By Emily Shields
The adage goes, “How can you tell if a pilot is in the room? He’ll tell you.”
While JetBlue pilot Burton Johnson still enjoys his job, he has a new passion to discuss to anyone who will listen: horse racing. His favorite racing-related topic? Ultimate Eagle, his young stallion whose first foals are yearlings this season.
“I had no connection to horse racing,” Johnson said. “It’s the kind of sport where you are either born into it or you’re rich enough to get involved.”
A friend of Johnson’s urged him to visit the racetrack and mentioned meeting up with another friend, Santa Anita-based trainer Mike Pender.
“It turned out we already knew each other,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I went to kindergarten with that guy!’ Sure enough, around the corner comes the Mike Pender I knew.”
Johnson immediately took to the sport, falling madly in love and devouring all the information he could find. But when Pender asked why Johnson didn’t buy into a racehorse, Johnson replied, “I’m not a millionaire!”
“Next thing I knew, I bought a horse in Florida and was watching him race on TV,”Johnson recalled. “Then the next thing I knew after that was he got on an airplane headed back to California. I was trying to figure out how much that was going to cost me, and Pender kept saying it was no big deal.”
During his time in the Pender barn, racing under the banner Blackbird Racing, Johnson met Jay Wright and his father, horse owner B.J. Wright. With Pender as conditioner, the elder Wright campaigned such stars as $1,525,364-earner Jeranimo and Ultimate Eagle.
Ultimate Eagle took four tries to break his maiden, but after that the son of Mizzen Mast—Letithappencaptain, by Captain Bodgit, could do little wrong. He went on a flashy four-race winning streak, first breaking his maiden by a head over older horses on the grass at Del Mar, and then adding an allowance optional claiming event by two lengths five weeks later.
Despite that form Ultimate Eagle was dismissed at 34-1 in his stakes debut, the $150,000 Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT). He won by a half-length, defeating rivals such as grade I winner Midnight Interlude. Bettors considered the effort a fluke, as Ultimate Eagle was 14-1 when he won the $250,000 Hollywood Derby (gr. IT). Ultimate Eagle ran one final time in 2011, finishing third in the $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Park.
A brilliant 71⁄4-length victory in the $200,000 Strub Stakes (gr. II) on dirt proved convincing that Ultimate Eagle could handle either surface.
He was sent off as the favorite in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) but ran uncharacteristically poorly and was laid up for most of the season. After two more grade I placings,
Ultimate Eagle was retired with five wins, two seconds, and three thirds in 13 starts. He earned $547,800.
With wins on two surfaces, at numerous distances, and with a strong dam side, Ultimate Eagle looked to be an exceptional stallion prospect. The dam, Letithappencaptain, won four stakes races in Texas and Louisiana, and also produced Canadian stakes winner Wayman, by Songandaprayer.
“B.J. Wright had a lot of nice horses,” Johnson said, “but the only one he ever wanted to stand was Ultimate Eagle.”
When Wright passed in 2014, Ultimate Eagle needed a new owner.
“Wright took us to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’Cup,” Johnson said. “He really took me under his wing. I thought there was no way I would ever own a horse like Ultimate Eagle, but (Wright’s son) Jay called me up and asked just how much I loved racing. I really loved it. He said I should meet him and he would make me a deal. He made Ultimate Eagle affordable for me.”
Ultimate Eagle bred 50 mares in his first season and 53 in his second.
“He’s 17 hands—a huge, intimidating, but well-balanced individual,”Johnson said. “People think he’s a turf horse because he’s by Mizzen Mast, but he scored a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure on dirt while defeating future Breeders’ Cup winner in Tapizar by 103⁄4 lengths.”
Ultimate Eagle stands at Special T Thoroughbreds in Temecula for $3,500.
Johnson has also been lucky in acquiring mares. He bought a broodmare by Touch Gold named Retouched in foal to Lucky Pulpit an hour before that sire’s best son, California Chrome, won the 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
He was able to pick up two mares from Wright’s dispersal—the stakes-placed mare Easy Obsession and Spanish Halo, dam of $1,016,466-earning Cal-bred Halo Dolly. Another of Johnson’s mares, the winning Wildcat Heir daughter Jetbird, is a half sister to recent impressive Mr. Prospector Stakes (gr. III) winner X Y Jet.
“So far everything is just turning out well,” Johnson said. “This is such a neat, unique business, and I’ll take this luck as long as I can get it.”
Johnson currently owns six horses, including his Lucky Pulpit colt out of Retouched that he named Corn Chip.
“What about Seabiscuit? Why not Corn Chip?” he joked.
Retouched, Spanish Halo, and Easy Obsession are all in foal to Ultimate Eagle for 2016, and are booked back to him.
“It’s been baptism by fire, for sure,” Johnson said. “Some people think when you’re an airline pilot, you can’t know anything about horses. They’re probably right, but I’m catching up quickly. There was so much I didn’t know, but I’ve bought every book I can get my hands on and read them cover to cover.”
Johnson’s girlfriend of six years, Kelly Cassidy, has been diving in alongside.
“She’s been so supportive,” Johnson said. “She might be more into it than I am!”
Johnson credits the kindness of many racetrack workers and horsemen as what led him to love the sport.
“I’ve never met so many nice people working in one place as Santa Anita,” he said. “Now I’ve brought other people into the sport. I’m still an outsider, a small fish in such a huge pond of a lot of people with a lot more money. This is a crazy business, but so far the luck is going my way.”