Eastern Washington native won four Triple Crown
by Bill Heller
ore than 2,500 miles separate Spokane,
Washington, from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, but its a trip
anyone can make. The journey from grooming horses at Playfair Race Course to
becoming enshrined as a jockey at the Hall of Fame in Saratoga? Only one man
completed that voyage: Albert Johnson.
knew hed made it. He was inducted five years after his death in 1966 when
he was struck by a train two months before his 66th birthday. Long before, he
was at peace with his accomplishments in a brief, yet spectacular, riding
career from 1917-1929. He became just the fifth rider to win two Kentucky
Derbies; won two consecutive Belmont Stakes; led the nation in earnings;
piloted one of the true great horses of his era, Exterminator; and captured
five stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
When a battle
with weight proved too burdensome, he continued a lifetime in racing, training
horses for clients as famous as Bing Crosby, a singer from Spokane you might
have heard of, then serving as a patrol judge and track official.
Yet he seldom talked about his success. Some
people are great in their field, but he was a great person, said Nancy
Mengert, the wife of Johnsons nephew Richard Mengert, in early May.
You would never hear him talk about himself. He never lived in the past.
He always said, `Whats next? He always looked forward to the next
At 16, he looked forward to a life at
the racetrack. He was born on November 18, 1900, in Milan, a rural community 25
miles northeast of Spokane along the Burlington Northern Railroad.
The only time I ever heard him talk about himself
was how scared he was when he left home alone when he was 16, Mengert
Johnson began working at Playfair as a
stablehand, then graduated to exercise rider at Spokane Interstate Fair meets.
He began riding in races as an apprentice when he was 16 and his enormous
natural talent quickly surfaced. Just six years later, he led the nation in
After riding several races at Spokane in
1916, he went to Tijuana, Mexico, where he won his first race on Col. Matt for
his contract employer Stuart Polk, a man he described as a fine horseman,
a good teacher, in John Nachels 1953 article in the Hollywood
Park Issue. One afternoon at Tanforan, before he gave Johnson a leg up on
Pretty Polly, Polk told Johnson, The only way this mare can lose is if
she drops dead. The horse broke on top, led for an eighth of a mile and
then dropped dead.
His First Great Horse
Regardless, Johnson was the leading rider at Oaklawn
Park, Pimlico, Bowie, Thornecliffe and Woodbine. In 1918, his contract was
purchased by John Rosseter, a San Francisco millionaire, for what was then an
incredible amount of money: $15,000.
Nachels article, Johnson credited Rosseter for giving him his first
chance to ride a truly great horse.
horse was Inchcape. After winning an allowance race in his debut, Inchcape won
the 1920 Tremont, a 5 1/2 furlong stakes for two-year-olds at Belmont Park, in
1:12, a full second faster than Man o Wars winning time the year
before. Though he was never out of low gear, he won both races by a city
block, Johnson told Nachel. If I called on him for his best I
honestly believe he could have broken all existing records.
Well never know. Inchcape had problems with his
legs. Regardless, after he won his three-year-old debut, Inchcape was purchased
by Harry Sinclair for $160,000. Sinclair decided to rest his new horse until
the fall, but a week after Inchcape was sent to Sinclairs farm in New
Jersey, a fire swept the farm and took Inchcapes life.
Though his career was cut short, giving him no
chance to prove his greatness, Ill always believe Inchcape could beat any
horse that ever looked through a bridle, Johnson told Nachel.
Johnson would ride many other top horses. But he would
include Inchcape as one of the top four horses he ever rode, along with
Morvich, Bubbling Over and Exterminator.
Morvich and Exterminator
Morvich won 12 of 16 starts, including the 1922
Kentucky Derby. That was four years after Hall of Famer Willie Knapp rode
Exterminator to win the Derby. Johnson would get on Exterminator for the first
time on May 14, 1921, when he finished second by a length in the Excelsior
Handicap at Jamaica, a long defunct track in New York.
Morvich was a brilliant two-year-old before Johnson
ever got on him. Bred by sugar baron Adolph Spreckels and trained by C.W.
Carroll, Morvich won his debut in the Suffolk Selling Stakes by 10 lengths at
30-to-one and was promptly sold to trainer Fred Burlew. After Morvich won two
more races easily, Burlew sold a half-interest in Morvich to Wall Street
financier Benjamin Block.
