by Chris Lomon
What, if anything, could the NFL and standardbred racing possibly share in common? More than you might think according to Oscar Johnson Jr.
It was a question that elicited, perhaps surprisingly, a quick response from the former offensive lineman who has had a longstanding association with horse racing.
“Work ethic, for sure,” Johnson said, when asked if there are any connections between life on the gridiron and life on the racetrack. “You have to show up every day and be willing to put in the work.”
And he undoubtedly has.
Recently, on April 22, Johnson celebrated his first pari-mutuel training win when pacer KJ Erich posted an impressive victory at Shenandoah Downs.
Co-bred, owned and driven by Dr. Scott Woogen, the 10-year-old pacing son of Roll With Joe was sent off as the 2-1 choice in the eight-horse field on race 13 on the card.
On top by 1 ¼-lengths at the stretch call, KJ Erich flashed a final quarter of :29.4 on his way to a comfortable three-length score in a time of 1:58.4.
The former football player transformed into a cheerleader when the horses turned for home.
Those in the grandstand that day likely heard the big man with the big voice urging KJ Erich for his best turn of foot.
“It was a great feeling,” Johnson said. “I was the loudest one watching the race. My voice just got louder and louder the closer they got to the wire. When I saw him pull away from the other horses, it was awesome to see.”
Johnson had more to cheer about the following day, once again with Woogen in the race bike.
Just A Passenger, a 7-year-old trotting son of Cayenne Turbo, notched a 2 ¼-length triumph in 1:59.
“To win your first race and then win the next day, it doesn’t get much better than that,” Johnson said. “I’m just really happy I get to do this now. I love it.”
Starting out as a co-owner, Johnson, who hails from Crystal Springs, MS, is now building his training career, eager to see success in another sport.
After starring on the offensive line for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs during his U.S. collegiate football days, Johnson went undrafted in 2013, but was picked up by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans where he played for three seasons before moving on to the Carolina Panthers for the final two years of his career.
Johnson maintained his connection with horses and horse racing during his pro football days through his good friend Lawrence Cooper.
Shoulder surgery eventually put an end to his football career, but he had another love to reconnect with.
“Even when I was playing football, horse racing was always a big thing for me,” Johnson said. “It’s just something I have always enjoyed.”
These days, Johnson, to put it in football parlance, has settled in nicely in his coaching role with the pacers and trotters under his watchful eye.
“I guess you could say I’m the coach now,” he said with a laugh. “That’s one of the best things about this sport, getting to work with the horses and finding ways to bring out the best in them. Just like any athlete, they all have different personalities, different needs and different times that they mature. But all of that is great.”
He lists Blueridge Straight, a horse that started 132 times and earned nearly $80,000 in purses before he was retired in 2015, as his favorite horse to date.
Johnson is looking to add horses to his present roster, a number that currently stands at nine.
“You are always looking for a horse that fits your barn’s needs,” he said. “So, I’m constantly keeping a look out for ones that I think would suit us. I like that part of racing, in doing your homework and making sure you are on top of things.”
Johnson credits several people for helping him along the way in his horse racing journey.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have so many good people help me over the years,” he said. “This is a sport where you can learn something new every day and it’s important to ask questions, to listen and to put all of that into what you do. Any advice you get, you can take that and include it with your own approach. I have to thank people like Calvin Cooper, Lawrence Cooper, John ‘Mann’ Hughes and John Willis. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without them.”
And what he’s doing, aside from winning, is enjoying the ride.
This year is Johnson’s first at Shenandoah Downs in Woodstock, VA.
“It’s a really beautiful racetrack and the people have been great,” he said. “It’s been a great experience so far and I’m glad we made the decision to come here. I really do enjoy it and hopefully, we can get some more wins.”
No wonder the rookie trainer is constantly sporting a big smile.
With four wins, five seconds and a trio of thirds from 33 starts this year, Johnson is off to a strong start in the latest chapter of his racing career.
One thing that will remain a constant is a familiar approach, one that he used to good effect during his football career.
“It will always come down to the work you put in,” he said. “Whatever it is you do, whether that is football, horse racing, or something else, you can control how hard you work. And a lot of times, that effort can end up paying off with success.”
Something that Oscar Johnson knows all about.