From last calls to mucking stalls: the evolution of Minnesota trainer Jessica Johnson

by Chris Lomon

It was, of all things, a conversation at a hair salon that put Jessica Johnson on the path to standardbred racing success.

When asked how her love affair with all things horses began, the Minnesota-born trainer traces it back to days she doesn’t remember herself.

Really, how could she? She wasn’t even born yet.

“When my mom was pregnant with me, she was, at a certain point, still riding horses with me in her belly,” Johnson said with a laugh. “So, I guess that’s when my connection to horses started.”

It only grew stronger from there.

“I’ve been around horses my whole life. Growing up, I was an assistant trainer for a while with dressage and eventing horses. That was my background. I got hurt and I wasn’t able to do that any more. I was 19, working at a bar, just waiting for college to start.”

That’s where the hair salon story comes to light.

Johnson’s stepmother was having a chat with a customer sitting in the salon chair when the conversation happened to turn to horse racing.

“Running Aces [Columbus, MN] had just opened the year before when I was working at the bar,” said Johnson. “My stepmom was cutting someone’s hair, and they happened to be a horseman. They told my mom they needed help on the backside, and if she knew of anyone that might be interested. She mentioned me and gave them my number.”

From last calls to mucking stalls, Johnson was now part of the harness racing world.

“I started out doing odd jobs and I guess they couldn’t shake me. I really loved it. Eventually, I got into owning horses – I’ve owned a lot of horses over the last several years – and I figured I might as well start training them since I own so many.”

It turned out to be a wise decision.

Johnson, currently stationed in Sacramento, CA at Cal-Expo, impressed in her first year as head trainer for Roland Racing Stable. She has played an integral role in the operation’s success for numerous years, but 2020 represented the first time she was listed as the trainer of record.

At season’s end, she posted 43 wins (earning her leading trainer honors at Running Aces), 106 top-three finishes and $337,521 in purse earning from 201 starts.

The lofty numbers, including a .354 UTRS, don’t tell the entire story.

While there was no doubt plenty to celebrate, any victory, big or small, was tempered by an understanding of how things could change in an instant.

“We really had a strong lineup last year, but it’s rare that everything goes as planned. I would say all of the horses we had performed as we hoped they would, which is rare. I wasn’t shocked by the performances of the horses – it’s what I expected – but that doesn’t mean they all fire like that in the same year.”

It was in July when Johnson first felt it could be a memorable campaign for the pacers and trotters under her care.

“When our 2-year-old pacer hit the track, out of all our horses, he was the one that exceeded all expectations. Right about then, it was that moment when you said, ‘Wow… this is shaping up to be a very good year.’”

That horse is Alilthundadownunda, a son of Malak Uswaad N (MN).
In 13 starts last year, the gelding, bred by Set The Pace Racing LLC and owned by Ken Stauffer, went 4-3-3 from 13 starts, including a neck score at Running Aces on Sept. 22.

“We bred him. His mare, Wild About Eagle, is a horse that our friends raced and then sold to us as a broodmare. He’s just a big, goofy horse. Some of them come off the gate and they are super professional and that was never him. He’s always been good-gaited and he’s always shown a lot of talent, but he’s just been busy worrying about anything else other than racing. So, for him to have as much success as he did without knowing what he was doing was really exciting.”

Johnson, who currently has a stable of 30 horses at Cal-Expo, is hoping lightning will strike in 2021 with another horse like Alilthundadownunda.

After a racing-interrupted 2020 campaign, and with the pandemic still wreaking havoc on the racetrack and beyond this year, she’s understandably cautious when it comes to predicting how this year will pan out for her stable.

“Things are still a little bit scary with COVID. I think for me, it’s about being grateful for last year, and doing whatever we can to have the same type of season this year. With the pandemic, it’s all about having the right horses for the right classes and making sure what you are bringing to the racetrack is the right horse for the right race.”

Johnson takes a brief pause when she reflects on the biggest lesson learned from her outstanding rookie campaign.

“We had a lot of ups, but we had a lot of downs. I learned that I’m able to have a bad moment, put it away and then race 10 horses and have a good night. I felt a little bit tougher than I thought I was.”

That was put to the test last summer.

It’s a moment she still thinks of to this day.

“I woke up one morning – we had a horse get hurt in the paddock and we sent him for surgery – to a call from the vet saying that they had to put the horse down. Having to deal with that in the morning, telling the owners, and then going to race… it was really hard. But that’s part of the industry that a lot of people outside of it don’t see. They see the wins and success, but they don’t realize all of the struggles that we go through on the backside. It’s why the good days mean so much.”

Johnson’s hoping there will be even more of them ahead this year and beyond.

When Cal-Expo’s season comes to an end, she’ll head back home to Minnesota, and hope to hold a hot hand at the Running Aces meet.

“We have a lot of really special horses in our barn right now. It will be exciting to see how it all plays out. I love California, but Minnesota is where I’m from and it will always be my home. Really, the biggest thing is that I’m just happy wherever we’re racing.”