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Johnson’s will for success burns bright after Derby win

Article courtesy of TDN AusNZ

As Will Johnson celebrated the G1 Victoria Derby win of Warning (Declaration Of War {USA}) on Saturday night, the advice of his old boss Roger Varian kept ringing in his head.

Bloodstock agent Johnson had just realised a childhood dream along with his great mate Sam Freedman, having selected and purchased Warning as a yearling and remained in the ownership with a bunch of friends. They were understandably keen to mark the occasion of a Victoria Derby win with a celebration but in the back of Johnson’s mind was finding the next Group 1 winner.

Will Johnson (left) with Postponed (Ire)

“When Postponed won the Coronation Cup, I was in the car with Roger and having won a Group 1 on Epsom Derby day, you’d think you’d let your hair down. I just remember how hungry he was for more success,” Johnson told TDN AusNZ.

“It wasn’t about going out and having a big night, it was about how we can improve. It was about the other horses on the day and what we could have done better.

“As much fun as I had on Saturday night, I was thinking this is great, but you are only as good as your last horse. Straight away you need to find another one. I felt a bit like Roger, in that today was great, but it’s about tomorrow.”

“I was thinking this is great, but you are only as good as your last horse.” – Will Johnson

The advice is particularly sage for Johnson at this stage of his career. He returned to Australia just six weeks ago having spent two years working for Hubie de Burgh, having previously spent two years working as an assistant trainer to Varian.

Johnson is in the process of setting up a bloodstock consultancy in his own right, a next chapter of his career.

Gallery: the winning connections of Warning celebrate

“I’m in the process of setting up my own business now and I’m looking forward to the yearling sales in the coming months,” he said. “I’m just in the process of setting up the business and the website and all the branding.”

The timing of Warning’s success could not have been better in that regard.

Johnson has sourced Group 1 winners for clients all around the world in his time with de Burgh Equine and handled some champions of the turf when working for Varian, including as travelling foreman with Postponed (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) when he won the Sheema Classic in Dubai. But success on arguably Australia’s greatest day of racing puts him on the forefront of minds of potential clients ahead of next year’s yearling sales season.

Will with the de Burgh Equine team

Realising a childhood dream

It also fulfilled a dream he has had since he was a kid watching Derby Day on TV as his parents Tim and Lisa, then running Ealing Park, headed off to the races and left him in the care of his grandmother.

“I used to watch the races with my sister and I always wanted to either own or train a Victoria Derby winner at some stage and to have done it with a close group of friends and especially Sam Freedman, who I worked with and went to school with, was very exciting and a lot of fun,” he said.

“I always wanted to either own or train a Victoria Derby winner… and to have done it with a close group of friends… was very exciting and a lot of fun.” – Will Johnson

To say Will was born into thoroughbred racing is probably an understatement. His great-grand father Walter had first been involved in breeding in the 1930s and in 1966 bred the champion Vain (Wilkes {Fr}). The maternal line was just as strong with his grandmother Mary descending from the famous family of WS Cox.

“I grew up on Ealing Park, which was my grandparents’ stud. My great grandfather had bred Vain and when you grow up with a Golden Slipper on the mantelpiece, you just get the sense of how great it would be to win a race like that,” he said.

Will and Ben Hayes

“When I went to boarding school, Ben Hayes was the year above me and I used to go in with him on a Saturday morning and watch trackwork, and I used to get a really big kick out of that.

“I worked with Lindsay Park and then Robert Smerdon, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Henry Dwyer would pick me up for work and I started out by mucking out and riding trackwork, more or less thinking I’d like to be a trainer.”

“I started out by mucking out and riding trackwork, more or less thinking I’d like to be a trainer.” – Will Johnson

What had been a bit of a side interest to earn some ‘extra drinking money’ while he completed his marketing degree at Monash University, then became a serious career option.

It was a dinner at a Chinese restaurant in 2014 with David Eustace, then a travelling foreman for Varian, that proved the breakthrough moment. Two months later he was on a flight to England to work for Varian at Newmarket, graduating to assistant trainer and handling topline horses such as Belardo (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire}) and Postponed.

Will and David Eustace

From training to trading

Johnson’s time with Varian ended as his working visa expired for the United Kingdom but Hubie de Burgh, based in Ireland, was keen to give him a chance to show his aptitude in the bloodstock side of the business.

“I went from training horses to trading horses,” he said.

Hubie’s expert eye is renowned across the thoroughbred industry and Johnson had a rapid education in the game, working at yearling sales in Australia and Europe as well as in the private sales space where he was dealing mainly with fillies and mares, with a strong client base in Japan.

Hubie de Burgh and Will

It was in that capacity that he and Freedman, who had both attended Melbourne Grammar and had strengthened their friendship when Johnson secured a job for Freedman at Varian’s Newmarket stables, came together to buy a yearling in 2018.

“We had tried to buy a horse at the Melbourne Inglis Sale and we were outbid on a couple and we turned our attention to Adelaide,” he said.

“Mill Park has a record that is second-to-none in terms of producing stakes horses and Harry Perks as a breeder is very astute particularly with horses by shuttle stallions.”

Warning as a yearling

Buying a Derby winner

Lot 101 from Mill Park’s draft and bred by Perks, was a colt by Declaration Of War (USA), the son of War Front (USA) who had shuttled for two seasons to Coolmore in Australia, out of a Galileo (Ire) mare called Livia.

“Working in Europe, I had noticed that War Front across Galileo was looking quite strong given Coolmore and John Magnier’s influence,” Johnson said.

“Funnily enough Euan White bred Livia and that whole family for a couple of generations back and they were all based at Ealing Park. So I grew up with a few of those mares on the farm.”

Declaration Of War (USA), sire of Warning

Sam’s dad, Anthony, also liked the colt and saw the potential if he was given time and signed off on the decision to bid for him.

“He was a little more backward and not the colonial speed type. But Sam and I from the outset were trying to find a horse that was potentially tradable to Hong Kong, that had a bit of size and strength that would be more of a 3-year-old than a 2-year-old,” Johnson said.

That was pretty much the message to the group of friends who got into the horse having paid $65,000 for him.

“To go from that to a Derby winner was very special.”

Johnson is still not sure that Warning is a horse that is a natural stayer and his dominant performance on Saturday was as much a tribute to the Freedmans’ conditioning and an outstanding ride from Damien Oliver.

Warning returns to scale as Sam Freedman gives Damien Oliver a high five

The next Group 1 winner?

Warning is the only horse Johnson and Sam Freedman have purchased at the yearling sales but he expects after Saturday’s success, there will be a few more join the club.

“I hope we can go to the yearling sales next year and put a few more syndicates together of mates from school and the wider friendship group,” he said.

“I hope we can go to the yearling sales next year and put a few more syndicates together.” – Will Johnson

And Johnson is not yet finished with Cup week with unbeaten filly The Mobot (Uncle Mo {USA}), purchased for $50,000 at the 2018 Melbourne Premier Sale, to contest the G3 Red Roses S. on Thursday.

She was purchased with and is trained by good friend Eustace as well as his training partner Ciaron Maher, and has won her four starts to date for another large syndicate.