Winning three races in two days at Tampa Bay Downs – two on Saturday – probably pales in comparison. But for Collins, the opportunity to get the most from a horse has always been what the sport of Thoroughbred racing is all about.
Miesque’s Approval stands as the best example of Collins’s skill and perception.
After finishing sixth in a turf claiming event at Aqueduct in the fall of 2005, Miesque’s Approval was shipped back to owner Charlotte Weber’s Ocala showcase, ostensibly for retirement. But Collins, at the time the farm trainer for Live Oak Stud, believed the horse had plenty of racing potential left.
Collins called in an acupuncturist, put a magnetic blanket on Miesque’s Approval, had him reshod and patiently helped him feel good about competing again.
“There was a lot going wrong with him in the hind end and shoulders, and I saw some things that needed to be done to help him,” Collins recalled. “In the end, (Mrs. Weber) trusted me, and he went on to win the Sunshine Millions Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Mile (at Churchill Downs).”
Collins, 56, left Live Oak three years ago to go out on his own and is training about 18 Thoroughbreds from his base at Nelson Jones Farm and Training Center in Ocala. He has won three races from four starters the past two days at Tampa Bay Downs, going 2-for-2 on Saturday’s card.
Collins won the second race, a 5 ½-furlong maiden claiming event, with 4-year-old filly Stripe E for owner Leopoldo Ortega. Huber Villa-Gomez was the jockey. In the fourth race, Augusto Marin rode the Collins-trained mare Zippin Along to victory for owner Antonio Alvarez in a five-furlong claiming race.
On Friday’s card, Collins won the fifth race, a six-furlong maiden claiming race, with 3-year-old Coolyourpipes for owner Robdale Farm. “That horse is going to get stronger and be a better horse down the road,” Collins predicted.
Collins was a jockey for about nine years, primarily in Louisiana, and rode Quarter Horses in the mid-1970s when Pompano Park held a Quarter Horse permit. He has been involved in racing as a jockey, exercise rider and trainer for 36 years. He lives in Ocala with his wife of 34 years, Myra.
Collins, who also breaks young horses for Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jane Cibelli, learned his horsemanship in Meridian, Miss. from the late Bill Dardon, a neighbor and horseman who adopted Collins when he was 9.
“My parents weren’t able to give me everything I needed, and Bill Dardon helped me understand things and taught me how to get the best out of a horse. I can’t thank him enough for the education he gave me in the horse business,” Collins said.
Collins has broken dozens of outstanding horses in his career, the majority for Live Oak, and holds what may be a unique distinction. He broke three of the 20 starters in the 2005 Kentucky Derby – High Fly, Noble Causeway and Sun King (that year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner). He also broke 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara.
Collins, who still rides every day and is able to feel what his horses feel, hopes to start more horses at Tampa Bay Downs and looks forward to the opportunity to again work with the likes of Miesque’s Approval.
That is every horseman’s dream, of course, but Collins is confident he’ll know what to do when the chance comes again.
“I had a lot of great years dealing with some great trainers, people I have the utmost respect for,” he said. “I’ve sent some horses to Jane Cibelli at Tampa Bay Downs, and she is doing a great job. You’ve got to take a chance when your horse is doing good, but you have to run them where they fit and be aware of what’s going on. I always try to do what is best for the horse.”
So, for those fans who were wondering – yes, it’s that Johnny Collins.
Dannhauser, a 4-year-old colt owned by Vision Racing LLC and trained by Kathleen O’Connell, and Anime, a 4-year-old filly owned by Robert Gerczak and trained by Carlos Garcia, won the allowance co-features Saturday on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs.
Dannhauser won by three lengths from favorite Ultimate X. under a well-timed, come-from-behind ride by Scott Spieth. He paid $9.20. In an oddity, there were dead-heats for both sixth and eighth places.
Anime grabbed the lead at the top of the stretch and rolled to a 3 ½-length victory from Par Lady under Jesse Garcia. She paid $6.60.