After 3,032 winners, Johnston hangs up his saddle for now


Horse Racing

January 12, 2003|By TOM KEYSER

After riding 3,032 winners during an exemplary 14-year career, Mark Johnston has stepped away from racing. The 32-year-old resident of Howard County has taken an indefinite leave from the pressure-packed job of being a jockey.

"I don't think just any one thing prompted it," Johnston says. "It's been a lot of different situations that caused it. I'm not going into detail about them. The thing is I just need to take a break from the game."

Johnston won the Eclipse Award as apprentice jockey in 1990, winning 328 races, all but eight in Maryland. On Sept. 12 at Pimlico, he became the 102nd rider to win 3,000 races. His mounts have earned more than $55 million. Only Mario Pino and Edgar Prado have ridden more winners in Maryland.

Johnston missed three weeks during late summer and early fall when he broke his wrist at Delaware Park. He worked hard to return, because he was riding Michael Gill's horses and making good money.

"I was doing it more just for the business," he says. "I didn't have the hunger to return. I want to be 110 percent when I ride. I want to have that go-get-'em spark for the game."

Johnston says horse racing has changed since he started riding in 1989 - and not necessarily for the better.

"You know what I miss?" he says. "I miss the crowds. It was cool that people came to the races to watch the horses. I always liked being in the post parade and seeing people take an interest in horse racing."

Now, he says, people hunker down in front of TV monitors. In many ways - and not just that one way, he says - the sport has turned into a business. People aren't as loyal; the game is not as fun, he says.

"There's a lot of pressure and stresses that go along with it," he says. "You're fighting to get on good horses and then fighting to stay on them. I already miss riding horses. But a lot of the business I don't miss."

Johnston, who got married in August 2000, says he also wants to balance his professional and personal lives.

"I've put riding first in my life over a whole lot of other things," he says. "Most good riders do that. I just want to step back and get my priorities straight."

He says that he doesn't know when he'll return, but that he does expect to return. Also, he says, he's concerned how his comments will come across.

"I'm not complaining," John- ston says, "because I've been blessed."

Not available locally

Magna Entertainment Corp.'s HorseRacing TV is not yet available on cable channels in Maryland, but a Magna official says making HRTV accessible to Maryland viewers is a top priority.

Bill Bridgen, president of HRTV, says Magna is negotiating at the corporate level with cable companies such as Comcast and Adelphia, trying to get the 24-hour racing network in the regular lineup.

HRTV debuted Dec. 26 in San Diego on Time Warner Cable, and it began Jan. 1 as the successor to The Meadows Racing Network in western Pennsylvania. Magna bought The Meadows harness track as well as its racing network.

Bridgen says HRTV can be seen in 900,000 homes in Pennsylvania and fewer than 100,000 homes in San Diego. It features races from more than 70 thoroughbred, harness and quarter-horse tracks, including, of course, Magna's 13 tracks (Pimlico, Laurel Park and Colonial Downs among them).

"It has always been part of MEC's strategy to support the growth of our racing and wagering operations with the broadest possible television distribution of live horse racing," says Jim McAlpine, president of Magna.

Magna's goal is for viewers of HRTV to bet through its account-wagering system, Xpress- Bet. That's where Magna stands to profit from the venture.

No one seems to know what will happen when competing racing networks, such as HRTV and TVG, try to go head-to-head. Maryland could become the battleground. The Maryland Jockey Club has signed an agreement with TVG that it will be the exclusive provider of racing on TV in Maryland. But the Maryland Jockey Club, of course, is now owned by Magna.

The issue eventually may be settled in the courts.

Around the tracks

Fans have until 11:59 p.m. tomorrow to vote on for the fourth annual National Thoroughbred Racing Association Moment of the Year. The nominees are:

War Emblem winning the Kentucky Derby; the death of Seattle Slew; War Emblem winning the Preakness; Sarava winning the Belmont; Chris McCarron riding his farewell race aboard Came Home; You outdueling Carson Hollow in the Test; Pat Day becoming the leading money-earning jockey of all time; Azeri winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff; Storm Flag Flying surging back to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies; and Volponi winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. (I voted for Storm Flag Flying.)

After saddling four winners last year at Pimlico and Laurel Park, Pimlico-based trainer Holly Robinson, through Friday, had already won five this year at Laurel. She won two Friday (Tobias in the second and Dixie Feline in the third).

"I am speechless," Robinson says. "I've never had a run like this before and probably never will again. I feel like Cinderella."

According to the NTRA and Equibase, betting on thoroughbred racing in the United States and Canada in 2002 increased 3.19 percent to $15,048,033,312, compared to 2001. Purses in the United States increased 0.63 percent to $1,074,240,247. Racing days declined from 6,578 to 6,545, mainly because of weather cancellations late in the year.

Prado, the former Maryland jockey, has been named the 54th winner of the annual George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. The award honors jockeys whose careers and character reflect positively upon themselves and their sport.

Toccet will leave Laurel next week for Florida, where he will begin his run to the Kentucky Derby on Feb. 15 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

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