Judy Johnson, Maryland’s first professional female rider
By Eliza McGraw
One day in 1940, Washington Post sportswriter Walter Haight went over to Maryland’s Laurel Park to cover the day’s races. While he was there, a young trainer named Judy Johnson saddled a steeplechase horse for the third race. In between the third and fourth, she hopped on a potential sale horse. “I’ll try him over the brush and let you know,” she told the owner, a man named Stewart. Haight saw Johnson school the horse over the first and second jump. But the horse crash-landed over the third, Johnson apparently beneath him.
The horse ran off, and Johnson lay still, face down. Stewart and another man crouched over her, fanning her with their hats, as Haight watched. She didn’t rouse until the track doctor snapped ammonia under her nose.
“Sorry, Mr. Stewart,” she said, when she came to. “I don’t believe we want to buy your horse.”
Much of Johnson’s career had this headlong, omnivorous quality. She rode, trained, and traded horses, sometimes on the same day. She was schooling horses in her native England by the time she was eight years old, and came to the United States with her American-born trainer father, Edward Johnson. “My father used to say you could lose your money or your loved one and always come back,” she said. “But he said you can’t get going again when you lose your nerve.”
It’s unclear whether her father came back to America to cover the bi-national 1923 Zev–Papyrus match race for a British newspaper or as part of Papyrus’ entourage, but he became a trainer in the U.S., working for owners such as W.C. Whitney and Foxhall Keene. Judy Johnson worked at the United States Rubber Company as a clerk—hearing her British accent, the New York Telephone Company had advised she return when her English got better. And she showed prospective sale horses in Central Park until her father brought a string of horses from England in 1927. Then, she worked at his side. There were ten Johnson children, but only Judy remained in the family business.
Johnson had her trainer’s license in 1935, the second woman after Mary Hirsch. By 1938, she was managing a string for Thomas Mott, in Sandy Spring, Maryland. Johnson bought a broken-down has-been named Latavich for $100 and rehabilitated him. He was in the money for 14 of his 23 starts for her, and she was on her way.
In 1943, Johnson paid two dollars for the application and earned a steeplechase jockey’s license, which was the first time in Maryland history that a woman was named a professional rider. By then, she was 29. She owned some horses herself and handled them along with Mott’s. She’d broken her collarbones so many times riding that a doctor joked that she should have zippers placed on either side of her neck, so her clavicles were more easily accessed.
Johnson admitted she was very superstitious, not letting a photographer near her horses before a race. She never ate peanuts on raceday, either, and when she moved to a new track, she left the salt behind. When you carry it along, she said, racing people believed that meant you’d carry your troubles with you.
Johnson’s pioneering spirit and gregariousness made her a good profile subject for journalists. One asked how it was riding against male jockeys. “Out there I’m just one of them, and that’s the way they treat me,” she said. At one point, frustrated when the Incorporated Canadian Racing Association wouldn’t grant her a trainer’s license, she said, “The I.C.R.A. knows I’m the trainer and acknowledges it in everything but a license. This doesn’t do me any good when I have to slap somebody else’s name opposite an entry. Precedent seems to be the bugaboo, but that went out with the hoop skirt. Anyway the war has broken precedent into a jillion pieces. Take my sister, Betty. She’s in the R.A.F. ferrying planes, certainly a more dangerous job than steering a horse over the jumps and definitely mild compared? to training them.”
In 1947, she trained 21 winners, a high point. In 1952, tragedy hit when Johnson’s entire stable was wiped out in a Belmont fire. Twenty-one horses—six belonging to Mott–and a groom named Alfred Mitchell burned to death after he was kicked in the head by a horse he was trying to save. Talking about Mitchell, Johnson cried on the phone with Haight. “I’m really at rock bottom,” she told him. “But I guess I’ll be starting out again. You know, Walter, it’s my life.”
And she did start out again. Johnson bought some yearlings for a partner of Mott’s named Baird, and when Baird died, Mott bought his horses. One of these, Powder Flask, won four out of six races. Then a Mott horse named Old Glendale broke a track record for a mile and a sixteenth at Laurel and at Pimlico. These were flat racers, rare for Johnson. She moved her stable to Belmont to run at a meeting at the old Jamaica Race Course, and her horses won two races on back to back days.
Here’s how a reporter described her during that period, in a little office at Belmont: “She wore no make-up. Her face is a healthy, sun-kissed color. Her eyes are the bluest blue imaginable. She is of medium height and well built. She had on a cotton print dress with a white Peter Pan collar and a narrow black belt. There was mud on her shoes and a sweat-stain on the silk band of a cloth hat pulled down on her head with the brim up in the back and down in the front. She is feminine, but friendly, like a man. She carries her own cigarettes and lights her own cigarettes. And she talks easily, directly.”
Mott died in 1961, leaving Johnson without a stable. But she claimed a horse from Woody Stephens in Saratoga, and she was still training in 1967, when she sent a horse named Sir Beau to the Preakness. She suffered a debilitating stroke in 1971 and died in 1978.
“This is a game of eternal hope,” Johnson told a reporter in 1970. By then, she had been training for 35 years. “My hope is that one day I’ll get that one great horse.”
She was 65, and her doctor told her it might be time to slow down. “I told him I can’t smoke, take a drink or ride horses, I might as well go now and save the money.”
Sources from ProQuest and newspapers.com
Gordon Beard, “Female Horse Trainer Waiting For Big Payoff,” Evening Sun, June 7, 1970, 20
Muriel Bowen, “There’s Always A New Starting Post,” Washington Post, May 12, 1957, F16
Walter Haight, “Another First For Miss Judy Johnson,” Washington Post, May 13, 1968, D7
Walter Haight, “Horses And People,” Washington Post, July 31, 1953, 28
Walter Haight, “Judy Johnson Excels,” Washington Post, April 21, 1940, 40
“Horse’s Housekeeper Toils Hard,” Clovis News-Journal, May 28, 1947, 8
“Judy Johnson Given ‘Chase Rider’s License,” New York Herald Tribune, April 18, 1943, B1
Rud Rennie, “Views Of Sport,” New York Herald Tribune, July 20, 1955, 22
Bobbie Rosenfeld, “Judy Seeks Recognition,” The Globe And Mail, May 21, 1943, 20
“A Woman Racehorse Trainer,” Baltimore Sun, November 7, 1948, 121
“Woman Jockey Johnson Dies,” Washington Post, October 15, 1978, D14