Solana Beach 90-year-old’s passion for racing stronger than ever
By Julie H. Sarno
ContributorSolana Beach resident Doris Johnson’s first race track experience occurred when she was a child.
“My father was a veterinarian,” began Johnson, 90. “He brought me to old Tanforan (a track in the San Francisco Bay area) when I was 4. I thought I wanted to be a vet, too.”
While Johnson was in high school, the educational requirements for veterinary certification changed, requiring significantly more schooling. More interested in the horses and being around the racetrack than in years of education, Johnson went to work at Bay Meadows.
“When I was 17,” she recalled, “I started to work at Bay Meadows as a bet runner (then called a messenger).”
A few years later and still a Bay Meadows employee, Johnson was voted Miss Bay Meadows. She married trainer K.L. “Tex” Johnson in July of 1941. Their marriage had passed the 50-year mark when Johnson passed away 15 years ago.
“Tex made the living and I continued to work at Bay Meadows” said Johnson. “I spent the money I earned on horses and Bay Meadows stock. All you had to do to be successful in those days was work hard.”
Johnson worked for Bay Meadows for 49 years and later served as a board member. She divided her time between her San Carlos home and Solana Beach for more than three decades, before settling year-round locally three years ago.
Johnson’s enthusiasm, energy and zest for life make her seem much younger than her years. She is looking forward to the Del Mar race meet, a chance to race her horses. Currently, Johnson has several Thoroughbreds, all ready to race, all with trainer Sean McCarthy. They are 3-year-old Invincible, 4-year-old Lodi Red, and 2-year-olds Three Blondes and Joyzey Billy.
She owns Lodi Red in partnership with California Horse Racing board member and prominent owner and breeder John Harris of Harris Farms. Joyzey Billy is owned in partnership with longtime Bay Meadows track executive Bob Gunderson. Joyzey Billy finished third in the Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes on June 12 at Hollywood Park. His next planned start is the Graduation Stakes on Aug. 3 at Del Mar. Trainer Cliff Sise selected the colt and bought him, as agent, for $20,000 at the “Barretts Equine Limited Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training” in May.
“Bob (Gunderson) is the only person I know who is older than I am,” quipped Johnson. “He’s 93. Bob comes down for the summer. He has a house in Solana Beach. He said, ‘Let’s get a horse to race this summer.’ So we bought Joyzey Billy.”
Johnson is longtime friends with Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President and General Manager Joe Harper and his wife, Barbara. Johnson’s late husband trained for Joe’s mother, the late Cecilia deMille Harper among others. “Tex” also trained for Dick and Linda Laird, another local couple who race horses.
“My daughter’s name is Jerrylee,” said Johnson, of her daughter who lives in the Sacramento area. “Most people name their horses after their children. I named my daughter after my favorite horse at the time.”
Johnson says she has lived a charmed life other than the death of her son, Michael, years ago at age 19. Her best horse to date is Theresa’s Tizzy.
“Theresa’s Tizzy was the first horse I claimed (in 1998 at age 4). She earned $500,000 for us and we sold her for $500,000,” said Johnson. Trained by Noble Threewitt, Theresa’s Tizzy won the Rancho Bernardo Handicap (G3) at Del Mar in 2000. Racing for Johnson and three partners, the gray daughter of Cee’s Tizzy compiled a lifetime record of 15 wins from 35 starts.
Johnson had great regard for Threewitt who retired from training in 2007 and passed away last year at age 99. She spoke at the 2004 ceremony renaming the Santa Anita backstretch medical facility the Noble Threewitt Health Center, in honor of the trainer who had done so much for stable workers and their families.
“I’ll always have a horse,” enthused Johnson. “I’ve never had a losing year in the business.”