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Phil Johnson, 78; Hall of Fame horse trainer

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Hall of Fame trainer Phil Johnson, who won the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic with long shot Volponi, died yesterday. He was 78.

Mr. Johnson, who was treated for throat cancer for several years, died at his home in Rockville Centre, N.Y., his family said.

He bred, owned, and trained Volponi, who won the $4 million BC Classic at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill., at odds of 43-1. It was the biggest win of Mr. Johnson's 60-plus year training career.

''He was a great man and an established institution in New York," veteran jockey Richard Migliore said yesterday, standing a few yards away from Mr. Johnson's barn at Saratoga Race Course. ''We're all going to miss his wit and wisdom."

Mr. Johnson, born in Chicago, broke into racing in 1942, when he bought a horse named Song Master for $75 at an auction. Two years later, the horse gave Mr. Johnson his first winner.

Among the top horses trained by Mr. Johnson, who oversaw the family-run Amherst Stable, were Quiet Little Table, who upset the great Forego in the 1977 Suburban Handicap, Kiri's Clown, Maplejinsky, Match the Hatch, Naskra, Nasty and Bold, and Volponi.

Mr. Johnson won training titles at all three New York tracks during his career -- four times at Belmont, three at Aqueduct, and once at Saratoga.

Last year, Mr. Johnson's horses won 20 of 166 starts, with 22 seconds and 26 thirds for earnings of $1,376,268. He had 11 winners from 76 starters this year. His promising 2-year-old colt, Port Chester, finished fifth as the betting favorite in Friday's fourth race at Saratoga.

Mr. Johnson, also known as ''P.G.," was elected to racing's Hall of Fame in 1997.

Mr. Johnson had a reputation for being tough on his jockeys. He replaced Jose Santos, Volponi's regular rider, with Jerry Bailey after criticizing Santos for a poor ride in a second-place finish in last year's Whitney.

''He was brutal on jocks," retired rider Robbie Davis said. ''After the race, he wouldn't say anything, but that next morning, you'd go in there and he'd shake you up. He'd always keep you on your toes."

Mr. Johnson's wife of 59 years, Mary Kay, died earlier this year. Survivors include two daughters, Kathy and Karen, a reporter for the Daily Racing Form.

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