Running in first
Nearly every week, Curt and Sharon Johnson will jump into the car and make the long drive from their 160-acre spread in Detroit Lakes to Shakopee.
It takes four hours to cover the 220 miles from their door to the front entrance of Canterbury Park and the parking stall reserved just for them as the proud and enthusiastic two-time champion owners of Canterbury Park's thoroughbred meet.
Once the Johnsons arrive, they check into their favorite nearby hotel, make a trip to the stable to look at some of the 25 to 30 horses they have stabled in Shakopee, MN and then eagerly await the races, where their horses race under the ownership name, S E J Stables.
It's a long drive but nothing compared to the old days. Before horse racing arrived in Minnesota, the Johnsons frequently made trips to Park Jefferson in South Dakota, or to Fonner Park, Arksarben or ATOKAD in Nebraska. There were trips to Santa Anita for 15 years as well.
Curt Johnson developed a love of horse racing while stationed in the army in Washington D.C., during outings to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD. "I remember going to the track and seeing a Daily Racing Form,'' Johnson said.
"It was like reading Greek at the start, but I studied it. I learned to handicap the races.''
Quite well, apparently.
Johnson, racing fans at Canterbury Park know, sends out quality runners.
What they might not know is the meaning of the initials "S E J'' in the stable name.
"I named it after my wife,'' Johnson said. "Sharon Elizabeth Johnson. She never used to be competitive. Years ago she'd play cards and not care if she won or lost. She's competitive now.''
Johnson took a hiatus from the track for a good many years while he and Elizabeth raised seven children in Alexandria. He supported his large brood with a plumbing and heating business in St. Cloud, J-Berd Mechanical Contractors, a company that employs around 160 people.
Johnson is still partners on the building the business operates out of, but that's it. "Otherwise I sold out,'' he said.
Johnson has been a race fan most of his adult life, but didn't own a horse until five years ago.
"I think it will be five years on the Fourth of July,'' he said. "Musical Chairs was our first horse, and we just sold him to the Brady Equestrian Center in Sabin.
"That's 12 miles this side of Moorhead," Johnson said. "We ran him for a year and a half and then put him to stud.
"Then I got into buying mares and we bred some to him. Others we took to Kentucky. We have some real good offspring.''
Johnson has shifted some of his attention to the claiming game.
"I've sold off all but six of the broodmares,'' he said. "It's really expensive to breed them, raise them and train them. It takes a lot of money to get them to the racetrack.''
The Johnsons have had a number of trainers since diving headlong into the sport, but have been primarily with Justin Evans the last couple of years.
That works out well since they like Phoenix, Ariz., during the winter months and Evans trains at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz.
They like to return to their home state during the summer months, and Evans trains at Canterbury during its four-month meet.
The Johnsons occasionally will head to Phoenix and then return to Minnesota abruptly.
"Sometimes we get mad at Justin and come home,'' Curt said. "We don't always get along, but I told him that by the time he's 30 he'll be a heck of a trainer.''
Evans chuckled when he heard the story.
"I guess I better get a move on,'' he said. "I only have three years to get that good.''
Owner and trainer met one another in the horsemen's section of the grandstand during a race at Canterbury a couple of years ago.
Evans was seated next to Sharon Johnson watching the race when a conversation ensued.
The Johnsons were watching a horse they had running, Gospodin. They claimed him from Evans in Phoenix but weren't getting the results they envisioned.
"You want him back,'' Curt said. "Maybe I'll give him to you to train.''
A week later, Evans got a call.
"First time I ran him the horse won,'' said Evans.
So did the first horse Evans claimed for the Johnsons.
"It was Strike the Moment," he said. "He got beat 51 lengths the day we claimed him, but the first time I ran him back he won. I was two-for-two.''
A relationship was under way.
"Curt's good for the game,'' Evans said. "He's gotten sharper and sharper about the business. He's a good man, an understanding man. He'll give me an ass-chewin' once in a while, but that's because he wants to win.''
The Johnsons were standing in the winner's circle for the obligatory photo after a recent race, and Curt reached into his pocket.
He began peeling off bills and handing them to the grooms from the Evans stable, four or five of them in all.
"Every time he comes to the barn it has to be a $1,000 or $1,500 trip,'' said Evans. "He thinks nothing of handing $100 or $200 to the gallop boy or to the grooms. He knows how important they are and he takes care of them.''
There was a lot of bill peeling in the last couple of weeks. SEJ horses won four races each week.
"Curt told me I was on a roll,'' Evans said. "He said, 'you haven't had an ass-chewin' in quite a while now.' ''
The Johnson stable at Canterbury includes the filly Musical Sharon, by Musical Chairs.
The stable also includes a "...really nice Minnesota-bred filly by Smart Strike out of a Deputy Minister mare. Her name is Katie is Smart,'' said Evans. "She's really nice.''
S E J Stables is very active in the claiming game and even turns a profit from time to time, although sometimes by other approaches - as with a horse named Leonardo they purchased for $10,000 in a package deal a while back.
He won his first out for them by 9 1/2 lengths and they sold him immediately to a New York buyer in a phone call for $125,000.
The acreage in Detroit Lakes, according to Curt, is primarily devoted to hunting, but includes about 35 to 40 acres and four buildings for the horses.
There is even a mechanical walker, enclosed in its own shelter for wintertime exercise.
"I call it our merry-go-round,'' Curt said.
It is clear that the Johnsons' first love has less to do with hunting than it does horses.
"We're tough losers, but we love to win,'' Curt said.
Sometimes that might require an butt-chewin' here or there.