Morvich improved his
record to six-for-six, and Block bought out Burlews interest. Morvich was
shipped to Saratoga to make his stakes debut in the United States Hotel Stakes
on August 6, 1921. Morvich won that stakes and the Saratoga Special and then
received a jockey change to Albert Johnson for Saratogas prestigious
Hopeful Stakes. Morvich won by two lengths carrying 130 pounds.
Morvich added the Eastern Shore Handicap and the
Pimlico Futurity at a mile an a half, racing from off the pace for the first
time. He had finished his juvenile season 11-for-11 with earnings topping
The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs
and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico were scheduled for the same day in 1922.
Block chose the Derby and Johnson got his first Derby winner by a length and a
half. He set all his own pace and won as he pleased, Johnson told
Morvich never won again, losing his final
Exterminators career was
considerably longer. Popularly known as Old Bones, the chestnut
gelding won 50 of his 100 starts, with 17 seconds and 17 thirds and earnings of
more than $250,000. He was champion handicap horse four consecutive years from
1919 to 1922. Johnson became Exterminators rider after he signed a
contract with his owner, Willie Sharp Kilmer. Col. E.R. Bradley took
Johnsons second call.
A great weight carrier
decades before five-time horse of the year Kelso and three-time horse of the
year Forego, Exterminator won stakes at distances from six furlongs to 2 1/4
miles. He carried 130 pounds or more 35 times. In the mile-and-a-half
Independence Handicap at Latonia on July 4, 1922, Exterminator raced with 140
pounds. He went off the nine-to-10 favorite, but finished sixth in the field of
eight and appeared in distress after a mile, according to the
Daily Racing Form book, Champions.
Johnson, one of 18 jockeys who rode Old
Bones, took care of his horse that day and Exterminator returned to
racing less than a month later at Saratoga, where he finished fifth in the
Saratoga Handicap to Grey Leg while carrying 137 pounds, seven more than
the winner and then captured the Saratoga Cup by a nose under 126
pounds. Johnson rode Exter-minator 27 times, more than any of his other
jockeys, including 19 straight. Exterminator carried Johnson to the
winners circle 15 times.
From November 21,
1921, to June 16, 1922, Johnson, except for a nose second in the Philadelphia
Handicap, would have ridden Exterminator to a nine-race winning streak. Among
the races he won on the great champion were the 1921 Long Beach and Pimlico Cup
Handicaps, 1922 Harford, Pimlico Spring, Clark, Kentucky, Brooklyn, Toronto
Autumn and Laurel Handicaps and Saratoga Cup. The Laurel would mark his final
stakes win aboard the then seven-year-old gelding.
Exterminator was special. Bones wasnt a
pretty horse, Johnson told Nachel. He wasnt even good
looking. But for courage and honesty he never had an equal. He was ridden by
everyone, trained by anybody and beat everybody. Track conditions meant nothing
to him. Through a plowed field or down a paved highway, the horse never lived
that could withstand the belated rush of Exterminator when he made his
Colonel E.R. Bradley
Johnson rode one season for Samuel Riddles Glen Riddle Farm. The
following year, Bradley signed Johnson to ride for his Idle Hour Stock Farm.
Johnson was riding for men who would become legends in Thoroughbred racing, and
he took full advantage, winning stakes all over the country. Johnson cherished
his relationship with Bradley. It is my honest opinion that Col. Bradley
was the best thing that ever happened to the racetrack, he said in
Nachels article. He pioneered the idea of installing up-to-date
bathing facilities for the men in the stable area. Bradley provided
comfortable living quarters, game rooms and entertainment. In his own private
kitchen, his employees were fed like kings. No one simply held a job with
Bradley. Rather, they enjoyed the privilege of working for him.
Bradley seemed to have a genius for combining the
right bloodlines. Year in and year out he produced stock of the highest
caliber. Kind, considerate, generous to a fault, this man was more than just a
good winner. Taking his losses right in his stride, hed be the first to
congratulate you for beating him with a better horse. A true sportsman, a great
guy. Its an honor to have my name associated with his.
