Harrison Johnson was completing a few days' vacation at Saratoga -- the track he loved best, the scene of the one great triumph of his training career -- and he wasn't eager to leave.
He was going to fly a private plane from here to Virginia with two passengers, trainer Larry Horning Jr. and owner George Griffith. "George and I told him we were ready to go," Horning recalled, "but he didn't want to leave before the last race. He really loved it at Saratoga.
"It's ironic, because that extra half-hour delay probably made the difference.
"It was pitch black when we got to the Woodbridge airport," Horning said. "Harrison swooped down, but the runway lights were very dim, and he hit the engine to go up again. The engine stalled and we hit the trees . . . "
That was the last thing Horning remembers. After being trapped in the wreckage for 1 1/2 hours, he is now hospitalized with multiple injuries -- and he was the lucky one. He was the only survivor of the crash.
Harrison Johnson was 45 when he died. He had been a capable small-scale trainer on the Maryland circuit for a number of years, and developed a few minor stakes horses.
But the one unforgettable, shining moment of his career came here at Saratoga in 1973, when he helped create one of the most implausible Cinderella stories in the sport's recent history.
Johnson had grown up in Virginia horse country, where his father worked as a domestic for a prominent breeder. He wanted to be a jockey, but when he grew too heavy he became a trainer. His career was not exactly meteoric. For a time, Johnson had to support himself by driving a bus for the D.C. Transit Co.
Johnson trained humble horses for humble owners, like Mr. and Mrs. Tyson Hopkins, who had a small farm in Great Falls. They owned a mare who had wound up her career in $2,500 claiming races, and bred her to a stallion whose stud fee was zero. The product of this mating, who went to Johnson's care, was a colt named Gusty O'Shay.
When he saw that the 2-year-old was blessed with high speed, Johnson set out to cash a bet that would atone for some of his lean periods as a trainer. After Gusty O'Shay lost his debut in a $5,000 claiming race at Shenandoah Downs by 18 lengths, Johnson sent him to Delaware Park, stepped him up in class and cashed a bet at 42-to-1 odds as Gusty blew away the field.
After Gusty won a couple of other minor races, Johnson decided to shoot for the moon. He hitched up a horse van to his car and drove to Saratoga to enter Gusty O'Shay in the Sanford Stakes. Years later, he remembered how the guard at the stable gate had been reluctant to let him on the premises, but Gusty proved that he belonged when he finished second in the stake.
Three weeks later, Johnson brought him back for the Hopeful, the race for which the most fashionable New York stables traditionally point their regally bred young horses. Johnson was standing right next to Ogden Phipps, the patrician chairman of the Jockey Club, who owned one of the favorites in the race.
Gusty O'Shay was truly outclassed -- he would never amount to much and he wound up his career in an $11,000 claiming race -- but this was a day when the heavens were smiling on Johnson and his horse.
The Saratoga track developed a powerful bias that day, carrying speed horses on the rail to victory in every race, and Gusty O'Shay jumped to the lead on the rail. He outbattled the Phipps' horse to the wire by a half length and earned $50,000 -- 10 times the biggest purse Johnson had won previously.
In the directors' room, the Establishment drank toasts to Gusty O'Shay and to his trainer, one of the few black men who has ever won a stakes race of such magnitude. Johnson never came close to duplicating that triumph but he did keep coming back to Saratoga almost every August, until he made his final visit Monday.