Despite profound changes in his life, Mark Johnston is fundamentally the same. He still loves horses, the racetrack, winning and camaraderie. In his past, Johnston enjoyed those experiences as a jockey who won 3,085 races and the 1990 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice. These days from his Paris, Ky., base, he gains similar satisfaction using his truck and trailer to transport runners to their races primarily for trainer Dane Kobiskie and PTK stable.
“I feel like I am part of the PTK team,” Johnston said. “I know all of their horses and their people. We have fun. When they win, I feel like I have won, too. I still get that rush.”
Growing up in Lexington, Johnston got his first taste of the Thoroughbred world by attending the Keeneland races with his mother. A family acquaintance invited him to the barn area, where he found his way to trainer Lee McKinney. She agreed to teach the young teenager how to be a jockey in exchange for doing barn chores without pay. Johnston vividly recalls his initial experience trotting a racehorse in the barn a few days later.
“I felt like I was flying,” he said. “I knew that was where I belonged.”
With only limited past riding experience, Johnston soon graduated to galloping on the track and honed the skills that would propel his career.
“When I won the Eclipse Award, Lee was one of the people I took with me to the ceremony,” he said. “Things might have been really different if I hadn't met Lee.”
At 18, Johnston obtained his first mount and to everyone's surprise, the mare Simple Flair was victorious on May 1, 1989 at Churchill Downs. A steady stream of winners followed. By year's end, he opted to relocate to Maryland, where the region known as a proving ground for potential stars was ready to welcome another young talent.
Johnston was soon guiding winners for eventual Hall of Famer King Leatherbury and ended 1990 as the nation's leading apprentice by wins and earnings. His overall stats, including those without his apprentice allowance, placed him fourth in the nation in the win category. After that championship season, Johnston maintained his place as a nationally ranked jockey in Maryland. He left for a brief stint in Southern California in 2003, then dispatched himself back to Kentucky while struggling to keep his weight down on his nearly 5' 10” frame.
“Fighting my weight was a battle every day,” he said. “It doesn't just affect you physically. It is mentally draining and it starts to take its toll on relationships and your whole life.”
Turning point at Turfway Park
February 4, 2004 began as an ordinary day but became a turning point for Johnston that night at Turfway Park when he and his friend Michael Rowland were involved in a three-horse spill. Rowland died from his injuries five days later and Johnston suffered a severe concussion and broken shoulder.
Johnston returned to competitive riding three months later but soon retired. On May 19, 2004, he closed his career where it began at Churchill Downs and focused on being an exercise rider and assistant to Rowland's widow Tammy.
“I finally accepted the fact that race riding was detrimental to my health,” he said. “It was hard to grasp.”
The two eventually married. Tammy saddled her last starter in 2014, returned to school and now works at a family medical facility in Lexington. They have a blended family of two children and six grandchildren.
“We always talk about Michael and we have never forgotten him,” Johnston said. “We were really good friends going back to my Maryland days. We like talking about him and keeping his memory alive.”
The couple has a few horses on their farm and occasionally they go trail riding. But at 180 pounds, Johnston's jockey days are in the rear-view mirror.
“Tammy and I are proud of me being a jockey but I ask her not to tell people,” he said. “When she does, they look at her like she is nuts. We have gotten some pretty strange looks. If I could make the weight, I would ride races. It is who I am. It was hard to accept that that part of my life is behind me. As time has gone on, it has gotten easier.”
Staying involved via his transportation business has filled some of the void.
“I am still part of the game,” he said. “It might not be exactly what I want, but it is enough. Life is about being happy with what you got. But it is not always easy.”
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