There are some who call him Johnny-good-luck and some who call him Johnny-jump-up and some who call him a Johnny-come-lately. Now, however, after riding Carry Back to an easy victory in the $287,970 Garden State stakes last Saturday, 23-year-old Johnny Sellers is being called one of the best jockeys in the country.
In the last four weeks Sellers has jumped up on one winner after the other. At the Garden State meeting he had double victories on two different days, triples on four other days and five winners in seven mounts on yet another. He has won five $100,000 races in the last four months.
Sellers' ride in the Garden State was not only perfectly judged and beautifully timed but it carried with it that certain daring that one does not expect to find outside of an Arcaro, a Shoemaker, a Hartack or a Lady Godiva. Instead of staying close to the leaders, as almost all of the seven previous Garden State winners have done, Carry Back was rated back to 14th place in the field of 15 racers. For a while Sellers seemed to have Carry Back in a hideous position—but at the half mile he was beginning to pick up his field. At the three-quarters he was seventh. At the top of the stretch he had the lead. At the finish he was ahead by three and a half lengths.
John Sellers looks more like a Harvard freshman than a jockey. He's tall for a jockey (5 feet 6 inches), intelligent, quiet, conservatively dressed. None of these qualities are necessary for membership in the Jockeys' Guild. He is also lucky and he knows how to exploit his luck.
In the summer of 1958, for instance, Trainer Bill Stephens was looking for someone to handle Clem in the $139,650 Washington Park Handicap. All the top jockeys were taken and Stephens had to turn to Sellers. Johnny promptly steered Clem to victory over Round Table.
Early this summer Trainer Paul Parker needed a jockey to ride T.V. Lark in the Arlington Classic. He wanted the fine-riding Braulio Baeza, but Baeza refused the mount. Parker talked to Sellers in the stable area at Arlington. "John," he asked, "would you like to ride my horse in the Classic?"
"Yes sir!" said Sellers, and T.V. Lark, at 16 to 1, beat Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way and Kelso—the only time Kelso has been beaten this year.
Just a week before the Garden State, Jack Price, who is co-owner (with his wife, Katherine) and trainer of Carry Back, thought that Bill Hartack would ride his horse. Hartack had won the Cowdin at Belmont with Carry Back but then had been left at the gate in the Champagne Stakes. Hartack refused to ride the colt in the Garden State. Price turned to Sellers.
After his victory Sellers hurried to his hotel to call his wife Janice in Florida. When he was asked what his wife had to say, Sellers smiled. "First she said that all the neighbors had called her. Then it sounded like she was laughing and then it sounded like she was crying and then she seemed to say something about dancing."
Sellers left his room then and went to the hotel's dining room to celebrate. He had a glass of milk.
The Garden State is billed as The World's Richest Race, and this year's purse does not refute that billing. It could also truthfully be called "The World's Wettest Race" for in five of the last seven runnings the track has been off. Nevertheless, the Garden State is important to racing people because it has produced the top 2-year-old colt for four straight years (Barbizon, Nadir, First Landing and Warfare). If Carry Back is awarded the championship this season, though, it will be by default. Hail To Reason was several lengths ahead of his contemporaries before he broke down and had to be retired in September.