Remembering Sam Johnson, an old “race-tracker,” 1974

Feb 23rd 2011 07:56 pm |

Racing history is rarely kind to those who work behind the scenes on the backstretch. We remember the horses who won the big races and the people associated with racing’s stars but rarely do we see remembrances of those who kept the wheels turning or, dare I say, did the “dirty work.”

That’s why I was thrilled to come across an article published in February 1974 about an old ‘race-tracker’ whose name might have otherwise disappeared from the historical record had it not been for an event coordinated by the New York Racing Association. That year, NYRA hosted a luncheon for Sam Johnson on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Johnson worked at New York racetracks for nearly 80 years — mainly as a backstretch worker.

A story appeared about his life in conjunction with his birthday celebration in the Baltimore Afro-American on February 26, 1974. Here is an excerpt:

“Horse is healthy to you”, says Sam Johnson and he ought to know.

Since 1892, Johnson, son of freed slaves, has been a stablehand, exercise boy, a one-race jockey, trainer, groom and hotwalker.

Sam is 100 years old. He had a birthday on Friday.

The New York Racing Association marked the start of Johnson’s second century Saturday with a luncheon and birthday cake. Later in the day, the spry centenarian, born in Lexington, Ky, one year before the first Kentucky Derby, made the trophy presentation to the owner of the winner of the Swift Stakes at Aqueduct.

Johnson came to New York in 1892 and that year saw his first Swift, which was inaugurated in 1885. Since then he hasn’t missed many renewals of that race — or of other old New York stakes. At 100, he has a remarkable memory

“Horse name of Vestibule win the Swift at Sheepshead Bay in ’92,” Sam recalls. “But I remember the rider better than the horse — Andy Hamilton, a black boy. There was a lot of good black riders in those days, maybe not as good as Isaac Murphy, but real good.”

Johnson rates Man o’ War, Exterminator and Secretariat as the best horses he has ever seen.  Ogden, Futurity winner in ’96, was one of Johnson’s favorites.

Recalls Sam: “When his legs went bad, I took him swimming in the ocean off Brighton Beach, me hanging on to his tail, for miles every day for a month. Help him? First day back racing, he win at seven furlongs and nine, first and fifth races, same day.”

Sam, who walked hots daily at Belmont Park until a few years ago, was asked how he felt about reaching 100 years. “Well,” he said with his slow grin. “I’d say it’s a very good thing for me.”

Plans for his second century? “I figure,” he replied, “I’ll do this one year at a time.”

A representative piece of history about one of the countless “race-trackers” who work behind the scenes and have kept the racing wheels turning for centuries. Read the full article here.


100 years old last Friday; hosses, ‘soul food’ did it,” Baltimore Afro-American, 26 February 1974

Another great example of racing remembering an old “race-tracker” is the Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita, read about it in a post from Mary Forney.  In my opinion, such gestures by track management, and the one from NYRA in 1974, are the epitome of class.  I’m sure there are other examples out there, please post a comment if you are aware of others.

I found over the weekend that someone had created a wiki page for Pittsburgh Phil and did a darn good job with it. I also found that a copy of Phil’s Maxims has been digitized and is available in the Kentuckiana Digital Library. This is the text that I transcribed and posted last year. I am kind of proud that one of my posts on Pittsburgh Phil ranks higher on a Google Search then the wikipedia page (I am sure this success is short lived but i’ll enjoy it will it lasts)

Hope everyone is gearing up for the Kentucky Derby…we are just a few months away!  If you want to keep up-to-date on all of the prep races leading up to the big day in May, sign-up for the Derby Prep Alerts at Hello Race Fans.

Thanks for readings and good luck!

Filed in backstretch workers,New York Racing Association,thoroughbred racing history

4 Responses to “Remembering Sam Johnson, an old “race-tracker,” 1974”

  1. Ron Micetic says:

    Terrific post Kevin. Sure would liked to have seen all the programs that probably went through Sam’s hands. I’d been going to the races for 6 years when that event was held. What a treat it would have been to be able to sit down and talk to Sam about the good old days.

  2. Jim says:

    Very nice piece. Well done.

  3. Helene Conway says:

    Helene the Hotwalker is smiling.

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