Sometimes, horses fail to win the Triple Crown because of injury, bad luck or even lost paperwork.
With Johnstown, it was Mother Nature.
Johnstown, the son of champion racehorse Jamestown, was a colt with high expectations. He won seven of his 12 starts as a 2-year-old in 1938, including the Breeders’ Futurity and Remsen Handicap. He won his Derby prep, the Wood Memorial, by an easy six lengths and was a favorite for the 1939 Kentucky Derby.
Johnstown didn’t disappoint. Cruising to a four-length advantage after a mile, he doubled that lead in the last two furlongs to win by an astounding eight lengths, tying the record for length of victory set by Old Rosebud in 1914 – a record tied by others (Whirlaway and Assault) but broken by no one. Challedon came from off the pace to finish second.
A Muddy Preakness
He was a 2-5 favorite for the Preakness two weeks later, but the rains came in droves on Saturday, and he had never run in the mud. It showed; Johnstown floundered his way to a fifth-place showing out of six horses. Challedon avenged his defeat in the Derby, winning the Preakness by 1 1/4 lengths.
The rubber match of the Triple Crown did not feature a rematch between the two winners; Challedon wasn’t nominated for the Belmont, so it was Johnstown’s race. His run was identical to that of the Derby; he ran the first quarter-mile in 23 3/5 seconds, faster than any horse had run at the Belmont Stakes. His lead was five lengths halfway through the race; he extended that to six when he went under the wire, dominating two out of the three Triple Crown races.
Johnstown went on to win the Withers Stakes and the Dwyer Stakes en route to seven victories in nine starts as a three-year-old. However, he lost Horse of the Year to his rival Challedon, who reeled off six consecutive victories toward the end of the year to win the honors.
His final record: 14 wins in 21 starts – good enough to enshrine him in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1992.