Bob Johnson builds racehorses in South Dakota
Bob Johnson has raced horses from New Mexico to Minnesota, California to Oklahoma.
But the plains of western South Dakota remain home, and the favorite place to be for the professional racehorse trainer, no matter the weather.
“We have eight months of winter and four months of nice weather. It’s not the place to be if you don’t like snow. The snow never melts, it just blows around until its worn out.”
But Bob said the people in South Dakota are the best.
“I have a lot of people quizzing me, why don’t you go live down south?” Milder weather attracts a lot of trainers as it provides fewer challenges for daily training.
“I tell them the north country keeps the majority of riff raff out. I’ve never locked my house. I’ve been here 24 years and I don’t even have a key. I’ve lived a lot of places but this is one of the last frontiers and it’s paradise if you are among people most of the year.”
Bob says he “set out” to be a rancher. He and his brother Gary planned to run the family ranch together.
“We started in business in the ’80s which broke a lot of people. It was evident to us and our financial advisors that one of us had to get a job. I got elected and away I went.”
Bob’s dad John G. Johnson had also trained horses for the track, after first winning at local county fairs with home-raised horses.
The Johnson Ranch became home to a racing stable where John would train his own horses, and would take in horses to train. He had a ranch to run, too, so didn’t travel as far as some–mostly taking horses to races in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and the Dakotas.
Because Bob’s brother Gary was home to take care of the ranch, he was able to travel farther from home. One year in the early ’90s Bob remembers racing horses in in South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, North Dakota, Utah, and Idaho, all in one year. “My address was United Airlines.”
As a 19-year-old trainer, Bob didn’t keep all of his dad’s old clients. “I was just a kid,” he remembers, and said some horse-owners wanted experience.
His youth was no disadvantage, though, and soon he had both clients and plenty of energy.
“Nights were made so you could get to where you needed to be the next day,” He used to say, and started to travel more and more, and in the last 40 years, Bob has raced horses for people from 33 different states – and run horses in many states.
The Johnson family stands two racing studs, Hasta be Fast and No Brakes Now, and although he trains some Johnson-raised horses, Bob said he has no preference for home-raised horses over others, and he enjoys racing both Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. “I’ll train anything with four feet and fur,” he said. “I just like fast horses and I don’t care what breed they are or what their pedigree is. The cream comes to the top – if there is a fast horse, I’ll take him anywhere in the world. You have to take the ball and run.”
Jim Brockel, a horseman from Mclaughlin, South Dakota sent Bob horses in the ’80s and early ’90s. “He had stopped me one day and said, ‘If this horse is fast, where will you go with it?’ I told him ‘I will take him anywhere that you think the horse will compete.’ And he told a lot of different people that, and all of the sudden I had clients from Colorado and all over the world because by that time, I was willing to take the next step and load them up and go.”
Bob said he once sent his wife to Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico with a particularly special horse a few years ago. “That was the year I had horses at Arapahoe Park in Denver and Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota. I was trying to commute because Ruidoso doesn’t have an airport.” From Canterbury Park to Ruidoso Downs is 1,440 miles, he said. And then there was the weekend he put 4,000 miles on a rental car, driving from Colorado Springs to Rock Springs, Wyoming to Baker, Montana, to Rapid City and back to Colorado Springs.
“This training thing is more than some people think it is. It’s a commitment. You have to give your all to be successful. There’s always someone standing around the corner who will take those horses.”
But he keeps on – loving the challenge and the thrill.
“Every time I lead a horse over to paddock, whether its in Fort Pierre (South Dakota) for a maiden race or Prairie Meadows for a half million dollars, I get that burn in my stomach. Every race is magical. If you don’t get that burn anymore, then it’s time to quit.”
The trainer has gained most of his clients through word of mouth, and as a result of a non-traditional training regimen.
Most racehorse training programs are focused strictly on racing, but the Johnsons take a more practical approach – they do it “the Johnson way.” They want the horses to be useable on and off the track.
“What we do here is we break them to ride first, we make horses out of them, then we make race horses out of them.”
The horses make fewer mistakes on the track if they are truly broke. “Knock on wood we’ve been fortunate putting a good bottom on those horses and we have a lot less injuries.”
The 2-year-olds get 60 days of riding and then a little break. “Around mid-January to February we start rebuilding that.” Bob said the horses are galloped nearly every day, preferably with another horse. Many have gone on to succeed in second careers, often in the arena.
Bob recalled a horse owner from Aberdeen, South Dakota, who asked him how long he needed to turn his horse out post-racing before his daughter could ride her. “I said, she can ride her tomorrow.”
Gary has ridden a lot of racehorses that Bob has purchased off the track. “I respect Gary a lot for tolerating that. They were absolutely not broke at all.”
While the Johnsons used to break 40 to 50 2-year-olds per year, they are slowing down to about 20 per year now.
In the last couple of years, he’s cut back and stopped taking horses to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and some other races far from home.
A staff of four help care for the horses on the road. When he was the busiest, Bob employed seven or eight grooms and at least two riders.
A couple of his favorite tracks are Prairie Meadows in Iowa, Canterbury Park in Minnesota, and when he was traveling harder – Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico and Remington Park in Oklahoma.
Bob’s success hasn’t come easy, and he hasn’t been alone on the journey. “There have been sacrifices. My brother Gary is home here working his tail off taking care of the ranch and the horses when I’m gone. This has taken a big commitment from him and everyone. Success doesn’t come to one person who tries to carry the whole load.”
It wasn’t easy for Bob to leave the ranch at first, and he’s growing more fond of home all the time. Bob remembers a jockey from Oklahoma that worked for him who drove by Shadehill Lake, just east of the Johnson Ranch. “He said ‘I just saw a lake and it’s froze solid.’ I said, ‘Yeah, It’s winter.’” He said a person must have to be born here to appreciate, and he couldn’t imagine anyone moving here.
“After he was here a while he really liked it because of the quality of life, the quality of people. A spade’s a spade. Your neighbor is your friend.”