Ask Johnny Bear what he would like to have done when he grew up, and it probably wouldn’t have been man-about-town at Woodbine racetrack.
Nope. Johnny Bear would be the lagabout. A slugabed. A lazyboots. A gentleman of leisure. A lotus-eater. When others would be studying and learning, he’d be dozing off in the classroom, getting a friend to peel his grapes for him. Loving everybody. Never having a care in the world.
By the way, Johnny Bear is a racehorse. Now he’s the 9 to 1 surprise winner of the Northern Dancer Stakes, where he took the measure of the glorious European star Hawkbill by defeating him in one last determined head bob at the wire and making the tote board sing a few weeks ago. And now he’s stepping it up this weekend to become a 12 to 1 contender in the frothy $800,000 Canadian International Championship Stakes, with a storied history as long as a backstretch.
Johnny Bear, outside, defeating Hawkbill, inside
Johnny Bear is six years old, for heaven’s sake, a late bloomer in this business and he’s finally finding his footing. On Sunday, he’ll be racing against Erupt, last year’s Irish-bred winner of the International and winner of $1.46-million for Flaxman Holdings (the family of the late Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos); Flamboyant, a horse owned by the chief executive officer of Target Enterprises in the United States in partnership with a high-powered tax lawyer; the 5 to 2 favourite Idaho, a 4-year-old bred in the purple from Ireland, running for powerful European owners Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Mrs. John Magnier – she the daughter of legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien – and trained by famed Irish handler Aidan O’Brien, who is within two wins of equalling the world record for most Grade One or Group One races in his career; and of course, there’s Chemical Charge, owned by Qatar Racing Ltd. (three princes from the royal family of Qatar, with headquarters in England).
Idaho, last year in the International
Erupt, winning the International last year for his French team
In the midst of all this racing royalty, is humble little Johnny Bear, the only Canadian entrant in the field. Nobody has told him what he’s up against. Odds are, he probably isn’t sweating it.
Johnny Bear, in the walking ring before the Northern Dancer
Johnny Bear was impressive enough as a yearling – he was a looker, indeed - to attract ever so much attention at the prime Canadian yearling sale in Toronto five years ago. Even Canada’s top trainer, Mark Casse was having a look and he’s long had a bankroll of wealthy owners to back him. On that note, breeder/owner John Burness linked forces with his friend Danny Dion, of the Sovereign award winning Bear Stable, who began to buy horses after he had developed Bear Slashing Ltd., site preparation company for oil fields into a multi-million business in Alberta.
They went halfsies on this colt, a son of English Channel, and figured he’d bring $200,000. Burness let Dion do the bidding. When the dust settled, Dion had to break the news to Burness. The colt sold for $275,000, the sale topper.
“Well, guess what,” Dion said to Burness. “I spent a little bit more than I anticipated. If you want out, it’s okay.”
“No,” Burness said. “If we’re partners, we’re partners.”
There were probably a few times when he wished he hadn’t said that.
Johnny Bear (who got his name for obvious reasons), wasn’t exactly precocious. He is a son of English Channel, who got better as he got older, and won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in his third attempt, winning by seven lengths, the largest winning margin in the history of the race.
“To be totally honest, I didn’t think I was going to get to train the horse,” said Burness’s daughter, Ashlee Brnjas, whose first full year as a trainer came in 2007, only four years before Johnny Bear came into her care. “I thought there would be much more experienced trainers that would get the horse. But Bear [Danny Dion] told me they had decided I would get to train the horse. I was pretty flabbergasted.”
Johnny Bear was always a favourite. “He was kind of a short, fat, stocky little guy,” Brnjas said. “And he slept ALL THE TIME, to the point where I used to get really concerned. It was like he was anemic or something. But he was fine. He just matured.” She took him to Florida and started him out sprinting, although she knew that wasn’t his game. Like all good English Channels, he wanted to run a distance.
The stable had to be very patient. Brnjas was endlessly patient with him. His owners? Not so much. After a streak of losses and layups, frustration began to set in.
“There were discussions going back and forth, but you know, frustrated owners,” she said. “They want to see a return on their investment. We had a few fights over him potentially getting claimed. And lucky enough, he ran in a $32,000 claimer in Florida [but nobody claimed him.] I didn’t want to, but they said: ‘Run him.’ I believe he won that race.” That win made him eligible for other races.
He’s an easy horse to train. No arguments from Johnny Bear. Brnjas calls him a “marshmellow.” He is indeed mellow. After his Northern Dancer win, Brnjas was asked if it was okay to bring him out for a backstretch tour, which included children. No probs.
“I had 50 people out on the lawn taking photos of him last week at Woodbine in front of my barn,” she said. “He’s the most cool horse. Kids can pet him, feed him, take pictures with him, kiss him. He doesn’t care.”
Everybody loves Johnny Bear. He loves everybody.
Johnny Bear, looking askance at Hawkbill, who was sashaying in front of the starting gate. Notice the tongue sticking out.
“He’s totally laid back,” Burness said. “Nothing really fazes him at all. Sometimes when you bring him over, you go: ‘holy smokes, is he going to run?’ But when he gets on a track, he’s a different horse.”
Burness had more faith in the little red horse than the Bear. “My partner said a few times: “Run him for $32,000 and let somebody else worry about him. He let me manage him most of the time and he wouldn’t get upset with me and he kind of agreed when I didn’t run him for a tag.”
