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January 26, 2005

Gillian Johnston's Passion For Horses Has Never Dwindled

When Gillian Johnston was a teenager, in concession to her passion for equines, her parents allowed her to work one year as a groom so she could get horses out of her system and then settle down to more proper and ladylike pursuits. Well, many years later, Johnston owns more than 100 horses with her husband Summerfield K. Johnston Jr., and on Christmas morning, you would have found her mucking stalls on her Chattanooga, Tenn., farm.

An English native, Johnston said her parents just didn't consider horses a suitable career. "My parents sent me off to a very fancy college in London to do secretarial work, and all the girls there were very much into living the debutante party life and that just wasn't my scene. I did that for a year and got through it somehow, and then my parents gave me a year to do horses and, well, here I am still mucking stalls," she said cheerfully.

While growing up in England, Johnston, now 63, dabbled in show jumping, rode in point-to-point races, foxhunted and was, of course, a member of the ubiquitous British Pony Club. She was a member of the first team to win the now prestigious Prince Phillip Cup, an international Pony Club games trophy.

During that supposed get-horses-out-of-your-system year, Johnston was enticed to America by a job offer in a polo barn. "It was 1964, and someone said they had a friend that needed a groom in America and would pay some fantastic sum of money for a good groom. Back in those days, you hardly ever saw a girl as a groom, but I leaped at the chance and ended up being the first girl polo groom in the United States," she said.

Since then, polo has played a huge part in Johnston's life. In 1966 she traveled with the U.S. team to Argentina as a groom. In 1969 she married Summerfield, who still plays polo. They also have a barn at the Gulfstream Polo Club in Florida and a ranch in Wyoming.

The 3,000-acre property in Tennessee has been home to a Thoroughbred breeding operation, and was once a polo pony lay-up establishment but now serves as a rest stop for the Johnstons' 150 polo ponies and their steeplechase and flat horses. Plus, it's a retirement home for all the horses that have "done right by us."

Of all places, Florida is where Johnston discovered her first steeplechase prospect. "Pete Bostwick got me started in steeplechase," recalled Johnston. "I had a 2-year-old filly we bred, in training with Bobby Connors at Gulfstream, and I was riding her around the polo grounds. She was a big, gangly thing, and Pete took one look at her and said, 'You should make that horse a steeplechaser.' He had me gallop her around, and even though at the time it was my belief that mares couldn't make good steeplechasers, he finally persuaded me."

That filly was Ready Perk (Sizzling John--Maxim Star, Duplex II), and Johnston now has five generations of her bloodlines in her barn.

Because Johnston's husband had grown up with Johnny Griggs in Kentucky, he be-came an obvious choice as a trainer for Ready Perk. As in any horsy endeavor, Johnston rolled up her sleeves and went along, learning the ins and outs of steeplechase training.

Eventually Johnston decided to train for herself, and by the time Ready Perk won the 1980 Iroquois hurdle stakes (Tenn.), John-ston's name went down in the record books as trainer. "I got the laurels for that one," she admitted, "but Johnny put all the dirty work into her."

Johnston trained her fair share of winners, but as she accrued more and more horses, and the competition kept getting tougher, she began to look for a better way to enjoy a sport she was now deeply passionate about.

"I was doing the galloping myself, and it was getting tough on me. Johnny suggested I let Janet Elliot train for me, [as he was cutting back too]," she said. And so Johnston's foray as strictly an owner began.

Winning Colors

Horses such as Dandy Boy, Ask Don, Allen Prell and Scorpious have carried Johnston's brown and orange colors, but now Johnston is after a bigger piece of the pie.

Without much fuss or fanfare, Johnston is slowly positioning herself to compete for the National Steeplechase Association's leading owner title. In this year's standings she finished third with $223,229 in 51 starts, of which eight were wins. And while she was more than $100,000 shy of the leading owner, Kinross Farm, it should be noted her horses earned that money without a Grade I win and therefore without a Grade I purse.

"Yes, I think she really wants that," said longtime friend and occasional co-owner Sharon Sheppard of the NSA title. "She's competitive, there's no doubt about that."

Elliot said Johnston's competitive spirit is nicely tempered by the fact that she is "such a good sport. She never shows her disappointment. She takes it on the chin. Because she's so good to this sport and been in it so long, you really just want to wish success on her," she added.

Elliot is no longer the only trainer who has Johnston's horses. Kathy Neilson and Bruce Miller of Pennsylvania have Johnston horses, as does Ricky Hendriks. Alicia Murphy and Jack Fisher of Maryland have a couple each, and Toby Edwards of South Carolina has had horses for her in the past.

Johnston's reasons for spreading out her horses are classic Johnston. Altruistically, it's her way of keeping the business of steeplechasing invigorated; pragmatically she'd rather not see all her eggs in one basket.

"One reason I spread out my horses to certain trainers is jockeys. Most trainers have someone good retained or riding first call for them. If you can't call on the good jockeys to ride your horses it's almost not worth it. Another reason for multiple trainers is that it keeps them all guessing, and they don't get too complacent," she said jokingly, but not really.

Johnston took matters a step further for 2004 and retained top jockey David Bentley to ride first call. Currently Neilson has most of Johnston's horses in training, and as Neilson has Robert Massey as her stable jockey, most of Johnston's horses get the services of two of the best jockeys in the country.

