Weekend Interview: Cate Johnson

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Cate Johnson started her career in racing on the frontside in public relations, spent nearly a decade on the backside as office manager for one of North America’s top trainers and will return to her roots in the promotional world in a few weeks when she begins work as director of development at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

A native of Troy, N.Y., and resident of Saratoga Springs, Johnson will begin work with the Hall of Fame in late March after wrapping up a lengthy stint with Kiaran McLaughlin that started in 2008.

Johnson will lead the Museum’s development and sponsorship initiatives and assume a prominent role in special events, marketing and outreach. Johnson performed similar duties during her eight years as manager of promotions and special events for Ed Lewi Associates Inc.

Johnson was with McLaughlin, his staff and his stable at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida in late January and spent a few minutes earlier this week with TIHR’s Tom Law to discuss her new position, old position, favorite horses and racetracks and Saratoga hotspots.

This Is Horse Racing: What will be your primary responsibilities in your new job?
Cate Johnson: The title is director of development. I’ve met with them and gone over some of the responsibilities but I haven’t formally sat down and gone over everything in detail. It will be event planning, things such as the Museum Annual Ball in August, helping with the Hall of Fame induction, awareness, getting people to come through the museum, coming up with ideas to support the museum and just really try to tie the industry together with the museum. There are a lot of owners, trainers and jockeys that aren’t familiar with how much the museum does. They have a great membership program. There’s a woman there Maureen Mahoney who runs the membership department and she’s excellent. I think it’s going to be working in the industry to get more awareness.

TIHR: That’s probably needed.
CJ: I’m excited. I did event planning at Ed Lewi Associates for years and it’s going to be really nice. I helped with the Travers Celebration. In my opinion they are separate events but it was a celebration that honored the previous years’ winning owner, trainer and jockey. The Ball, which is a wonderful event, honors the museum as well as the Hall of Fame inductees. And hopefully there will be the opportunity to create new events as well.

TIHR: How did you go from a promotional job to working at the racetrack?
CJ: Ed Lewi Associates was NYRA’s public relations firm and I really wanted to be at Saratoga Race Course and I wasn’t sure how to get in there. When I was in college I did an internship at Ed Lewi Associates. My degree was business marketing with a minor communications and it worked out well. I dealt with their media buying and I dealt with their sponsorships. Coca Cola, I Love New York, AmTrak and it was really neat. I was in the marketing office there, I’d go to meetings and I was frontside. Suit every day. Dressed up, but I really wanted to find the bridge that linked corporate racing to actual horseman and the backside. What links the frontside to the backside? So I went to work for one of the best trainers in the country, if not in the world. He is a wonderful man. He’s an extremely talented trainer and it just was a pleasure to work for Kiaran. I learned a lot about the industry, a lot about the sport. I was his office manager so it was a lot of owner communication, vet reports, billing, things of that nature, but I really got to see the scope of how things work. And I got to go to California, I’ve been to Santa Anita, been to Del Mar, been all up and down the East Coast to every racetrack, and it was nice I could travel.

TIHR: Do you have a favorite racetrack?
CJ: Saratoga. By far it’s my first. Keeneland would be my second. As far as ambiance, allure and customer service and the fact that it’s open and appealing to everyone and not just the racing industry alone, it’s really nice that Saratoga and Keeneland reach out. Keeneland has the college crowd, the tailgating, things of that nature. At Saratoga we always promote it as a place to be and be seen. A place that you didn’t necessarily have to gamble but bring your kids, picnic in the backyard, look at colors and names and just have a day out.

TIHR: Why the change, to go back to the corporate world so to speak?
CJ: I wasn’t looking to leave Kiaran but the opportunity arose, came to me and I’ve been married 2 1/2 years and my husband Aidrien and I we really want to have a family. I want to make Saratoga my home, I was born and raised in Troy, New York, and we want to buy a home in Saratoga and I want to have children, work Monday to Friday 9-5 with the occasional weekend is much easier than seven days a week.

TIHR: What’s your favorite part about racing?
CJ: The excitement and the thrill. Since I was a little girl I’ve loved it. I wasn’t a racetrack person; my parents didn’t think the racetrack was a place for children. I didn’t go to Saratoga until I was 16 and I’ve never missed a meet since. I’m a horse lover. I had two retired Thoroughbreds off the track when I was 14. One was my show jumper through high school and college. So I had the equestrian background and the love of the equine. It’s a fast-placed, exciting, constantly changing sport. It’s the sport that I follow and love.

TIHR: So how did you finally get introduced to racing when you were 16?
CJ: My parents asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, which is August 31, and I had asked every year prior to that to go to the races. Finally they said they would take me to the races.

TIHR: Who’s your mentor or mentors over the years?
CJ: Maureen Lewi, she was the owner of Ed Lewi Associates. She taught me a lot businesswise. At my wedding my father stood up and said, ‘Ed and Maureen, if I had known Catie would have gone to work for you I could have saved $100,000 on college. She learned more from you than she did in four years of college.’ … She flew in Air Force One, she brought the Olympic Torch over from Greece, the stories, her life, what they did as a public relations firm, and she’s the strongest businesswoman I’ve ever dealt with. She’s smart, knowledgeable and I can always turn to her. And Kiaran within the horse industry. He is the most honest. I mean, in this business, people question it. You know all the stories, the dark sides to the racing world. He tells it like it is. People ask him a question and he gives an honest answer all the time. It’s so refreshing to work for somebody who truly is a human being first. He’s a family man. He’s about his horses and he cares about his employees, which is really nice. He’s always thinking of the employees. If there is ever a crisis he goes above and beyond, when it comes to medical needs or just family time. He has MS and yet he never misses a day of work. He’s here every day.

TIHR: Favorite horse during your time with Kiaran?
CJ: I loved Trappe Shot. He was a gorgeous chestnut, a personality about him. In my eight years he was definitely one of my favorites.

TIHR: Favorite horse in general?
CJ: Point Given. When he won the Travers, he was one I’ll never forget. He had such a presence about him. He’d stop and pose for the camera. It wasn’t as much about his race record but his overall demeanor, love of a crowd and trying to please everyone.

TIHR: What’s the best race you’ve ever seen live?
CJ: Probably Alpha dead-heating in the Travers with Golden Ticket.

TIHR: Do you have a Derby horse for this year?
CJ: Mohaymen, of course.

TIHR: How about the Super Bowl, who’s the winner?
CJ: I’m hoping for Denver. I met John Elway at the Breeders’ Cup in California two years ago.

TIHR: What’s the last movie you saw?
CJ: That’s a good one. I don’t even know. There are plenty I want to see. Actually it was The Good Dinosaur with my five nieces.

TIHR: What do you want to see?
CJ: Joy, (13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of) Benghazi and The Big Short. There are a lot of good movies out. I haven’t seen any of them. The Revenant, too.

TIHR: How about the last book you read?
CJ: It’s about a women’s blog and it’s called Choosing the Simply Luxurious Life.

TIHR: What are you listening to on your iPod these days?
CJ: I’m a country girl, but Adele’s 25, I just put it on. That’s probably not original but I finally did it two days ago.

TIHR: Do you have a favorite Saratoga restaurant?
CJ: Absolutely, who doesn’t? I have to say Chianti.

TIHR: Any others?
CJ: There are so many good ones. Max London’s. I love it there.

TIHR: How about favorite destination, non-racing?
CJ: I don’t really have any.

TIHR: Not Barbados?
CJ: Yes but I met my husband there because I was there for the Gold Cup. That’s how I met him. I was there for a horse race and he’s a fisherman. He’s a deep-sea fisherman, just got back from a tournament in Grenada.