"The big horse," in racing vernacular, is the animal that brings fame and fortune to a stable. He's the heavyweight champion, the All-American quarterback, the four-legged Michael Jordan of the barn. Seabiscuit was once Tom Smith's "big horse." A generation ago, Secretariat was Lucien Lauren's. In 2003, Funny Cide was Barclay Tagg's. In sixty years as a trainer, P. G. Johnson had never had one -- until Volponi.
P. G. Johnson was a blue-collar wizard, a hardscrabble tough guy who had come east from Chicago, determined to make his mark on New York. And he did. He became leading trainer at all three New York tracks -- Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct -- as well as at Florida's Tropical Park. And he did it without ever winning a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup event, or having "the big horse."
"I never knew how to kiss rich people's asses, and I got too old to learn. If no owner was going to give me a big horse, I figured I'd have to find one myself," he said. He did that, in his seventies, buying a mare for $8,000, breeding her to a $20,000 stallion, and in 1998 producing Volponi, the horse that would change his life.
In October 2002, weakened by surgery and radiation treatment for cancer, P. G. watched Volponi -- the longest shot in the field at 43 to 1 -- bring home more than $2 million by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest race in America.
The following summer at Saratoga, McGinniss -- journalist, investigative reporter, and horse racing obsessive -- began showing up, more Tuesdays with Morrie than Guys and Dolls, at P. G.'s barn in the predawn hours to listen to the inside racing stories and lore P. G. had gathered. McGinniss came to appreciate that Johnson was not only a stellar horseman but an American original whose wit and wisdom carried far beyond the confines of the racetrack.
As for Volponi, the big horse had given P. G. the perfect Disney ending with the Breeders' Cup victory, and, indeed, Disney soon bought film rights to P. G.'s life story. "He'll be even better next year," P. G. had said, but by the time McGinniss got to Saratoga, Volponi had not won a race in nine months. His faith undiminished, P. G. continued to race Volponi against the best, at Saratoga and beyond, until in the end it came down to the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic in Santa Anita, a race only one horse in history had ever won twice. As fires burned in the Southern California hills, Volponi -- with Funny Cide's jockey, Jose Santos, in the saddle -- ran the last race of his life.
This book is about what happened that day, about what came after, and about much of what had come before. It's the most exciting, rewarding, and heartwarming story about the world of horse racing that you'll ever read, by one of America's finest writers, at the top of his form.
It was raining and still dark when I got to the barn.
The barn was located behind the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga Race Course.
Saratoga is in upstate New York. The training track had been named in the early years, when people had to walk rather than drive to reach it, and its distance from the main track made it seem as remote as Oklahoma.
I squished through the mud, amid dark silhouettes of horses. It was 6 A.M. on the Monday of the last week of July 2003 -- the first week of Saratoga's six-week racing season. It also was the first time in more than thirty years that I'd been in the Saratoga stable area.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Mr. Johnson."
"What the hell for?"
The voice was like sandpaper. The speaker was a short man with rounded shoulders. He was wearing a rain jacket and baseball cap, and standing, stooped, beneath a wooden overhang in front of a stall about halfway down the shed row. I hadn't seen him since 1971, and I hadn't actually met him even then, but I knew this had to be P.G.
"I called you last night," I said. "You told me I could meet you here this morning."
"Why would I have said that? Oh, Christ, you must be the guy I'm supposed to be nice to so my daughter doesn't lose her goddamned job."
I could hardly see him in the dark, through the rain.
"If you have any questions," he said, "I'll try to answer them. If it's not inconvenient, I might even tell you the truth. But I hope you don't have too many. Ocala's my assistant, but don't bother him, he's a son of a bitch. And try to stay out of the way. I'm a working horse trainer, not a goddamned tourist destination."
He turned, and started to shuffle back toward the end of the barn, to the small, dirt-floored cubicle that served as his office at Saratoga.
"I wanted to meet you thirty-two years ago," I called after him.
"The first time I ever bet a hundred dollars was on a horse of yours. 1970. It was the day of the Travers. Cote-de-Boeuf. Jean Cruguet rode him. Four to one in the morning line. He finished out of the money."
"You shouldn't bet. I quit that foolishness years ago."
"Later on, can I see Volponi?"
"Yeah, but for Christ's sake don't try to pet him, unless you want to start typing with your toes."
Joe McGinniss (1942–2014) was an American journalist, nonfiction writer, and novelist. He first came to prominence with the bestselling The Selling of the President, which described the marketing of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon. It spent more than six months on bestseller lists. He is popularly known for his trilogy of bestselling true crime books—FatalVision, Blind Faith, and Cruel Doubt—which were adapted into several TV miniseries and movies. Over the course of forty years, McGinniss published twelve books.