Johnson stays connected in times of the ‘new normal’

Cover image courtesy of Tattersalls

With an attitude that every experience provides an opportunity, Johnson has still been able to achieve more than he could have hoped.

Travel, in particular international travel, is a crucial part of any bloodstock agent’s role, but with COVID-19 restrictions making that next to impossible, Johnson has had to find new ways to maintain relationships with his international client base and keep business moving.

Johnson told TDN AusNZ that he has been able to lean on his previous experience and connections when working with de Burgh Equine, as well as his willingness to embrace technology, to keep things moving during the pandemic.

“You enjoy different challenges as they come to hand and everyone has been in a position where they haven’t been able to travel. Predominantly through the yearling sales, I turned up with Scott Darby and Darby Racing to purchase 27 yearlings right through from the Classic Sale until recently,” Johnson said.

“You enjoy different challenges as they come to hand and everyone has been in a position where they haven’t been able to travel.” – Will Johnson

“I am still in the market for a couple more horses. There are still a lot of people out there looking for shares. When you are looking at every horse in the catalogue, you keep an open mind. We have been able to source a few horses for a few different trainers and clients around the world throughout this time.”

The relationship with Darby Racing was particularly fruitful for Johnson in 2020, allowing him to build his local profile in his own name, while working with an outfit renowned as one of the shrewdest in the business when it comes to yearling selection.

Will with the de Burgh Equine team

“Unfortunately for Hubie (de Burgh), whose relationship with Scott (Darby) remains rock solid, with COVID-19 he was unable to travel and that has allowed for my name to be alongside their great business,” he said.

“Scott and Mark (Holland) and their team have found top class horses over the years, but I guess my thinking brings a different component to that, with pedigrees and an outside opinion for them. They seem to enjoy that and it’s great to learn from them and how they assess horses.

“If you look at their record of finding horses for small purchase prices and being able to get them into a Gimcrack or a Breeders’ Plate, or even the Golden Slipper, it’s quite extraordinary.”

Darby Racing’s banner horse in that regard was She Will Reign (Manhattan Rain), who was purchased for $20,000. She was able to win two pre-Christmas 2-year-old races before claiming the Golden Slipper.

She Will Reign

Last year, Darby Racing had two fillies purchased in partnership with de Burgh Equine in the season’s first 2-year-old race, the G3 Gimcrack S., for trainer Mark Newnham, including the winner Every Rose (Choisir).

“Hopefully one of those ones we purchased this year can hit one of those early 2-year-old races, or a sales race in the new year,” Johnson said.

“Just speaking to Scott this week, he’s got five or six colts and fillies that are on track for the first 2-year-old trials and then will see if they can get through to a Gimcrack or a Breeders’ Plate. That’s not the ultimate goal, but it’s nice to have those horses to be able to look towards them.”

International trade still flows

Meanwhile, Johnson said the international market is still vibrant, particularly in the demand for quality mares and fillies, and he has seen the current environment as an opportunity to continue to develop his relationships across the world.

“We are still exporting mares to Japan and America and doing some private work in Europe as well, utilising my contacts through Hubie and other agents and farms I have worked with as well,” he said.

“While I have not been able to get on an aeroplane, I’ve still been able to get on the phone, and getting photos and videos through to ensure that trade transpire.

“While I have been not been able to get on an aeroplane, I’ve still been able to get on the phone, and getting photos and videos through to ensure that trade transpire. ” – Will Johnson

“It’s probably a unique situation that we might not see again, but it shows you how much can be done in that way, particularly with mares. I read the results in the TDN everyday, looking for updates in pedigrees which might provide value to what I am doing.

“Occasionally, there are angles to play sourcing fillies that may not be in the best locations for them. It takes time to sift through that to get those, but that can be quite rewarding when you can approach a client in a different country with an idea.”

Warning ready to launch

With the spring carnival heating up in Melbourne and Sydney, there will be plenty of racing to keep Johnson busy in the next few months, particularly with the stayer he part owns, Warning (Declaration Of War {USA}), a horse he and co-trainer Sam Freedman picked out as a yearling, building towards the G1 Melbourne Cup.

Warning put Johnson’s name up in lights with his win in the G1 VRC Derby last spring, in a serendipitous piece of timing ahead of him launching his own business.

He has not won a race since but ran with credit in each of his six autumn starts, which included a placing in the G1 South Australian Derby in May.

“It was through the beginning of COVID-19 and it was by no means the easiest time for the stable logistically to travel him around and be in the same place as him,” Johnson said.

Warning winning the G1 VRC Derby
Will Johnson (right) after Warning’s win in the G1 VRC Derby

He returns in Saturday’s G1 Makybe Diva S. at Flemington a race which features the winners of the three Group 1 Derbies run in Australia last season, Warning, Quick Thinker (So You Think {NZ}) and Russian Camelot (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) plus the winner of the G1 VRC Oaks in Miami Bound (NZ) (Reliable Man {GB}) and the winner of the G1 Melbourne Cup in Vow And Declare (Declaration Of War {USA}).

Johnson, who in his previous role with de Burgh Equine, helped broker the sale of Quick Thinker as a yearling as well, said Warning comes into the race with plenty of scope for improvement.

“He’s had a good break and has come back and had a few strong gallops and a couple of jump-outs at Mornington, and he’s obviously in the deep end this weekend, but if he’s running on and his last furlong is the best, then we will be very happy,” he said.

“After a Derby prep 12 months ago and then into Sydney and then Adelaide, we were a little concerned that he might not have come back and showed the same health and strength, but Anthony and Sam are very happy with the horse. If anything, he has held his condition and will probably need the run.

“The last couple of campaigns, he stripped quite fit quickly. This race should bring him on, and by all accounts he is in good health.”