It's no crock, this Gator with Maryland ties has a Derby chance

April 30, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

LOUISVILLE -- Last week Murray Johnson flew cross country from California with two chickens, two dogs and a pair of racehorses, one named Green Alligator.

The good news is that Johnson and "The Gator" are doing just fine.

The 31-year-old Australian trainer plans to start the Florida-bred colt in Saturday's 117th Kentucky Derby.

The bad news: One of the chickens might not make it.

"I think he had some problems adjusting to the altitude in the plane," Johnson said about the black rooster, known as a Chinese silkie.

But, The Gator -- named after the Irish Rovers' folksong "Green alligators and long-neck geese . . . " -- couldn't be doing better. He worked a bristling seven furlongs in 1 minute 25 seconds, quickest on the Churchill Downs work tab, on Sunday.

"One thing for sure, we won't be running a short [unfit] horse," Johnson said. The colt was clocked a mile in 1:39 while being pulled up. He comes off a victory in the $300,000 California Derby, where he ran 9 furlongs in 1:47 4/5, one of the fastest times for a 1 1/8 -mile Kentucky Derby prep, faster than the Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial.

The Green Alligator story is pretty much a family saga, and it's loaded with Maryland connections.

Johnson, although born a half world away in Melbourne, is married to a Maryland girl, the former Kim Houghton, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and is a 1979 graduate of Garrison Forest School in Reisterstown.

Kim's parents, Eddie and Binnie Houghton, own Buckingham Farm in Chestertown and are longtime supporters of Maryland racing. They've campaigned such stars as Castelets and Forry Cow How on the local circuit, and gave a retirement home to 50-race winner Port Conway Lane when no one else would step forward and help the old claimer.

Kim's grandfather, Anderson Fowler, owns Green Alligator, and sent him to his granddaughter and her husband to train last spring at Hollywood Park.

Kim and Murray have led kind of storybook lives, working for some of the sport's great trainers such as Charlie Whittingham and John Gosden, soaking up as much knowledge as they could, all the time traveling all over the world before settling down three years ago to raise a family and start their own stable.

Barely thirtysomething, with two young daughters, Elizabeth, 2, and Katie, 4 months, they already have a runner in the Kentucky Derby.

"We met in Aiken, S.C., at a place called Up The Alley, where all the horse people hang out," Kim said. "I was galloping horses for Mike Freeman, and Murray was getting on 2-year-olds for Shug McGaughey."

Murray, whose family operates the Ealing Park Stud Farm in Euroa, Victoria, had left Australia for a year's sabbatical. "I took the apprentice program at the Irish National Stud," he said. Instead of returning home, he came to the States and worked on several Kentucky horse farms before ending up in Aiken.

Kim recalls that after they met, "we bought a hippie van and traveled all over America. We would work at the horse sales, make really good money and then go to all the tourist traps, like the Grand Canyon."

They spent a year in Australia before returning to California. Kim galloped some of Whittingham's top horses such as Ruhlmann and Golden Pheasant. Murray was assistant trainer to Gosden, an Englishman became a driving force in California racing before taking on a job as head trainer in England for Sheik Mohammed.

They have had their share of ups and downs. "Last winter we started out with four horses," Murray said.

"Two broke legs, one was claimed, and we had only one horse left, Green Alligator."

But what a horse he turned out to be. He was second in both of his starts as a 2-year-old, before he pulled a muscle in his hind leg at Del Mar during the summer.

"We gave him plenty of time to heal," Murray said. "He blossomed and grew up."

Green Alligator had a win and two seconds at Santa Anita before he made his first stakes start in March in the San Felipe Stakes. He caught a wet track, but finished a fast-closing fourth behind top California colts Sea Cadet, Scan and Compelling Sound. Subsequently, he won the California Derby.

Eddie Delahoussaye, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1983 with Sunny's Halo, was the colt's regular rider before he took off on California Derby day to ride Festin in the Oaklawn Handicap. Johnson replaced him with Corey Nakatani.

Delahoussaye upset Jolie's Halo, Unbridled and Farma Way in the Oaklawn race, "so it was worth him to take off our horse," Johnson said. But they elected to stay with Nakatani, one of the West Coast's leading stakes riders, for the Derby.

The Johnsons are stabled at Churchill Downs in the same barn as last year's Derby winner, Unbridled.

Their outfit is easily recognizable. It's the one with the yellow wall plaques, emblazoned with galloping green kangaroos.

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