Seven lengths back at the three-eighths pole, the 4-year-old bay gelding named Popular Kid—by Popular, out of Lemon Supreme—began his dramatic comeback. It was July 18, opening day at Del Mar, an annual excuse for southern Californians to wear fancy suits and flowery hats while enjoying some mid-summer sunshine.
As the pack headed down the homestretch in the first race of the afternoon, Popular Kid swung wide and charged past one … two … all seven other colts, rallying from the rear and crossing the finish line with a comfortable victory.
The crowd of 40,000-plus fans cheered. And the part-owner, who had been watching his thoroughbred run on a television in the concourse, celebrated. “You would’ve thought Erik scored a hat trick,” says Doug O’Neill, trainer for Popular Kid. “He was going crazy.”
• POWER RANKINGS:Predators still above everyone else
That would be Erik Johnson, full-time workhorse defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche, small-time racehorse proprietor and commercial breeder for ERJ Racing, LLC. At the time he and three others held 25 percent stakes apiece in Popular Kid, whose trip to the winner’s circle netted $15,600 for them to split. Given that Johnson currently makes $6 million on the ice each year, he was clearly not hollering about securing the modest prize. “It’s a tough sport to make money in,” he explains. “But if you’re in it for the right reasons and you’re not heavily invested, it’s like paying dues at a country club. It’s my outlet away from hockey and my passion.”
Except Johnson isn’t just some shadow owner, cutting checks and passing the buck. Most teammates fill their leisure time with golf or Fortnite. The 30-year-old, meanwhile, hangs around the Del Mar stables each summer, watching his horses get brushed and saddled, every so often grabbing the shank and walking them himself.
He offers input on jockeys. Gets briefed on injuries. Mostly importantly, though, Johnson selects which stallions will breed with his mares based on how well their pedigrees match. One time he watched a mare give birth, but that was only on video recorded by his farm manager. Unfortunately, hockey and foaling season overlap.
Johnson first discovered horse racing as a high-schooler, buying grandstand tickets at that same Del Mar track while attending a family function in San Diego. Soon he became a semi-serious fan, frequenting Canterbury Park near his home outside Minneapolis, never missing the Triple Crown. Then Johnson decided to dive in further. He researched bloodstock agents, networked for business partnerships, solicited advice from an ex-high school teammate who had become the stallion manager of a successful farm in Lexington, Ky.
“The bug has bit him, that’s for sure.”
Paul Reddam would know. Raised in Windsor, Ontario, the businessman is a self-described “long-suffering” Red Wings diehard whose family kept season tickets at the old Olympia Stadium: third row, next to the face-off circle, the perfect spot for snagging pucks. As such, he has never hesitated to fuse fandom with his most successful enterprise: Witness the racehorses named Tatar, Kronwall, Mrazek and, most famously, 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.
Funny story about Nyquist. Several years ago, Reddam was approached by Dennis O’Neill—Doug’s brother—with a cryptic offer from “a hockey player” who wanted to buy into a horse named Bad Read Sanchez. When Reddam declined, a second offer was made: Whenever the Avalanche were in town, Reddam could visit the dressing room postgame and receive an autographed stick. Again, Reddam refused. “You tell that guy, if he’s changed his name to Pavel Datsyuk, I’d be interested,” he told Dennis O’Neill. “But no thanks.”
Reddam finally met his mysterious would-be buyer the following year, around the same time that Nyquist was rapidly emerging as a force on the juvenile circuit. Sensing another opportunity, Johnson tried again, asking whether Reddam would sell him a stake. It is impossible to forget how Reddam replied, mostly thanks to the horse that they later purchased at an auction together, forever named with those exact words: Sorry Erik.