Burness had to admit that his daughter’s protests against having him claimed swayed him. “I fought so hard with the owners not to run him in claiming races,” she said. “Please don’t. He’s just starting. We’ve had him for five years and we’ve just started and you’ve put all this money into him.”
So Johnny Bear stayed put. He could have been claimed for $40,000 last October at Woodbine.
This year has been Johnny Bear’s turnaround year. The clan took him to Florida last winter and he won twice in three starts at Tampa Bay Downs. He was getting the hang of this winning thing. In his first start at home at Woodbine in the spring, he ran second to major Woodbine stakes winner Are You Kidding Me. Finally, in early September, Burness thought he’d take a chance on actually entering Johnny Bear in a stakes race – the Halton Stakes, a race restricted to horses that had sold in the Canadian yearling sale. “What are you doing?” Bear asked. “You are crazy.”
“No, he deserves a shot,” Burness said. He won the thing by 3 ½ lengths. Then Burness stepped up and entered him in the Northern Dancer, a major graded stakes race at Woodbine that often attracts good international horses. Once again, the Bear had his doubts. He thought Johnny Bear was in over his head. Although the Bear had come to Toronto for the yearling sales and therefore the sales stakes, he stayed at home in Alberta and watched the Northern Dancer on television.
Johnny Bear was in against Hawkbill, a $350,000 yearling purchase owned by Godolphin (in other words, a sheikh of Dubai). He had won the important Coral Eclipse Stakes (Group One) in England. He had run in the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud in France. He had run in Germany. He won the Princess of Wales Stakes at Newmarket, England. He had finished second in the Grand Prix von Berlin. He was an imposing beast. A gorgeous thing.
Johnny Bear started right next to Hawkbill, to his inside. At the start of the 1 ½ mile Northern Dancer, Johnny Bear hurtled out of the gate ahead of the big European. But Hawkbill took over the lead, and in the stretch, Johnny Bear started gaining on him with every stride.
First time past the stands, after the start. Johnny Bear is ahead of Hawkbill in the blue. Hawkbill looks sweaty and washed out. Johnny Bear, cool as a cucumber.
She can barely remember who she had been sitting beside in the stands, but Brnjas said: “She’s probably still has claw marks in her arm. I didn’t care who I was grabbing. I was just grabbing something. It was pretty special.”
It was her first graded win as a trainer. And it was a Grade One.
“It was very exciting for me,” said Burness who has been in the business for 40 years, has 40 horses in training, and a 300-acre training and breeding centre, Colebrook Farms in Uxbridge, Ont. “I’ve never had a horse that you could ever consider putting into a Grade One, never mind winning a Grade One. So yeah, that was over the top, really.
“I knew he won and I was screaming,” Burness said. “Everybody was looking at me and saying: ‘It’s a photo. It’s a photo.’ I said: ‘No, there is no photo. The only photo is for Johnny Bear. Not anybody else.”
Johnny Bear won the photo finish by a head. All in the last stride.
At the finish. Johnny Bear in the orange, Hawkbill in the blue beside him.
The Bear called Burness and congratulated him. “Hey, I guess you were right,”” the Bear said.
“Which was kinda good,” Burness said.
The Bear wasn’t around to give jockey Luis Contreras his patented bear hug (jockey’s feet leave the ground). Contreras has ridden Johnny Bear in all of his three wins this year at Woodbine.
Hawkbill’s jockey, Colm O’Donoghue, explaining his loss.
Johnny Bear has a tougher task on Sunday than he did a couple of weeks ago. In the Northern Dancer, he had only two big bears to defeat. In the International, there are many more.
“I think if he runs back to the way he ran in the Northern Dancer, then we got just as good a shot as anybody else,” Burness said. “I know these horses are tough and there are European horses and there are more of them. But I’m hoping that he gets a trip and gets there first.”
As for Brnjas – and her father – she is used to running horses in the restricted Ontario Sires Stake program. Her father breeds a lot of horses for that program, so that’s where they end up.
John Burness, leading in Johnny Bear
Did she ever dream she would have a horse running in the Northern Dancer? “Nope,” she said. “That was a pipe dream.”
The International is yet another story. It was the race in which Secretariat ran the final race of his stellar career. The great mare Dalia won it. Youth, the horse that Sandy Hawley calls the best he’s ever ridden, won it, too. Another great race mare, All Along, was victorious, as well.
Brnjas hopes so too. She has experienced the incredible twists and turns, highs and lows, of thoroughbred racing already.
She was married on the day that she won her first stakes race at Woodbine on Sept. 10, 2011 with 70 to 1 shot Reconnect in the La Prevoyante Stakes. Brnjas wasn’t even there. It was her best wedding present.
“Nobody was there because all of my bridesmaids were my grooms,” she said. “My assistant trainer, everybody was at the wedding. We had somebody else get the horses ready for us.”
While Brnjas and her man stood atop the hill at the farm having a photographer take “the romanticky ones,” all of her girls came running out of the house, shoeless. “We won!” they cried. “We won!” Brnjas went back inside, just in time to see the winner’s circle view.
So yes, she knows how life can turn on a dime, sometimes for the good. And Johnny Bear? He’s been the icing on the cake.
All photos by Beverley Smith