The Outside Rail

They weren’t missing this one, not this year. And maybe not ever.

Brent and Carol Johnson turned up in Saratoga Monday to present the trophy for the Better Talk Now Stakes two months after the race’s namesake – and the best horse they ever owned – died of colic at age 18. Retired in 2009 after 51 starts and 14 wins including the 2004 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga Race Course, Better Talk Now was part of the Johnson family. And they miss him.

“This year, it’s a little bit harder,” Carol said before helping her husband hand the trophy to the connections of Hieroglyphics after Monday’s $100,000 turf stakes for 3-year-olds. 

“I struggled with it more than I thought I would,” said Brent. “It went on for a little while. He got sick, he made a bad turn, then a good turn, then another bad turn. I had three weeks to prepare myself and get an idea that it could happen without really having thought about it. Then he died. He was a big part of our lives.”

Indeed. Better Talk Now raced for parts of eight seasons for the Johnsons and trainer Graham Motion. Brent Johnson bought the then 3-year-old colt privately from owner/breeder/trainer Diane Perkins in 2002 and watched him blossom into a turf warrior. He won twice that fall, opened 2003 with a win at Gulfstream Park and in November became a stakes winner in Aqueduct’s Knickerbocker Handicap. The next year he was a beast – winning the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. 

Far from finished, he added Grade 1 wins in the 2005 United Nations and Man o’ War and 2007 Manhattan while finishing second in two more Sword Dancers. He retired in 2009 with earnings in excess of $4.3 million. Sporting a signature run-in blinker for much of it, he raced in Japan, Dubai, Canada and 15 American racetracks. 

He never won an Eclipse Award, lost the final 12 races of his career, but left racing as a hero to many and an all-time great in the eyes of his owners. 

Better Talk Now became nearly as famous as a retiree, watching traffic (equine, human and vehicular) go past his paddock at Fair Hill Training Center for almost eight years before getting sick this summer. 

Surgeons at New Bolton Center tried to save the son of Talkin Man and the Baldski mare Bendita, but mortality won in the end. Reactions came from everywhere, and the Johnsons will be forever grateful.

“The outpouring from people after it happened was amazing,” said Carol. “I talk to people everywhere we go in racing and they’re like, ‘You owned Better Talk Now?’ More people know about him than I possibly could have imagined. It’s pretty special.”

The Johnsons went along for the ride in racing with Better Talk Now, far and away the star of their Bushwood Stable (just three others have topped $100,000 in earnings) and a link to their past. Brent Johnson grew up watching racing on television, bought Andy Beyer’s handicapping books, developed personal speed figures (after reading the Daily Racing Form at the Library of Congress) and ultimately translated that to owning horses all while building an investment business in Virginia.

He remembers coming to Saratoga when he was 20 and staying in a hotel near Green Mountain Greyhound track (in Vermont) to save money.

“We would drive here, spend all day at the races and go back there and play Green Mountain at night,” he said. “We stood down here (on the grandstand apron) and I remember thinking ‘Who are these celebrities who have got these seats? How do you get a seat?’ ”

Monday, they had seats in a box and presented a trophy. They hope to be back with some runners at some point, but have also branched into playing handicapping tournaments. Brent has two seats to the National Horseplayers Championship and Carol has one after winning a contest at Woodbine June 24. This past weekend, they were back in Canada for another round. This time, Brent won to qualify for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. They’re both in the mix for the Woodbine Player of the Year prize.

“We started playing in some of these handicapping tournaments this year,” said Brent. “We’ve always handicapped, and learned a lot trying to figure out how to spot the horses. It really is fun. The end games are very fun. You handicap a lot of races. This tournament was Woodbine, Saratoga and Gulfstream. Two days, three tracks, you see a lot of races. It’s fun in that regard and when you get to the end of those tournaments trying to figure out what everybody else is doing is fun too. Do I play a price? Do I bet the favorite? It has a lot of game theory to it too.”

Monday, the Johnsons put the handicapping success on hold and stopped in Saratoga – on their way home to Virginia – to pay tribute to an old friend.

“We covered an incredible amount of ground with him and it all ties together because of this horse,” said Brent. “He introduced us to things that we would normally not ever have an opportunity to do.”

Like presenting a trophy for a race named after their horse at Saratoga.

Originally published in The Saratoga Special newspaper Aug. 31, 2017.