Remembering Johnny Griggs

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The early 1990s were heady times for American steeplechasing, and Dr. John K. Griggs was right in the middle of it with a chestnut flash named Warm Spell. The Kentucky-bred son of Northern Baby challenged the bigger names from the barns of Jonathan Sheppard, Janet Elliot, Bruce Miller and company – and frequently beat them.

Purchased privately by Griggs at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 1989, after a French bloodstock agent had second thoughts about some potential issues in the young horse, Warm Spell won his first five starts over jumps in 1991 and 1992, captured the two most important jump races at Saratoga in 1993 and won an Eclipse Award in 1994. He was big, bright, fast and gone too soon after suffering a fatal injury in the Colonial Cup during his championship season.

And now Griggs is gone as well. The Lexington, Ky., owner/trainer/breeder/veterinarian died Monday. He was 84 and will be remembered as a horsemen with few peers. Griggs did things his way – old school, a little rough around the edges – but successfully. As an owner, his horses earned more than $2 million in jump races (once as high as fourth on the National Steeplechase Association list).

In addition to Warm Spell, the troops included Steve Canyon, Electron, Lot O’Ribot and loads of others during a career spanning several decades. Griggs learned racing from his father, who rode in the first Iroquois Steeplechase in 1941, and passed it along to son Kirk (an amateur jockey for several years) and Mary Laura (a trainer herself).

In addition to his work with steeplechasers, Griggs was a co-breeder (often with fellow veterinarian Dr. Charles Kidder and his wife Nancy Cole and Griggs’ wife Linda) of several notable flat horses including Grade 1 winner Midnight Lucky, $1.85 million yearling, Grade 2 winner and stallion Fairbanks, English Group 2 winner Premio Loco, Grade 2 winner Abraaj, multiple graded stakes winner Headache, Grade 2 winner Macho Macho, recent Japanese winner Mrs Watanabe and others.

Griggs helped found the High Hope Steeplechase in 1966, served several terms on the NSA board and frequently encouraged younger trainers to get involved.

“He was really nice to me,” said Kentucky-based owner/trainer Hill Parker, who won the Peapack Stakes with Get Ready Set Goes at Far Hills Saturday. “I used to school horses for him when I was in college and he was always encouraging, always helpful. When I started training a few on my own, he’d say ‘Use my jumps, whatever you want.’ He’s a big reason I do this.”

Griggs gave current NSA steward, and former champion jockey, Gregg Morris some of his first rides.

But he was most in his element training horses, and was a frequent interview subject in the early days of Steeplechase Times. Launched in 1994, our newspaper covered Warm Spell’s championship season and also followed Grade 1 winner Electron and other Griggs stalwarts.

Once, he talked about how fast a turned-out horse galloped past the kitchen window which could mean just one thing – time to start training. He didn’t run his horses on Lasix, and voted against its adoption when part of the NSA board in 1995. After Warm Spell won at Atlanta in 1994, while giving away at least 15 pounds to his rivals, Griggs admitted that he wasn’t really in the game for the racing but more for the chance to relate to horses.

“I have more fun at home training him than I do running him,” he said then. “I wouldn’t have to run him to have fun.”

Griggs and the 17-hand, 2-inch Warm Spell were made for each other. The son of Northern Baby was a bright chestnut, with a wide blaze, a splash of white on his left knee, another in front of his right hock, a long sock to his right knee and two low splashes below his hind ankles. Warm Spell, at speed and mixed with a jockey in Griggs’ orange and white silks, looked like a fiery blur.

Griggs examined the yearling Warm Spell, bred by Robert Kluener, for a client before the sale and noted some minor leg fractures. An agent for Horse France Ireland spent $16,000 on the colt, but balked once news of the injuries was relayed. Griggs stepped in, bought the prospect and sent him for arthroscopic surgery. In 1991, Warm Spell made his career debut going 2 1/16 miles over hurdles at Saratoga in July. The only 3-year-old in a field of nine won by 10 lengths. He won twice more that fall, against straight 3-year-olds, and opened the next season with two more wins before finally losing to stakes stars Victorian Hill and Mistico in the 3-mile Iroquois. He wrapped up 1992 with a powerhouse score in a handicap at Belmont Park where he covered 2 miles in a rapid 3:36.62 with Kirk Griggs aboard.

After missing the second half of that season, Warm Spell returned to win three of five in 1993. He lost Kirk Griggs in the season opener at Atlanta, but teamed up with jockey Chuck Lawrence and won the Temple Gwathmey in April. They finished second in the Iroquois in May and won twice at Saratoga in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial and New York Turf Writers Cup, the latter under 161 pounds. Warm Spell missed the rest of that season, but emerged as good as ever in 1994 – winning at Atlanta, finishing second in the Gwathmey and the Iroquois, winning a second Smithwick and then ousting the year’s best field in the Breeders’ Cup Grand National at Far Hills in October.

A star at age 6, Warm Spell looked well on his way to a career with few peers. Then came the Colonial Cup, and one of the sport’s saddest days. He fell at a fence on the backside with about a half-mile to go while battling Lonesome Glory, Mistico, Victorian Hill and Declare Your Wish.

“He had a lot of personality and a very distinctive look,” Griggs said a few days afterward. “It was fun to see him at his best. The response from the steeplechase community has been tremendous in what’s been a real sad time for us.”

The sport lost a star. Griggs lost more than that.

“He was a real pleasant horse to be with, always in the middle of everything,” he said. “I rode him every day. I feel like he’s a part of me.”

Buried in the pines behind Springdale Race Course, not far from where he fell, Warm Spell led all steeplechasers in earnings that year with $210,375 and won the Eclipse Award as the division champion. For his career, all over jumps, he won 12 of 19 starts with three seconds, a third and $457,963.

Warm Spell placed in three editions of the Iroquois, a race dear to Griggs’ heart. Griggs won the now Grade 1 race in 1980 with Ready Perk, 1981 with Daddy Dumpling and 1988 with Steve Canyon. This spring, Griggs was inducted into the Iroquois Hall of Fame for his contributions to the race.

Before Warm Spell, Steve Canyon was another Griggs standout, winning 16 races and earning $388,102 from 1983-89. His 1988 campaign included wins in the Pillar at High Hope in Lexington, the Iroquois in Nashville and the Hard Scuffle in Prospect, Ky., all in May and all with Kirk in the saddle.

In 2001, Griggs won three races in five weeks with Electron – culminating in a Grade 1 upset of 2000 champion All Gong. The Wild Again gelding, purchased from Calumet Farm years earlier, won a $20,000 claimer March 10, an allowance March 24 and the $100,000 Atlanta Cup April 14. Griggs high-fived jockey Craig Thornton afterward, and talked about his horse.

“The horse has had some minor problems and he’s finally totally sound – that delights me,” Griggs said. “I was expecting to win, but maybe I’m an optimist.”

Funeral services were still pending for Griggs whose survivors include wife Linda, sons Kirk, Errett, Neal and Miles and daughters Mary Laura and Clayre.




 *Photos by Barbara D. Livingston (top photo of Warm Spell at Saratoga), Tod Marks (Griggs at the races) and Deirdre Davie (B&W of Warm Spell at Atlanta).