Actually, it was an
honor to be associated with Johnsons name, even when they got his name
wrong. Johnsons sister, Helen, who worked at the Washington Water Power
Company in Spokane, was an accomplished amateur jockey herself. At 18, after
winning her third consecutive womens six-day relay race at the Interstate
Fair, she was highlighted in a newspaper story. Asked when she started riding,
she replied, In fact, I was so young when Alfred (sic) placed me upon my
first horse that I cannot remember just when it was. Alfred, of course,
was Albert. Another woman in his life, his wife Isabel, ran the Santa Anita
Flower Shop in Arcadia. They had one daughter, Mrs. Patricia Wiggs, who lives
Al Mengert, Richards younger
brother who was named in honor of his famous uncle, is also a talented
sportsman. He belongs to another Hall of Fame, the Pacific Northwest Golf
Association Hall of Fame. The noted golfer was twice U.S. Jaycees Junior
Champion (1946 and 1947), which was then regarded as Americas national
junior championship, and also held the title of Mexican Amateur Champion in
1952 among his many titles.
Family was important
to Johnson, and the accomplished rider never forgot his humble beginnings.
Theres a red barn still standing by his home, Nancy Mengert
said. That was a gift from Albert to his family in Milan.
When he visited his nephew Richards family,
hed share countless stories of life on the road. He told us stories
about when Al Capone came to the track in Chicago, Nancy said. He
stayed with us off and on. One time, he was with us for most of the fall in
1953. He always laughed. He played with the kids. Out kids were thrilled with
him. He loved to get up early and hit the nearby streams. He was a great little
fisherman. Hed cook dinner. Hed say, `Nancy, do you mind if I cook
the trout? I was happy. I didnt know how to cook them. His sister
Helen was a sweetheart, too.
The Triple Crown
unlikely that any of Johnsons contemporaries thought of him as a sweet-
heart on the track. Johnsons competition as a jockey in the 1920s
included Hall of Famers Earl Sande, Jimmy Butwell, Frank Coltiletti, Buddy
Ensor, Clarence Kummer, Pony McAtee and Ivan Parke.
Johnson was on one of the horses Sande beat when he won
his first race on January 21, 1918, at the Fair Grounds while riding Prince S.
Sande will be forever linked to 1930 Triple Crown champion Gallant Fox, one of
Sandes five Belmont Stakes winners and one of his three Kentucky Derby
Johnson made history by riding
back-to-back Belmont Stakes winners, both on sons of Man o War owned by
Riddle: American Flag in 1925 and Crusader the following year. Through 2006,
only 10 other riders have scored consecutive wins in the grueling mile and a
half final leg of the Triple Crown.
didnt win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. His best
finishes were fourths on Dress Parade in 1926 and on The Nut in 1929. He did,
however, ride in the first Triple Crown race of the first Triple Crown winner,
Sir Barton (ninth aboard Drummond).
finished second in the 1924 Kentucky Derby on Chilhowee to Black Gold, and then
scored his second Derby victory in 1926 aboard Bubbling Over for Bradley by
five lengths. At that time, Bradley had three outstanding colts, Bubbling
Over, Boot to Boot and Bagen Baggage, Johnson told Nachel.
We finished one-two with Bubbling Over and Bagen
Baggage in the Kentucky Derby, then won the American Derby with Boot to Boot.
Though the others were fine colts, Ive got to classify Bubbling Over as
the best of the three. He was absolute tops. At no time was I beaten on this
horse. Bubbling Over retired undefeated in his three starts.
In the 133-year history of the Derby, only seven riders
have been aboard three or more winners of the Kentucky classic and another 15,
Johnson included, have scored a Derby double.
A Trip to Europe
Like many top
jockeys before and after him, Johnson would be beaten by weight. When he could
no longer keep his weight down without endangering his health, he signed a
contract with Jefferson Cohn of Paris, France, to ride his steeplechase
horses. It didnt take, and Johnson quickly returned to the United
Change of Jobs
He gave riding
one more shot in the summer of 1929, but making weight sapped the energy he
needed to perform at the top level of racing. Feeling that he hadnt given
his best performance on Sun Beau in the Hawthorne Handicap, he hung up his tack
permanently with 503 wins from 3,199 mounts, an excellent win percentage of
15.7. But he never surrendered his love of the game, and he tried making the
difficult transition from jockey to trainer.
Crosby believed his boyhood pal would succeed, and Johnson trained for Crosby
and his partner Lin Howards Binglin Stables for several years, beginning
in 1935. Their best horses were Rocco, High Strike and Sweet Laeloni.