“That was my joke on him,” says Reddam. As both business partners and golfing buddies now, they rag on each other a lot. “Lots of guys, if you partner with them on a horse, suddenly they think they’re the brains of the outfit,” Reddam says. “He’s fun.” Before signing his extension with Colorado in September 2015, Johnson insisted to Reddam that he would consider every NHL team in free agency except Detroit. Reddam, meanwhile, ribs Johnson for habitually slicing tee shots—How can you ever score from the blue line? You’d miss the net by 30 feet!—and always misplacing his dentures. This explains another co-owned venture of theirs, Toothless Wonder.
Turns out that hockey serves as solid inspiration for equine epithets. Three years ago Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie and NBC Sports broadcaster Eddie Olczyk partnered with Johnson on a colt called Bourque, which placed in its debut at Santa Anita Park but hasn’t performed better than fourth since. “Had a bad hip or something,” says Barrie. “Poor guy.” There has been Landeskog, after Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog; MacWinnon, after top-line thoroughbred Nathan MacKinnon; and Biz Nasty, for retired tough guy Paul Bissonnette. “Then we had Where’s The D, like where’s the defense?” Johnson says. “Crosscheck Carlos, that’s an old one. He broke his leg, so we had to retire him. Mr. Game 7 was one, he’s gone … "
Indeed, racehorse ownership is a fluid operation. Popular Kid, for instance, was immediately taken away from Johnson after winning at Del Mar, transferred to another group thanks to a pre-race bid process known as “claiming.” At any given time, Johnson estimates, he has between 10 and 15 horses, keeping track of names and stake percentages in the notes app on his iPhone. Sometimes it is hard to avoid getting attached. “When I’m done playing, I’d like to have a farm where I can put all my horses and live up there,” he says. “I think that’d be sweet.”
For now Johnson remains entrenched as the ice time leader on the Avalanche (7-3-2, 16 points) blue line, averaging 21:52 in 12 games alongside 20-year-old defensive partner Samuel Girard so far. Like some of his horses—especially the $15,000 baby that got struck by lightning—Johnson has been besieged by horrific injury luck over the years. Most recently, a fractured kneecap sidelined him from March 31 through Colorado’s first-round loss to Nashville last season, the culmination of their worst-to-playoffs, Popular Kid-esque comeback. As the team’s longest-tenured player, arriving from St. Louis in a February 2011 trade, Johnson still found optimism amid his absence. “It was a pretty miraculous turnaround,” he says. “If you go a year back from where we are right now, nobody expected us to be here. We’re up-and-coming. I think we have a young team that’s built to contend for a long time.”
The dream? That one day Johnson will bring the Stanley Cup to Del Mar, if not letting his horses drink from the trophy’s silver bowl then certainly sipping himself. “Oh my gosh, that’d be quite the party,” he says. As it is, he has already turned horse racing into a steady discussion topic around the Avs’ locker room. Sometimes Johnson takes heat for tossing live feeds onto the lounge television, though no one balked when he brought a dozen teammates to a track in Florida during a road trip last season. “It’s funny to see some of the reactions,” Johnson says.
“He’s a degenerate,” Barrie laughs. “It’s all he does.”
Not quite, of course. One career foots the bill for the other, after all. But Johnson’s enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless. He will gladly spend 20 minutes chatting about commercial breeding and claiming races after practice. A week later he will call to gush over the success of Splashy Kisses, slated to compete for a $2 million purse in the juvenile fillies race at the upcoming Breeder’s Cup, and another horse named Bowie’s Hero, which won a Grade 1 race but needs some rest before running again. Then he will text pictures of his super-cute chestnut weanling, by Violence out of Starless Night, who will most likely be sold at auction next September. "If he could be in the barn area every day," says Doug O'Neill, "he probably would be."
Johnson sees certain similarities between the horse racing and hockey businesses. Much like how players choose private trainers for their summer workout programs, Johnson must seek out trustworthy allies in bloodstock agents and ownership partners. He has also learned something about their relative paths to success. “If you don't have patience in horse racing, it's definitely not for you,” Johnson says. “On average, your horse will run every 30-40 days, which isn't that often. I would say, you have to love it. It has to be a passion of yours. Otherwise, it's not worth it for some people. You have to really love the game and love the animals.”