All along, Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson hoped he wouldn’t have a chance to be in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, sipping mint juleps and watching the Kentucky Derby in person.
— THIS STORY WAS UPDATED FRIDAY —-
That would have meant the Avalanche already had been eliminated from the playoffs.
But for a while, it seemed there was a decent chance that wherever Johnson was on May 7 during an Avalanche playoff run, a 3-year-old colt he co-owns would be among the 20 horses in the Derby field.
The colt’s name is Mackinnon. (Yes, lower case “k”.)
Mackinnon, a son of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, finished second to the Bob Baffert-trained Blackadder in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, California Saturday. That’s Goden Gate Fields’ biggest race, and Blackadder and Mackinnon were the two major horses that “shipped” in for the race rather than spent the meeting at the Berkeley track. (Video here. Story here.) Mackinnon was the 3-5 favorite.
Johnson’s colt moved up to 18th in points awarded in races designated as Road to the Kentucky Derby events — in essence, qualifiers. A field of 20 horses is the max for America’s most famous and storied race.
Generally, and especially in the current period of microphone-and- table group interviews rather than casual one-on-one conversations in open locker rooms, Johnson is reluctant (at best) to talk about horse racing during the hockey season.
However, through Avalanche vice president Brendan McNicholas on Friday in Buffalo, Johnson confirmed he and his partners no longer plan or hope to run MacKinnon in the Kentucky Derby.
That’s too bad. But campaigns for top 3-year-olds don’t automatically have to include the Derby and there are two more months of Road to the Kentucky Derby races.
Here are the latest Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, in order of non-restricted stakes earnings. Mackinnon has 5 points and $296,000 in those earnings.
For his career, Mackinnon has 8 starts, 3 firsts, 2 seconds, and 1 third, and a total of $353,860 in earnings.
That includes his mostly promising 2-year-old campaign, when he had 3 of those wins in 6 starts. In the most prestigious race, Mackinnon was third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf on November 5 at Del Mar.
As a 3-year-old in 2022, he was fourth in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on New Year’s Day before the runner-up finish in the El Camino Real Derby.
Johnson’s ERJ Racing shares ownership in Mackinnon with Madaket Stables and Dave Kenney. Their trainer is Doug O’Neill, whose brother, Dennis, is the bloodstock agent who picks out horses for his brother, plus Johnson and many others.
What’s next? My bet’s on Makar.
Here is the schedule of the Road to the Kentucky Derby races. including those already run and those coming up. As you can see if you click, there are 17 remaining points opportunities, through the Lexington at Keeneland on April 16. I won’t pretend to know all the fine print involved in the qualifying, but it seemed as the week started that Mackinnon had a legitimate chance of ending up high enough to make the Derby field. It seems safe to say no horse will run in more than one or perhaps two of those races in the next two months. But sitting completely idle and/or not adding points might rule out a horse getting into the Derby field.
I’ve written many times over the years about Johnson and his thoroughbred ownership.
Raised in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, he first sampled horse racing at Canterbury Park southwest of Minneapolis. “I went a handful of times,” he told me. “You just put the $2 win bets on the 20-1 shot and it’s kind of fun.”
From there, he mainly followed the Triple Crown races as a fan and then attended opening day of the Del Mar meeting, near San Diego, when he was a high school student.
“I was kind of in awe at how big of a spectacle it was,” he said in 2016. “I followed it casually since and I’d say in the last year and a half, I got into it on the ownership side and I’ve really, really enjoyed it.”
At one point, Johnson and former NHL player, coach and broadcaster Ed Olczyk were partners in the ownership of a gelding named Bourque.
“Hockey is priority No. 1,” Johnson told me in August 2016, when one of his early horses, Crosscheck Carlos, came in from Del Mar to run in Arapahoe Park’s richest race, the Gold Rush Futurity. “Just like people like to play golf on weekends, I like to watch my horses race.”
Here’s what he said when I asked him about Mackinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog — the horses — during this season’s training camp: “I have a couple here and there over the last few years. I kind of have fun with the guys. It’s just kind of fun to get them involved. I don’t know about Triple Crown for Mackinnon, but he’s a pretty good one.”
And how did he end up co-owning the son of a Triple Crown winner?
“There’s a lot of different things that behind the scenes the average person doesn’t know,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of different auctions, and I acquired him at an auction with some friends. They come unnamed and then you name them and the rest is history.”
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here