At 5 feet 8 1/2 , Mark Johnston is the tallest rider in the Laurel jockeys' room.
He's also the winningest.
When final statistics are released for 1994, Johnston, 24, will have toppled Edgar Prado from his three-year perch as Maryland's leading jockey and completed what he describes as the finest season in his five-year riding career.
"Better even than 1990 when I was the country's leading apprentice and won an Eclipse Award," he said.
His goal after losing "the bug" was to win a year-end title without the benefit of the apprentice allowance.
It took Johnston four years, an awful lot of hard work and total dedication, but he did it in 1994, compiling more wins at the Maryland tracks than any other rider.
Not only did perennial leader Prado leave the local circuit for a couple of months last winter and try Aqueduct, but in the spring along came Johnston's dream mount, a big rangy gelding named Taking Risks.
"You attract attention when you win a lot of races, but what really gets people to notice you is winning stakes," Johnston said.
And that's exactly what he proceeded to do with the King Leatherbury-trained runner -- winning five stakes, including the Grade I Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park, an explosive, track record-setting victory in the Maryland Million Classic and three other added-money wins in the Jennings, William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore Budweiser Breeders' Cup handicaps.
Although Johnston rides just about all of Leatherbury's horses, he began to attract stakes mounts from other trainers, winning a trio of added-money races for Barclay Tagg with Circus Music, Pescagnani and Abigailthewife, a pair of stakes for John Alecci with Asserche and Somebody Else and numerous other single (( stakes victories for such trainers as Stanley Hough, John Salzman, Robbie Bailes and Steve DiMauro.
"If someone had written a script for me, the year couldn't have turned out better," Johnston said. No serious spills, only one suspension and winner after winner for Leatherbury plus assorted other horsemen and an agent, Gordon Becraft, that Johnston says "can pull horses out of the woodwork, and they all run great.
"When you ride good horses, you get in that click," he added. "You've got the horse, so that when the time comes, you can make the right move. That builds your confidence and mentally makes you feel that you can ride with the best jockeys in the country. Physically, I also think I got stronger as the year progressed."
Johnston's immediate goal is "keep my business going as good as it is right now and hope Taking Risks comes back, probably in March, as good as he was last year."
In the future, New York or other big-league circuits might beckon. "But right now, I'm more than content to stay here," Johnston said.
Geist's big plunge
Just when people think owners and breeders are leaving the game in droves, along comes someone like Bill Geist and changes that perception.
About 4 1/2 years ago, the Maryland health care executive didn't know a furlong from a fetlock. When he was a varsity athlete at McDonogh School, Geist lettered in football and wrestling and never once even got near the school's horse barn.
But a few years ago, to placate a business acquaintance, "I gave him $5,000 and went in partners with him to buy a horse," Geist said. "I thought that would be the end of it."
Instead, it was just the beginning.
"When I went to that first race and the horse finished second, I thought I had run the entire 1 1/16 miles myself," he recalled. "I had never felt so alive since I was on the playing fields at McDonogh."
Over the next couple of years, Geist, 46, acquired more claimers with his trainer, Mike Pino, but then began to get interested in the breeding business.
His appetite was whetted last fall when he sold a homebred yearling colt from the first crop of Maryland stallion, Polish Numbers, for $70,000 at the Kentucky sales.
Last year, Geist, who lives in Laurel, purchased a 150-acre Kentucky farm located near Payson Stud. He owns broodmares by such stallions as Alydar, Vaguely Noble, Mr. Prospector, Deputy Minister and Storm Bird and will breed them to such stallions as Pleasant Colony, Alleged, Relaunch, Pine Bluff and Rubiano this spring.
He stands his own stallion, Becker, a son of Danzig, at Murmur Farm in Darlington.
"The Kentucky farm is a 15- to 20-year project and I find now that I'm spending more and more of my time in front of the computer, studying pedigrees, nicking patterns and biomechanical analysis," Geist said. "Who would have ever thought it? At McDonogh, I never even looked at a horse. Now, more and more, horses are becoming the most fascinating part of my life."
'Twist' or 'Bid'?
Who is the best Maryland-bred 2-year-old colt of 1994?
Consensus among voters seems to give the nod to the undefeated Horatius colt, Oliver's Twist, who won the Maryland Juvenile Championship at Laurel Park in his last start.