During World War II, many racetracks closed and many
owners, including Crosby, got out of the game. Johnson gave up training,
becoming a patrol judge and clocker in California and Washington. Johnson
received many offers to train horses again, but declined. He told Nachel,
Im happy this way. Working as a patrol judge. Im closer to
the thing I love most race riding. From my observation tower, I watch
the boys ride every race. I see their good points, as well as their bad. I
enjoy their successes, sympathize with their failures. When I find I can help a
jock overcome a fault, correct a mistake, or in any way let them benefit from
my experience, I feel as Ive really accomplished something.
An Untimely End
accomplished enough to be inducted into the Inland Empire Hall of Fame in 1965.
A year later, he was walking back to his stable. He was walking back to
the stable and he was walking alone, Nancy Mengert said. He was
becoming pretty deaf in one of his ears. This train caught him coming around
the bend. It broke my husbands heart. He cried for weeks. He was a great
fella. Never did I hear him say a derogatory word against another jockey or a
Before his tragic accident,
Johnson, who was inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame last
September, had shared with Nancy the simple truth which propelled him to become
one of the greatest jockeys ever: He said, `I always promised my owners
that whatever horse I rode, Id give it my best. And he did.
Eclipse Award winning writer and noted harness racing author
Bill Heller lives in Albany, New York, with his wife Anne and son Benjamin, but
has ties to Washington State as his mother, Sylvia Silverstein Heller, was born
Albert Johnson on Morvich
the 1922 Kentucky Derby
ere we quote Albert Johnson, whom the
racing world recognizes as one of Americas greatest jockeys of all time:
Morvich, after that 30-to-one win at Jamaica, went on winning.
I joined them [owners Benjamin Block and Fred
Burlew] out before the Hopeful, Saratogas classic. They signed me to ride
Morvich. Frankie Keogh rode him before that.
The colt won the Hopeful for me. Easy. He
electrified racing. All they talked about was Morvich, the California colt.
They called him another Man o War. Unlucky for the owners, [breeder A.B.]
Spreckels didnt name Morvich for the Belmont Futurity. Didnt
suppose him that good. So we missed that, going down to Maryland, where I rode
him in the Eastern Shore, a big race. We won that. And we won the Pimlico
Futurity. Just a romp.
They retired Morvich
for the year, unbeaten, winner of 11 straight races. And they put him in the
Kentucky Derby, where he immediately became winter book favorite.
Albert Johnson paid high testimonial to the training
feat accomplished by Fred Burlew, praise reaching infinity. Best training
job I ever heard of
, he insisted.
You see, Mr. Burlew trained horses in England and
in France. He advocated slow distance works, yet retained speed. A horse would
be fit when Burlew called on him.
Morvich wintered on the Jamaica track, in Long Island snow. They housed him in
a big glass barn. He didnt grow much. When they took him up in January, I
saw him, walking and warming up in that enclosed stable. They told me then they
intended to run him in the Derby, and the mount was mine. They decided to avoid
all races before Derby Day, concentrating on that event. I felt sure they felt
he might have trouble going a mile and a quarter. I felt the same way. At a
mile, or up to a mile and a quarter that would be a long haul for
Morvich, a sprinting type.
On a trainer this
was a terrible strain. Never beaten, this horse Morvich. No prep race. Public
favorite. Hard spot for Fred Burlew. Liked to worry him sick. He seemed to age
When the weather broke we took
Morvich to the track. Started him on short breezes, long slow gallops. Nothing
at speed more than three-eighths. Sharpeners. One morning we brought Linus
McAtee, a light rider, over and sent the colt a mile, still hard held. I
wasnt quite fit and had a cold.
weeks before the Derby, Burlew shipped Morvich to Churchill Downs. The
three-eighths sharpeners were continued. Kept him legged up. Then a slow mile
and eighth . . . farthest hed been at any time.
This brings us to Derby Day [and Johnsons
first ride in the classic], continued Albert.
I didnt underrate my great responsibility.
Theyd bet heavily all winter on Morvich real big money. Plunged is
the proper word
far more money than normal.
I took him to the front. We won wire-to-wire.
Morvich never won another race.
[The chart of the Derby states: Morvich ran as if
he outclassed the others, was kept in the lead under hard restraint for the
first mile and drew away in the stretch to win by a pull. The final time
was a slow 2:04 3/5. Morvich would start four more times and finish with two
seconds and a third, earning $172,909 in all.]
(Reprinted from the May 1951 issue of The Washington
Horse in an article written by Jolly Roger.)
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.