The Riverina region of interior New South Wales is steeped in legends of horses and horsemen both Thoroughbred and Standardbred,
Today,we will look at one of the iconic Standardbred breeding families ( human ) from a little area known as The Rock, located approximately 35kms south of Wagga Wagga, the base of the Johnson family, and endeavour to tell their story.
But first of all, a little background.
The Johnsons have never been a client of Premier Pedigrees, preferring to do their "own thing" when it comes to standardbred matings and what a good fist they have made of it too, something we deeply respect.
Time and time againwhen perusing through the weekly results of harness races across the breadth of Australia we have seen their name crop up as the breeders of regular winners, sometimes on multiple occasions.
It was therefore pure coincidence that at the New Zealand National Standardbred Weanling Sale held in late May 2023 that I was to get the opportunity to meet the members of this highly successful and rightfully proud and always humble breeding dynasty.
Primarily, I had attended this Sale to meet an existing client's parents, the highly successful and well known Western Australian standardbred participants Kevin and Annette Charles, parents of Kody Charles aka KTC Bloodstock.
It was whilst sitting beside the Charles' on pre-Sale inspection day that I heard a lot of jovial noise coming from three blokes of similar age on the seats adjacent to us carrying an unmistaken Australian banter. They were truly enjoying themselves with obvious fun and frivolity.
I asked Kevin and Annette if they knew them, something which soon became patently obvious.
They were the three Johnson brothers from "The Rock", Ian, Gary and Stephen.
Not wanting to interrupt them in the middle of weanling inspections I was to find the appropriate opportunity later in the day to introduce myself on a quiet corner between stable blocks.
It was like talking with both a current client but also a long lost client all wrapped in one. But they were neither.Probably the easiest most welcoming "cold call" I have ever made.
I got to meet three "brothers in arms", in age order Ian, Gary and Stephen, all sons of the highly respected family patriarch, Les ( Leslie ). Nicer blokes you could not meet and with a noticeably strong bond.
Funnily enough, going back to 2005 when I became a new fresh-faced Nominations Manager ( then referred to as a Booking Agent ) for the Supreme Stallions one of my first tasks was to sit in front of John Curtin ( Joe Muscara's New Zealand Agent ) and work through the dossier of Australasian breeding clients that I could contact for potential bookings.
I vividly recall there were two client's on that list that John said for me not to contact as he would handle them. One was New Zealand based and one Australian based.
The Australian based client was none other than Les Johnson whilst the New Zealand based client was John McKenzie who had recent success at the NZ Cup carnival as the owner/breeder of Group 1 2YO Dunstan Horsefeeds Sires' Series Final winner Our Shangri Lana. John was also the breeder of one of last year's NZ Cup pre-post favourites in Rock N Roll Doo.
To this day I remain intrigued if the prime reason for this was the introduction of notable first season sire Mach Three and the potential for multiple bookings to himor merely the fact that John acted as their Sales Agent in another capacity especially with selling "up and going" horses into the robust North American market.
This was the Johnson's first trip to New Zealand and one could not help getting the feeling it was like a first adventure.
Staying at the Double Tree by Hilton Karaka located in the grounds of the NZB Sales complex one could only smile at their yarns of experiencing $14 glasses of beer and at "going across the road" to the local Z Service Station to buy a pie each for dinner on their first night in such salubrious surroundings. One could easily have found them sleeping outside on the grass ( snake free ) on their first night such was their introduction to the "cost of living crisis" occuring in New Zealand.
But like all good champions, they soon adjusted.
We chatted for what seemed like an eternity going through the good horses the family had bred and their current band of broodmares all of which I did not have time to keep up in jotting down there and then but the upshot was we exchanged email addresses and there and then I stated that I would write an article about them for my website.
So her we are more than 6 months later and it has actually come to fruition.
The fact this has not happened earlier is purely because our meeting coincided with the beginning of my busy time of the year through to Labour Weekend and "paying work" simply has to take priority.
In the interim months two wonderful things did occur and I am grateful to the Johnson family for sharing these. Stephen sent me a full briefing via email of their family life and developments from early days to current times including their vast breeding enterprises as well as something very special and of great trust, a full copy of the recent Eulogy to their recently passed father Les.
Of the latter I am greatly indebted knowing how this can be a very private and also individually personal matter. Such is their great trust and integrity and I deeply respect this.
A rather long-winded background introduction nevertheless an entree that needed to be told before we get into their great family journey and involvement with breeding standardbred horses.
So here we go and I do trust it does not turn into a three part epic monster as with our thoroughbred story on leviathan West Australian breeder/owner Bob Peters.
The Johnson story commences with their father and family patriarch Leslie or Les as he was mostly called.
Les was born and raised in Leeton on his parents rice farm at Murrami. Times were tough back then and as a side hustle he would pluck the wool from dead sheep and take it to the local Leeton wool buyer. Demonstrating true Australian swagger, he once placed some rocks in the woolsack to promote the weight albeit somewhat unsuccessfully.
One of life's lessons learnt at a very early stage.
