The northwestern Kentucky town of Spottsville, located on the Green River with Owensboro to the East and Henderson to the West, is so small that it does not currently have a post office.
The lack of a postal outlet in the small Henderson County town is the reason that veteran jockey Joe Johnson refers to Philpot, located nearby in neighboring Daviess County, as his hometown.
It’s likely that residents of both towns will smile when they hear that one of their favorite sons achieved a career milestone on Thursday when he pushed Patricia Blass’ favored Silver Antelope through the long Churchill Downs homestretch to wear down runner-up Pure Luxury for a half-length victory in the ninth race. The win for the horse was a notable milestone for the 46-year-old Johnson.
The victory was the 1,000th of his career, and it was fitting that the triumph came aboard a 4-year-old colt trained by Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage, who guided Johnson from a role as groom in his barn to a successful riding career. Hartlage gave Johnson a leg-up on the first winner in his career, and they’ve been partners ever since.
“It felt pretty good,” Johnson said on Friday when looking back on that important win. “I’m just glad it got here and glad that I’ve had the opportunities from all the people who have put me on horses that have allowed me to reach that kind of milestone.”
Foremost among Johnson’s supporters is Hartlage, the man who gave him a start in the saddle. From the moment he climbed aboard a Thoroughbred in competition, Johnson has been the “house rider” for the stable for Hartlage, a Louisville-born fan favorite.
The milestone by Johnson, whose older brother Patrick was a Kentucky-based jockey for many years and currently rides in Louisiana, lifted him securely into the top ten in the “leading rider” standings for the Spring Meet. It was his 10th win of the 38-day session and pulled Johnson into a tie for seventh with Alan Garcia. He had entered Thursday’s program with Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys Calvin Borel and Stewart Elliott at nine victories each.
Heading into Friday’s twilight racing program Johnson had Spring Meet record of 10-5-4 in 41 mounts, the most notable win being a Grade I triumph aboard Anita Cauley’s homebred mare On Fire Baby in the La Troienne on Kentucky Oaks Day. It was Johnson’s second Grade I win aboard the gray daughter of Smoke Glacken and his third win aboard the 5-year-old in a Churchill Downs stakes event.
The Hartlage-trained On Fire Baby will attempt to add another victory beneath the Twin Spires next Saturday when she runs as the likely favorite in the 39th running of the $200,000-added Fleur De Lis Handicap Presented by Etihad Airways (GII). The 1 1/8-mile race is one of four stakes events featured on a program headed by the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI).
“She’s doing real good right now,” Johnson said. “It’ll be interesting for her to come back and run in another big race. I’m looking forward to it.
“She seems to be on top of her game right now. I’m glad Red Dog and Anita continue to have faith and put me up on horses like that.”
As Johnson and Silver Antelope made their winning move late in Thursday’s race, the rider said he was focused the finish line, not the record book.
“When I was galloping out it kind of hit me,” Johnson said. “It was pretty neat that Red Dog put me on my first winner and also on my 1,000th one. It was pretty neat how it worked out.”
Visits to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle by the Hartlage-Johnson team normally attract a large crowd of supporters, and the celebration of the victory by Silver Antelope differed only in it involved a sign of congratulations furnished by the track.
As he returned to Churchill Downs on Friday for three scheduled mounts, Johnson was asked what his next goal might be.
“I guess 1,001,” he said. “We just want to win a few more races, stay safe and sound and keep on going with the year.”
STEPHEN FOSTER HOPES WILL TAKE CHARGE, GOLDEN TICKET WORK
A pair of major players for next Saturday’s 33rd running of the $500,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) – Willis D. Horton and Three Chimneys Farm LLC’s Will Take Charge and Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ Golden Ticket – tuned-up for that important engagement with sharp five-furlong workouts over a fast track on Friday at Churchill Downs.
The D. Wayne Lukas trained Will Take Charge, the reigning Eclipse Award champion 3-year-old but a disappointing sixth to expected Foster rival Moonshine Mullin in the Alysheba (GII) on Kentucky Oaks Day, breezed five furlongs in 1:00.20.
The move by Will Take Charge was second-fastest of 17 at the distance.
Golden Ticket, the Ken McPeek-trained runner-up to 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner Fort Larned in last year’s Stephen Foster, worked in-company with stablemate Flashy American, a 5-year-old mare prepping for a run in the $200,000-added Fleur De Lis Handicap Presented by Etihad Airways (GII) on the Foster card.