And the quality of horse each trainer receives is as much the luck of the draw as anything. Johnston sent two horses to this year's leading trainer, Fisher.

One, Super Fame, easily won his first race and quickly followed it up with a quality allowance score. The chestnut has all the makings of a "big" horse. The other, Perked In The West, was slow to develop. He trailed the field several times before he managed a third, and Johnston's still not sure what his job might be.

"Jack was always joking with me that I should send him a horse as I had to other trainers. Well, Perked In The West was the perfect antidote for all that pestering. I thought it would fix him," she said with a laugh.

In 2002, Johnston was selected to serve on the NSA board, a position she was happy to accept. "I feel honored that they asked me. I think the NSA needs some different voices. I don't voice things often, but when I do feel the need, I voice it. I think I'm unique because I have been on all sides of the game, as a trainer and an owner, and I have ears that hear the bitching and carrying on. Now I'm in a position to put it to the board," she said.

Good Karma

But Johnston brings a little something else to the sport, something a little more elusive to define.

"It's not just necessarily that we are lucky to train horses for her--of course we are lucky--but we are really lucky to deal with her as a person," said Neilson. "Gill is the kind of person who puts you in a good mood when you talk to her. She's got a great sense of humor; she's great because she's direct, straightforward and very fair. She has great karma that she spreads around her, and that's what makes her an even bigger asset to our sport."

Johnston carries a quiet sense of class with her, but at the same time she's very approachable. She can chat with a jockey, a fellow owner, a trainer or a groom, and everyone is comfortable talking to her.

"Her enthusiasm for the sport is genuine, and her complete love and commitment to the animals is easily apparent," said Sheppard. "We have a hoot together. She once said to me, 'Sharon, we may not make as much money as some of the other owners do, but I bet we have more fun!' and she was so right."

And loving her horses shines through Johnston like a warm light. Her good old hurdlers and flat horses are retired in Tennessee, and the polo ponies are similarly treated. Be-tween racing seasons, Johnston brings home to Tennessee as many of her jumpers as she can so she can get to know them a little better.

"That's why I was mucking stalls on Christmas Day. I have the best guy that takes care of things there, and I knew he wouldn't get a day off in a long time as soon as I went to Florida for the rest of the winter, so I gave him a break," she said. "I love to go the barn at 7 p.m. while they are all munching their hay and give them a pat and a carrot. It's nice for me to have that, and the horses all deserve that."

Johnston's got quite a reputation with Sallee Horse Transport van drivers now, so frequently do her charges come home for a little R&R. "It's got to be a big joke now. They call for directions, and I tell them to get off at Exit 20 where the 'Biggest Fireworks Display In Tennessee' sign is. The guys all laugh at me and say, 'Is this a redneck place or what?' "

Being a capable horsewoman herself, it would be easy for Johnston to be an interfering owner, but Elliot said she's one of the easiest people to train for.
"There's a depth to her knowledge, and she's fully aware of the difficulties performance horses present," said Elliot. "It's not a surface knowledge. People who know just a little are difficult. Not Gill."

As Johnston's steeplechase ranks grow in numbers, she's found it's backfired on her a bit. "I have so many horses now and a lot of maidens. The downside of that, and it's not a downside for steeplechasing, but for me, is that there are so many horses out there now, that more often than not if I want to run two horses, one ends up on the also eligible list. Several years ago that didn't happen," she explained. "The upside is that I have a lot of them staggered now, so they aren't all making their first starts in March. I have horses coming along for every season."

Johnston mostly finds her steeplechase prospects in Argentina. Every year she goes to visit family friends and swears she won't come home with a horse, but so far, she's come home with a horse every year. "Argentinean horses are tough, they have good feet, the best temperaments, and they are raised right, with one guy to take care of no more than two horses," she said. "They are all triers too."

Occasionally, she'll import a horse from Europe, but she never uses an agency or a dealer.

If the NSA's leading owner title were radically important to her, Johnston could probably purchase "the stakes" horse to help push her bankroll into contention. But she approaches this rich man's game with a different attitude.

"I've been pretty lucky with the horses I've had. This summer I was one of the leading owners at Saratoga [N.Y.], and I heard someone in the stands say, 'Who's this S.K. Johnston,' and I felt like leaning over and saying 'She's the lady with a few fast horses from Tennessee,' " she said with a laugh. "It feels good to be in there with the Overbrooks and the Lazy Lane farms and all that. It's nice to know you can be competitive without having to spend a lot of money. I'd much rather raise them myself or try to make the horse, than to spend big bucks and do it too easily."

Polo In Wyoming?

If someone asked you to name some of the states polo is frequently played in, you might say Florida, New York and California. But Wyoming?

Gillian Johnston is an avid polo fan and with her husband Summerfield, an avid player, they own a polo ranch in Wyoming that is a hub of polo activity in the summer time. Their ranch is also home to a polo breeding operation, and this year they are hosting the Wyoming Open polo event. In preparation for the open, Summerfield added three more polo fields to their facility.

The Big Horn Polo Club is nestled right next to their ranch and according to Johnston, boasts 60-65 members. "When you play polo at 9,000 feet your horses have to be pretty damn fit," said Gill.

The breeding operation consists of three Thoroughbred stallions, and most of their mares are imported from Argentina and are 7
 
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