Les was to marry Rhonda ( nee Tuckett ) in March 1969 in Leeton and very early on the newly weds had the good fortune and associated luck entering and winning a ballot draw in 1970 for a parcel of land at Coleambally which had just been established with irrigation canals from the Murrumbidgee River.
But it did not come without great sacrifice.
Missing were the ready comforts previously enjoyed such as electricity, hot water, and most of all a house, the couple moving into an old shed without power. For Rhonda to cook or boil water it was a case of lighting the wood fuel stove each time. Sometimes it was a struggle to get the stove lit and Rhonda was often heard vowing to move back to Leeton.
The shed floor resembled a mouse carpet at times, especially during mouse plagues, Rhonda's hair being chewed by mice as she slept at night and baby Ian's cot having to stand in buckets of water to prevent mice from joining him while he slept at nights.
The blank canvas of their initial Coleambally farm was transformed by Les into an operating farm growing rice and producing sheep and cattle and laying the base for his own family.
It also paved the way for progression as they were able to move closer to Coleambally township to Farm 78 where they continued growing rice, running sheep and cattle and dabbling in the formative stage of breeding a few horses.
Just digressing for a moment here, early in 2023 I was watching a television programme entitled "Who Do You Think You Are?", a DNA series featuring Australian actor Simon Baker best known for his roles in The Mentalist and The Guardian. It traced his maternal descendancy through the Jenkins family and the legacy of his three times great grandfather and the courage and fortitude of his maternal ancestors from their prominent endeavours in Tasmania through to quieter times back on the mainland where I am pretty sure the Jenkins also landed upon an allotted farm at Coleambally where he died but not before siring 6 children, his wife remaining on the farm widowed and raising all children by herself.
After living in Coleambally for nearly 20 years during which time Gary and Stephen were also born, at the end of 1989 Les and Rhonda packed up the family and moved to Queensland to a 75 acre property about 10kms south of Ipswich where they were to reside for a handful of years before returning to New South Wales and "The Rock" in 1995.
It was during their time near Ipswich that Les was to make his first real mark in the Standardbred industry and one which would leave an indelible imprint on his three sons in particular.
With just a couple of mares, from his mare Karina Poplar he bred Golden Reign.
Sold as a yearling for just $8000, Golden Reign would go on to change the lives of Noel Alexander, Jayne Davies and Chris Alford, winning the 1995 Inter-Dominion Final in Christchurch in epic fashion. Also a winner of the 1993 Victoria Derby, Golden Reign would go on to win 28 of his 62 starts and amass $1,186,022 in lifetime earnings.
Les had bred a million dollar pacer and his three sons were hooked and left challenged to one day emulate his great achievement.
Moving from Ipswich back to New South Wales in 1995 saw Les and Rhonda purchase a more substantial landholding at The Rock, south of the Riverina "town" of Wagga Wagga.
"Atworthy" as the property was already known eventually morphed into Atworthy Park as Les Johnson was to become a prolific standardbred horse breeder no doubt spurred on by the great feats of one horse, Golden Reign ( by What's Next ).
His passion for horse breeding became thirst quenching driving Rhonda to the point of near insanity.
Les religiously read the Black Stud Book at the end of the kitchen table and had the ability to remember what mare bred what. This he instilled into eldest son Ian and they would have many battles about what bred what and what was that out of.
With Atworthy being a substantial landholding of some 650 acres and the evolving interest of two younger sons in Gary and Stephen ( the latter not to be confused with leviathan Perth based standardbred breeder Steve Johnson who bred the 39 race winner David Hercules ) Les began creating a legacy that all three of his sons would view as a future challenge.
In the years since the family acquisition of Atworthy the standardbred broodmare band wavered in number from around 5 mares up to about 14 mares with multiple winners produced and although nothing of the calibre of Golden Reign, one particular filly bred was to provide huge thrills in more recent times.
Her name is Maajida ( by Somebeachsomewhere ) and she carries her own intriguing story.
Bred in 2016 from "the boys" favourite broodmare Arterial Way ( Art Major ) she was passed-in at the 2018 Melbourne Yearling Sales failing to reach her $25,000 reserve tag.
Returning home, Les wanted nothing to do with her and opted out, "the boys" stating that he was welcome to come back in if he was to change his mind.
"The boys" got her broken in and put into training.
At a subsequent Sydney Yearling Sale which Les attended he asked Clayton Tonkin "how that Somebeachsomewhere filly was shaping up?". "I love her" came Tonkin's reply.
Back on the farm a couple of days later "I'm back in on that filly" came Les's remark to his sons, the boys wondering what had caused him to change his mind. But most welcome he was.
The rest is history as they say.
Maajida was to win no fewer than 5 Group 1 races including the 2YO Breeders Crown Final and later to create her own little piece of Australian standardbred history by becoming the first filly/mare to win the Vicbred Super Series titles at two, three and four years of age, winning 24 of her 44 starts before being retired ahead of the 2022 breeding season.
Maajida retired as the richest daughter of her sire Somebeachsomewhere with earnings of $684,518 and a 1:50.3 mile credit to her name.
