In Crunch Time, Nancy Johansson called on her secret weapon

Crunch Time

June 21, 2019

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Moments before going to post in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup, trainer Nancy Johansson called on her secret weapon and Captain Crunch went out and recorded an epic 1:47.2 Canadian record in the nation’s richest race.

by Dave Briggs

With millions on the line, trainer Nancy Johansson wasn’t about to screw around. After her star 3-year-old pacing colt Captain Crunch warmed up for last Saturday’s $1 million Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Johansson called on her secret weapon — her 14-year-old daughter, Ella, who was back home in New Jersey and ready to give her boy a pep talk via FaceTime.

A week earlier in his NA Cup elimination, Captain Crunch — the 2018 2-year-old pacing colt of the year in the U.S. — jumped at a shadow near the quarter pole and made an uncharacteristic break in stride. He rebounded to finish fifth to grab one of the two final spots in the final.

But don’t count Ella among the sudden doubters and bandwagon leapers heading into the final where Captain Crunch went off at a generous 4-1 out of the eight hole, making him the fourth betting choice in the field of 10. After all, Ella was the one that insisted her mother find a way to buy the pacer at the 2017 Standardbred Horse Sales yearling auction in Harrisburg, PA; a request Nancy scrambled to grant, eventually finding owners willing to pony up $85,000.

“It’s the weirdest thing – (Ella) doesn’t really go to the barn a lot and it’s not like she really goes out of her way to see (Captain Crunch) or anything like that, but I FaceTimed her (from the Mohawk paddock) and, all of a sudden, his ears went up when he heard her and he was trying to eat my phone and he was just all into it. It was just very weird. He responds to her in a weird kind of way. He must know that she was the first one to have confidence in him, so it was, ‘I’m not going to disappoint you.’

“She said, ‘You’ve got this, big boy. You’re the best and don’t let anybody tell you different.’ She was just motivating and has a whole motivational speech for him before races.”

Soon after, Captain Crunch posted an inspiring 1:47.2 Canadian record with Scott Zeron at the controls.

MILLIONS ON THE LINE

Working with great horses is nothing new to Nancy. She’s been around more than her share — such as 2014 U.S. and Canadian Horse of the Year JK She’salady — since she went out on her own in 2013 and, before that, working for her father, Hall of Famer Jimmy Takter.

But managing a stallion prospect potentially worth millions? That’s a whole new ballgame for Nancy, who turns 38 this Sunday.

“I’ve had a lot of good fillies, but managing a colt is obviously different than managing a filly. This colt could go on and have a big stallion career and there’s a lot riding on what happens every week with a colt,” Nancy said of the son of Captaintreacherous out of Sweet Paprika, a mare who is a half-sister to stallion Sweet Lou. “You’re almost dealing with a stock and you want to keep the value of the stock where it’s at all the time. I had Kissin In The Sand last year and her value kind of stayed the same all last year. As long as she was racing well, she had good value. She’ll go on and be a great broodmare for Marvin Katz and Bud Hatfield.”

Captain Crunch was initially purchased by the 3 Brothers Stable of New York (and JK She’salady fame), Rojan Stables of Wilmington, DE and Caviart Farms of Vienna, VA.

“Then, once the hammer had fallen and the partners were standing there, my dad called me right away and said, ‘Did you buy that Captaintreacherous colt out of Sweet Paprika?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I bought him.’ He said, ‘See if the partners would let your mom take 10 per cent of him? He’s a beautiful looking horse.’”

While the NA Cup was one of the few big races Takter never won before retiring as a trainer at the end of 2018, Nancy joked on NA Cup night that her parents made out better winning it for the first time as part-owners.

“If you can’t do it as a trainer you may as well do it as an owner. (My dad) wasn’t going to not get (the NA Cup), you know,” Johansson said, laughing. “Seriously, it’s probably more lucrative to do it as an owner than as a trainer. I’m only getting five per cent and he owns 10 per cent of the horse. Well, actually, my mom does.”

It is tradition at the Takter household to drape the blanket from major stakes victories over the statue of a horse that stands outside Jimmy and Christina’s house. Nancy was delighted to place the Pepsi North America Cup blanket there the day after Captain Crunch’s huge victory.

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve been waiting a long time to get a North America Cup.’ There’s been Hambletonian blankets on there, Breeders Crown blankets, Jug blankets and it took a long time to get a North America Cup blanket on there, so I’m really hoping that in a few weeks we can put a Meadowlands Pace blanket on there and we can be good,” Nancy said. “We’ll complete the circle, then we can just start trying to double up on things.”

Nancy’s parents were in Sweden when Captain Crunch won the Cup. When it was done, Jimmy texted his daughter a simple message.

“People assume my dad is really involved in everything,” Nancy said of her larger-than-life father. “He did not text me a single time (on Saturday) or say anything to me until after the race, when he said, ‘Good job, I’m so proud of you.’ That was it. He’s been really good like that. Obviously, that makes me feel good that my dad would trust me, especially with a horse that he and my mom have a share in.

That said, Nancy said she knows she has an in-house expert when it comes to stallion management. Jimmy estimates he had a hand in creating some 50 stallions worldwide in his career.

“There’s nobody that does that side of the business better than he does and I’m sure he’ll be very useful in the future when I need advice,” she said.

BIG RACE PEDIGREE

In the meantime, she will trust her skills and instincts. That big-horse, big-race, big-reward mentality was firmly planted in her mind long ago.

