watch the warmups. We had some great times. That’s how I got started. Then, I met a girl in high school whose father had some horses.”

Johnson’s first job came soon thereafter working for long-time Meadowlands horseman Mike Gagliardi.

“I’m sure I still do things he taught me,” said Johnson. “He was a great-hearted guy. I was a young kid. He gave me a great opportunity. He had a heart of gold. Good horseman, good driver. He sent me on my way.”

Johnson’s career as a harness trainer was gathering momentum in the two years spanning 1991-92, when, according to United States Trotting Association statistics, he sent out 44 winners for earnings of just over $600,000, but one piece of bad luck sent him to another line of work for a spell.

“I had a horse, Admirals Galley (an earner of $324,000 from 1991-92),” said Johnson. “He broke his foot unexpectedly at Freehold in an overnight prepping for a stakes race. That owner got sour on the harness game and then things got slow for me.”

Enter a business with a lot of holes, unless you know what you are doing, of course.

“I spent about 10 years in the bagel business. We had a nice little run there,” said Johnson. “We had a little bagel shop in Teaneck (N.J.) before everybody was selling bagels. We rolled them there, we baked them there. It wound up being a nice little business.”

“I’ve been back racing horses full-time for some time now, but even when I was in the other business, I always kept a foot or a toe in the harness game. I’ve been in and out and back and forth (of the bagel business since) on several occasions, but rents have gone crazy and I’ve been out of that business for about eight years now.”

Are there similarities between the bagel and horse businesses? “Both are time consuming,” said Johnson. “A lot of hours. But I always feel you get out of it what you put into it.”

The big question on everybody’s mind in the harness game at the Big M: Will casino gaming be necessary for the long-term survival of the sport?

“If that’s what’s going to increase the purses, then yes,” said Johnson. “I’ve been around long enough and saw this business stand by itself. Unfortunately, times have changed. I don’t see new generations of horseplayers. It does take some time and some effort to go there and enjoy yourself handicapping. The question is, are there a new generation of those types of horseplayers? There are just too many other options available to them.”

Johnson said he’s not surprised about the high handle numbers at the Meadowlands, despite a decrease in the racing’s talent level.

“There was strong on-track handle before simulcasting. (Wagering here) has always been enticing, whether it’s the mile track or the 10-horse fields. So, I’m not surprised, because I’ve been around the Meadowlands for 30-something years.”

Johnson also seems energized about the new-look driver colony at the Big M. “It’s a new generation,” he said. “There are a lot of guys making a name for themselves. They are getting lots of opportunities.”

A big part of the harness business finds Johnson reading condition sheets from all tracks on the Eastern seaboard, so that he can take advantage of out-of-town opportunities to keep his owners happy. “We are going to race a little bit at Chester (Harrah’s Philadelphia), Pocono, Yonkers, Freehold. We pick our spots and are hitting a lot of tracks. Shipping horses is expensive. The more you can keep your expenses down, the more money the owners make. You want to take into consideration how far you are shipping. You have to be careful with the class of horse, how much will it cost us round trip and how many times we are going to go. This all adds to our expenses for the month.”

Johnson said that “Delaware is kind of a closed crowd and Pennsylvania is trying to do the same.” The condition sheets at those tracks restrict (or prefer) horses to be from those specific states to get in, and Johnson thinks it would be good for New Jersey horsemen to have opportunities like that.

So, will you not ship if the Meadowlands sees casino money roll in and bolster the purse account?

“It’s hard to say, it depends on the class of horse,” said Johnson. “I was born and bred Meadowlands. I saw the track in its heyday, when they used to bet a million on track on Monday nights. Higher purses would certainly be nice. We would be home. We’re from New Jersey.”

One might call Johnson a “meat and potatoes” trainer. They’d be right. He’s always had good overnight stock. And on occasion, something a little better.

“I’ve had no world champions per se, but I’ve had some good racehorses,” said Johnson. “($500,000 earner) Jacsue Brooks would be the first in line, he stayed good for years. I had a trotting mare, ($700,000 earner) Victors Vicky, who raced at Yonkers for years. Plus Admirals Galley, and countless other racehorses. I was a claiming guy for years, but I still like to fool around with some young ones. I won a non-winners of two Friday (April 8) night at the Meadowlands and to me that was a great thrill. It was a horse we developed and been through ups and downs with.”

So, Richard, ever consider leaving the Garden State for larger pots of purse gold? “I’m a Jersey guy. I’m born and bred here. I came into the business in 1980, the Meadowlands has always been the place.”
Is it still? “I don’t know. I hope so.”