The 5-year-old son of Speightstown covered the distance in 1:01, while Flashy American completed her work in 1:01.20.
The Stephen Foster is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Classic Division. A victory in the 1 1/8-mile race would guarantee Will Take Charge or Golden Ticket a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for this year’s $5 million Classic at Santa Anita, along with a travel stipend of $10,000 for the journey to Southern California.
The swift move by Will Take Charge, who won last fall’s Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) at Churchill Downs after he had finished a troubled eighth to Orb in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI), encouraged Lukas after the mystifying Alysheba run by the Unbridled’s Song colt.
“I think he’s in good shape,” Lukas said. “I think we’re sitting right on a big one, hopefully. He’s had a really good month. That was a sharp move today, but he did it really nicely.
“We’re hopeful that he’ll get back to top form, and I think he will.”
Will Take Charge came out of the Alysheba well, but Lukas has not been able to pinpoint a specific reason for that lackluster effort.
“It may be a little of everything – I don’t know,” Lukas said. “He came to me a little bit flat in the paddock that day. I think we’ll just forget it happened and go on to the next one.”
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was in the saddle for the Alysheba, and will return to ride Will Take Charge in the June 14 Stephen Foster.
McPeek said Golden Ticket would probably be his only participant in the Stephen Foster. He had earlier considered running Magdalena Racing’s Bellarmine, a winner of three-of-four career races on dirt at Churchill Downs, in the race.
Bellarmine is now being considered for a possible bid for the $300,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker (GIII) at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows on June 28. But that plan is far from definite.
“We’ll see,” McPeek said. “If it’s a short field, we might be tempted to go into the Stephen Foster. He likes it here.”
Flashy American will probably face La Troienne (GI) winner On Fire Baby in the Fleur De Lis, but McPeek is happy with the progress of his 5-year-old Flashy Bull mare. She took 11 starts – including five in maiden claiming races – before notching her first career victory in a race for $25,000 claiming horses in July of 2012 at Saratoga.
Since then, Flashy American has collected four stakes wins. She took last fall’s Locust Grove at Churchill Downs and a victory in the recent Sixty Sails (GIII) at Hawthorne was her first graded stakes triumph.
“She’s a big, solid filly,” McPeek said. “I love what she does and she’s in a nice rhythm. We’re pretty proud of her.”
Flashy American has won eight of 26 races with earnings of $515,163.
Another possible contender for the Stephen Foster appeared on Friday’s work tab as GoldMark Farm LLC and Whisper Hill Farm’s Mylute breezed a swift half-mile in :48.
The move by the Tom Amoss-trained 4-year-old son of Midnight Lute was second-fastest of 49 at the distance.
Mylute is coming off a fourth-place finish in Churchill Downs’ Alysheba and won an allowance race at Fair Grounds in his only other start of the year. He ran fifth in last year’s Kentucky Derby and finished third to Claiborne Farm’s Oxbow in the Preakness (GI).
RIA ANTONIA BACK WITH A BULLET
While Stephen Foster Handicap contenders Will Take Charge and Golden Ticket turned in the second and third-fastest five-furlong works of the day, the quickest move at that distance on Friday’s work tab belonged to the 3-year-old filly Ria Antonia.
Christopher Dunn and Loooch Racing Stable’s daughter of Rockport Harbor zipped over the distance in 1:00. It was her first major work since she finished last of 10 behind Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown hope California Chrome in a match against males in the $1.5 million Preakness nearly three weeks earlier.
Ria Antonia, winner via disqualification of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) at Santa Anita, moved to the barn of trainer Tom Amoss after a sixth-place run behind Untapable in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) at Churchill Downs on May 2.
BELMONT STAKES WILL BE SHOWN ON BIG BOARD, ‘CHROME’ T-SHIRT GIVEAWAY HIGHLIGHT SATURDAY
On Saturday, Churchill Downs will be giving away California Chrome T-shirts to the first 1,000 guests, commemorating the Kentucky Derby winner’s run to become just the 12th horse to win racing’s Triple Crown.
Along with live races at Churchill, the Big Board also will show stakes races from Belmont Park, including the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, which has an approximate post time of 6:52 p.m. EDT.
Churchill Downs will also offer the “Belmont Jewel,” the official drink of the Belmont Stakes, in souvenir glasses. Other specialty cocktails served Saturday include the ‘Triple Crown Cocktail’ and the ‘Chrome in the Big Apple.” The latter will be served in a gleaming chrome cup.