It’s the reason June 15 has long been circled on Nancy’s calendar.

“Going into this year, obviously the North America Cup was the first big thing on the calendar that was circled with a big, red circle because that’s our first goal. Everything was ‘When we go to the North America Cup…’ So to go there and actually get the job done, is very, very rewarding,” she said.

“You always have to believe in your system and what you’re doing in the winter and spring when you’re preparing these horses for the stakes races, but to be able to win and then win in a stakes and Canadian record and track record, you know, it’s a nice affirmation that what you did all winter actually was working and it paid off.”

Not that it was an easy journey, especially when Nancy’s heart nearly crumbled watching Captain Crunch break stride in his elimination.

“At that point, I didn’t even realize there was a shadow or anything and I was like ‘What the heck just happened?’ but then I saw him get back on stride pretty quickly and I thought, ‘Okay, he’s going to be stuck on the outside now’ because no one is going to give him an easy ride from there, because everyone was probably like ‘Okay, that’s good he ran, let’s get him out of the finals.’ When he was on the backside, I thought he still looked comfortable. He got tired coming down the stretch a bit, but he’s just such a tough horse and he will give you 110 per cent effort every time he can. He will not disappoint in that way, so I actually felt like even when they were at the three-quarter pole, I was still hopeful that he would make the final and be able to get it done.”

She trained Captain Crunch at Mohawk three days before the Cup final.

“I trained him a doubleheader, he went in 2:30 and then I walked him for five minutes and then he trained in 2:10, with a 1:02 back half, so I just wanted, mainly, to have him go around the track just for some experience.

“I didn’t think that there was any physical issue or equipment issue or anything like that that needed to be taken care of. He trained super on Wednesday, so I wasn’t really concerned about anything… I think it was just for my peace of mind, and maybe a little bit for his, too, that the first turn was okay and there wasn’t going to be a big monster shadow jumping out at him when the gate let go (for the final).”

Bobble aside, Nancy said she was a little baffled the bettors somewhat jumped off Captain Crunch for the final.

“He was amazing in his two previous starts and in his qualifiers. And he was the Dan Patch Award winner and he won the Governor’s Cup and the Breeders Crown. I was just kind of, ‘Oh, that was quick with everyone jumping off his bandwagon.’ Really, it wasn’t that he raced badly or that he wasn’t good enough, it was just weird. I think, too, it was having Post 8. If he had the five-hole or something like that, people would have been more inclined to stay on the bandwagon. But, you know what, that doesn’t really matter to me now.”

Nancy laughed as she said this. Winning a huge race has a miraculous way of dulling the memory of a troubled journey to get there, especially when the Crunch Crew is bursting with supreme confidence that starts with the horse himself.

“He’s actually really confident. I think that’s the best way to describe him. He’s cool as a cucumber. He’s quiet. He’s a pleasure to work with and never gives you a hard time. He’ll let you do whatever you need to do with him. You never have to fight him to do anything. With that confidence, he screams a lot,” Nancy said, laughing. “He’s very loud in the paddock. He will let everyone know that he’s coming into the paddock and when he’s walking out of the paddock, but he’s not a bad stud in any way. He can go out into the field and have other fillies or mares in the paddock next to him and that won’t bother him at all, but when he’s at the race paddock, he lets everyone know that he’s there.

“They are very accommodating at Mohawk, I asked for one of the new stalls with the higher walls, otherwise he would have been screaming all night. It wouldn’t have been good for anybody in the paddock.”

Nancy said Zeron shares Captain Crunch’s confidence.

“Scott’s been talking about this race all the time, like, ‘I’m going to win the North America Cup. I’ve never been so sure about winning the North America Cup…’ When he came back (after winning) and I met him with the horse and we hugged and everything, he said ‘I got it, the last thing on my bucket list!’ And I looked at him and said, ‘You’re only 30 years old, you should really add to that bucket list of yours.’”

Nancy stressed Captain Crunch’s success is a huge team victory — something she posted about on Facebook the morning after the Cup triumph thanking everyone by name, including her husband, Marcus, the owners, Zeron, the vets, farriers and caretakers Annette Zackrisson (at home in New Jersey), Katie Remmerswaal (for crossing the border with the stable’s horses) and Ben Hollingsworth for paddocking Crunch at the Cup.

“It really is a team type of thing. If you think of it, running a stable is kind of like running a cruise ship,” Nancy said. “Maybe I’m the captain of the ship, but there’s so much other stuff that goes on that needs to keep things moving.”

In Captain Crunch’s case, it all started with a girl named Ella that made a deep connection with a horse in Harrisburg.

“When we were at the sale Ella said, ‘Mom, you have to buy this Captaintreacherous colt’ and then she left and that was the last thing she said to me. I just had this feeling like, ‘You need to buy that horse. You need to get this done, find partners for him and you need to buy this horse.’”

After the Cup was won, Nancy rushed out of Mohawk to fly home to New Jersey.

“I wanted to get home to my family because I was in Canada for 10 days,” she said.

Sunday morning, she sat down and watched the replay with Ella.

“She said ‘I can’t believe how good he was.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s a great horse. You picked a great horse, Ella.’”

Less than 24 hours after her richest career triumph, Nancy Johansson finally had the time to process the enormity of the victory and realize it wasn’t a dream.

“You get a chance to sit back and think, ‘Wow, he actually won the North America Cup. That actually happened.’”

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