Her racetrack feats crowned 50 years of breeding for Les Johnson and her life-changing accomplishments came at a time when the family's patriarch had a sudden downturn in health ultimately succumbing in May 2021.
"The boys" were so proud their father changed his mind and opted to come back into Maajida so the whole family could share in her success as she was always a "family" horse.
As a close knit family despite each of the three boys living and working in Wagga Wagga at their individual vocations or "day jobs" as they call it and with their own families, focus turned to the matriarch of the family, Rhonda.
This saw a substantial slice of Atworthy, some 500 acres, leased to a neighbouring farmer through to 2027 as a future income for their precious mother whilst 150 acres has been retained for Ian, Gary and Stephen to continue their standardbred breeding pursuits, Maajida now the mothership of their proud broodmare band no doubt usurping her own mother Arterial Way for pride of place on the mantlepiece.
The broodmare band normally around 8-10 mares has suddenly expanded in recent times, "the boys" estimating that about a dozen Group 1 wins have so far been produced by the family.
One quickly gains the impression that number will soon escalate given a quick peek at the list of current broodmares, who they are in foal to in 2022 and their planned matings in 2023.
Out of interest, here is a summarised list.
Mare ( and her sire ) In Foal To 2022 Planned Mating 2023
Arterial Way ( Art Major ) Huntsville Downbytheseaside
Bella Shine ( Bettor's Delight ) Sweet Lou Captain Crunch
Deldecree ( Mach Three ) Always B Miki Art Major
Habanero ( Rocknroll Hanover ) McWicked Stay Hungry
Jacquelyn Anne ( Bettor's Delight ) Captaintreacherous Sweet Lou
Maajida ( Somebeachsomewhere ) Bettor's Delight Bettor's Delight
Pippa Maguire ( Bettor's Delight ) Sweet Lou Always B Miki
Rinaaz ( Betting Line ) Sweet Lou Always B Miki
Sweet Maddison ( Sweet Lou ) Captaintreacherous Downbytheseaside
Two Times Bettor ( Bettor's Delight ) Downbytheseaside Sweet Lou
Weewah ( Bettor's Delight ) King Of Swing Downbytheseaside
Classic Rock ( Rocknroll Hanover ) ( Missed ) Poster Boy
Banglez ( Majestic Son ) Timoko King Of The North
Alanza ( Well Said ) - Stay Hungry
Larvotto Beach ( Somebeachsomewhere ) - Sweet Lou
Midnight Whisper ( Art Major ) - Captain Crunch
Current racing stock include the likes of Fiamma 2018 ( Bettor's Delight - Twice As Hot ), Zahra Lou 2020 ( Sweet Lou - Bella Shine ), an un-named 2021 Captaintreacherous - Arterial Way and an un-named 2021 Poster Boy - Deldecree.
Being all fillies there is no doubt that they will join the broodmare band at Atworthy Park in the years ahead.
There are no secrets in the fact that Atworthy Park Group has evolved as their new banner set to become an even greater force in Australian standardbred breeding.
And there are also no secrets either in each of the brothers' desire to set upon a path of breeding standardbreds commercially as a full-time occupation and as an escape from their current day jobs " working for somebody else"
Each of the three brothers currently work in Wagga Wagga.
Ian is a Parks & Gardens Supervisor at Charles Sturt University whilst Gary works as a Fitter & Turner at Dayco,
Steve, so often a spokesperson for the three brothers, is the youngest and works for the Wagga Wagga City Council ( a former employer also of Ian ) these days having formerly served for 16 years in the NSW Police Force.
Given the brothers focus of breeding from young mares who are commercial and being bred to commercial stallions one quickly gains the impression that the Johnson brothers have the right template to achieve their short term goals as well as a lifetime ambition continuing the legacy of the Johnson family as begun by patriarch Les some 50 years earlier.
A quote from Steve to me best sums up the reasons why they will go from strength to strength in their future standardbred breeding endeavours.
"Us boys don't look for recognition, but we strive to achieve success, no matter how big or little. Learning from Mum and Dad through hard physical work and challenging times has stood us in life to make the most out of everything whilst retaining our strong ( family ) bond."
Such a strong philosophy and sound basic ethics is also reflected in the adage " as you take out, so must you put back in" where the boys are immensely proud of becoming keys sponsors of their local Riverina Paceway.
All of the above qualities could quickly be gleaned in one brief half-hour meeting with them on foreign soil in May 2023. Even there and then you could see that Les and Rhonda had raised their three sons in the best possible manner and it is obvious they will be Industry role models as well as humble ambassadors for the Johnson family as raised by Rhonda and her late husband Les.
Footnote: More recently Steve got in touch to say his son Lachlan is coming into the Atworthy Park Group business to work with the horses so it is obvious that plans are beginning to be set in place for the next generation of the Johnson's as a Standardbred breeding dynasty.
Premier Pedigrees was born out of Ken Mackay's passion for horse pedigrees to offer a very affordable pedigree matching service and valuable recommendations to new and existing Australian and New Zealand clients for both thoroughbred and standardbred mares.