Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/8/2020 (469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
While the big money was flying around the track over the past few weeks with the Manitoba Derby and multi-million-dollar carryovers in the Super High 5 and Jackpot Pick 5, the "Fighting Johnstons" were quietly stomping the terra in the winner’s circle for the sixth time this year.
The three sisters from Solsgirth, Man., have been riding, ponying, grooming and training at Assiniboia Downs since the 1970s, and they’re having an exceptional 2020.
Marion, 70, Donna, 73, and Linda, 67, teamed up to win the fourth race last Wednesday with four-year-old Manitoba-bred filly, Barbie’s Quest. Marion was the owner-trainer-breeder of record, while Donna and Linda assisted in a fine effort that left the two favourites in the dust.
Barbie’s three and five-year-old siblings waited anxiously back at the barn for the results and it was nickering all round when she returned to her home in the middle of Barn D after the race.
Trinidadian jockey Stanley Chadee Jr., enjoying a career year in his third season at the Winnipeg track -- a win-place-show record of 30-33-24 and multiple stakes wins from 184 starts -- had to pose for the picture first, and that took a little longer than usual. Chadee has developed a habit of guiding his horse to look in the photo-finish mirror when returning after winning a race.
"It’s the only mirror out there," said Chadee. "Have to look good for the picture."
Both Marion and Donna are licensed stakes-winning trainers, and Linda used to train but now let’s Marion do the job with her horse, Fried Pickles, who has helped Marion crunch her way to a stellar record of 4-3-2 from 16 starts.
According to official Equibase stats, Marion has a lifetime win-place-show record of 113-160-190 from 1,246 starts, while Donna has compiled stats of 103-129-129 from 848 starts. Marion’s best horses were arguably R. C. Anderson Stakes winner Gala Award and La Verendrye Stakes winner Solar Award in the 1980s, while Donna’s finest was Arikana, who won multiple stakes here in the 1980s.
Donna is battling her sister for leading trainer in the family this year with a record of 2-3-1 from eight starts, but "Einstein," as her sisters refer to her because of her nursing psychology degree, may not be able to catch up now. Her only runnable horse, Bella Galina, was claimed away from her after winning her second race in a row.
'We'd rather argue and fight than have a team effort' — Linda Johnston
Decades ago, there was an unwritten rule in the backstretch that you couldn’t claim a trainer’s only horse, but that seems to have all but disappeared now. Horses are just business for some, but not for the Johnston sisters, who have been around horses their entire lives.
"Our mother got us horses to ride when we were kids," said Donna. "In the summer we rode horses from the time we got up until the time we went to bed, and when our uncle’s boys couldn’t ride their bad ponies, we rode them, too."
Two big Percheron horses were used to clean the barn on the family farm, and the sisters were active in 4H while growing up, showing both cattle and horses. They also went to school with horses.
"In the winter, the driver would come and pick us up with horses pulling a van with a stove in it," said Linda. "It was a little thing, half the size of a box stall, with benches on the side. He would go all the way down the valley picking up kids, and we were usually the last ones. The fields were covered in snow. How else were we supposed to get to school?"
From the farm it was on to work for trainer "Boo Boo" Bob Watt at Pinehurst Farm in Oakbank, where Donna and Marion were officially introduced to racehorses as a way to make a living, and where Marion learned to ride racehorses.
"Donna had to saddle about 20 horses a day," said Marion. "So she hauled me out there one day and said they had to go out. She said, ‘I’ll saddle them up and you just get on them and go for a ride, and I’ll come out there and tell you what to do.’"
Riding racehorses in morning training hours is not as easy or romantic as it might look or sound, even for experienced riders. But a long, galloping relationship began— and continues to this day — with Linda in the mix for almost as long as her two sisters.
How do they manage to get along so well in the barn after all these years?
"We don’t," smiled Linda. "We don’t," Donna chimed in.
"Just leave that part out," said Marion.
"We’d rather argue and fight than have a team effort," said Linda. "Still, if we have to, under duress, we can do it. Can you start the article off with the Fighting Johnston Sisters?"
Yes, we can.