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Boss Lady
Friday, February 13, 2015 - By Dave Briggs

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Nancy Johansson’s reaction, like most things these days, was captured on video.


“It’s the funniest video ever,” she said, laughing at the memory of the exact moment she found out her undefeated pacing filly JK She’salady had been named Horse of the Year.


The trainer and her staff were enjoying a Christmas lunch at White Birch Farm in New Jersey while watching the live Internet stream of the Dan Patch Horse of the Year announcement from the Meadowlands on her computer. When older pacer Sweet Lou was announced as Pacer of the Year, Johansson gave her crestfallen staff a little pep talk.


“I said, ‘You know what, guys? She’s still 2-Year-Old Pacing Filly of the Year. She had a great year. She lost Pacer of the Year by one vote. It’s not a big deal. We’ll take it as we can get it,’” Johansson said. “Then we were just sitting there and they said, ‘The Horse of the Year is JK She’salady.’”


Johansson said her barn erupted into cheers, “and I was like, ‘Wait. I don’t get it.’”


At the time, Johansson was worried someone had made a mistake. She wasn’t alone. Since the Horse of the Year award has to come from either the Pacer or the Trotter of the Year, how could JK She’salady have won the top prize? Awards host Sam McKee quickly paused to double-check the results.

USTA/Ken Weingartner photo
Marcus Johansson, shown here jogging JK She'salady in New Jersey this past January, said that the filly is a "diva."


“I said, ‘Great, now there’s an inquiry,’” Johansson said. “We made it through all year with nothing going wrong. No flat tires, no sickness, no getting run into, to be perfect for the year and now we’re going to have an inquiry?”


Turns out a greater number of voters that selected JK She'salady for Pacer of the Year also voted her Horse of the Year. Those that picked Sweet Lou for Pacer of the Year more frequently picked their Trotter of the Year choice for the Horse of the Year award. In the Horse of the Year voting, JK She’salady won by five votes over Sweet Lou.


“Win or lose, it wasn’t going to take anything away from our filly,” said Alan Katz, who along with his brothers Ronald and Steven, bred JK She’salady and own her under their 3 Brothers Stables name. “We love the filly. She’s not going anywhere. She’s going to join our broodmare band. It’s not like we’re looking to sell her foals or anything like that, but to be Horse of the Year is quite a feat.”


For Johansson, 33, the award is a game changer that came just a little over two years after she branched out on her own after a lifetime of learning the game from her father, Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter, the man who trains the 2014 Trotter of the Year Shake It Cerry.


Today, Johansson has a Horse of the Year in her barn, has been named her sport’s Rising Star for 2014 and is blessed to have a bustling barn of 45 talented young equine stars that is in sharp contrast to the 25 horses, of mostly middling talent, she had a little over a year ago.


To think it all began with a random phone call and a yearling so fat she was initially mistaken for a mare in foal.


In October 2013, the Katz brothers paid $150,000 for a Rock N Roll Heaven yearling at the Lexington Selected Sale. Trouble is, they had no one in mind to train the horse. The brothers — Alan, 57, Ronald, 64, and Steven, 59 — had just ended a 28-year business relationship with trainer Linda Toscano.


“I noticed that Nancy Johansson was winning a couple of New York Sire Stakes and I was reading an article on the USTA website on her, because, obviously, she has a pretty good pedigree,” Alan said. “The article said she only had a small barn and she was looking for owners to give her an opportunity.”


Alan called Johansson out of the blue, asking her to take the yearling. After Johansson gladly accepted, he asked that she also train three homebreds.


Johansson was in Harrisburg when her husband, trainer-driver Marcus Johansson, arrived at Heritage Hills Farm in Allentown, N.J., to pick up the homebreds. He took one look at JK She’salady and immediately contacted Nancy.


Recent Rising Star award winner Nancy Johansson has plenty of knowledge and experience to bring to her young stable, having worked for years with her father, Hall of Fame conditioner Jimmy Takter.

“Marcus text-messaged me and said, ‘Who is this filly in foal to?’” Nancy said, laughing. “She was huge. She was so fat when she came in. She likes to eat. I’ve never had an issue with her not finishing a meal.


“It’s amazing how much the horses learn within a year and everything because I remember in November when we started jogging her, to jog two laps around the track was like torture because she was fat and out of shape. One year later, she was the favorite in the Breeders Crown and in the running for Horse of the Year. It happened quickly.”


Despite her initial girth, JK She’salady quickly became a favorite.


“Nancy really loved that filly from day one,” Alan said. “They all loved her: Marcus, everybody.”


From her location in the second stall in Johansson’s shedrow, JK She’salady was a magnet for anyone that came to the barn.


“It didn’t matter if it was the girl babysitting our kids, or if it was the feed man or owners or something, everyone walked up to her,” Marcus said. “Before anyone even knew she was even remotely anything good, people just walked up to her because she has kind of that look. If someone walked in, she would stick her head out and welcome you like a dog.”


Working with JK She’salady was another matter, however.


“She’s an athlete, but she’s also a little bit of a diva,” Marcus said. “If I’m going out to train her and I check her legs in between, she kind of gets mad at me. But I can cuddle with her all day long in the afternoon or something.”


Caretaker Lena Johansson (no relation) said JK She’salady has an incredible personality.


“She’s usually very easy going and is a very kind horse, very smart,” she said. “She keeps track of what’s going on, but she can be tough. She’s a real filly. She will take a bite out of you. She’s given all of us blue marks, but she’s not bad meaning. She just wants to get the job done.”


On the track, there’s no question JK She’salady got the job done in 2014. She was 12-for-12, earned $883,330 in purses and, with a win in the $441,600 She’s A Great Lady at Mohawk, equaled the 1:50.1 world record set by I Luv The Nitelife in 2012 at Mohawk, and the mile Precocious Beauty put down at The Red Mile in 2013.


“I’m really proud of her accomplishment winning the Shes A Great Lady,” Nancy said. “I really wanted to win the She’s A Great Lady because we were second in the Metro (in 2013) with Western Vintage. We didn’t have anything for the Metro (in 2014). So, I said, ‘Let’s try to race the filly in the filly counterpart to the Metro this year.’ Obviously, she went a world record that night, which was really nice.”


Along the way, JK She’salady also won six other stakes, including the Kentuckiana Stallion Management Stakes at Hoosier Park, the Three Diamonds at Woodbine and ended the year with a win in the Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands that sealed the Horse of the Year award.


“When she went behind the gate in the Breeders Crown final, I felt like I was going to have a heart attack,” Nancy said. “All I kept thinking to myself was, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’ Then when she won, I said, ‘How am I going to get through her 3-year-old season?’ It’s exciting. If you don’t get a little nervous and a little excited, you’re not in this business for the right reasons.”


For Marcus, JK She’salady’s most emotional victory came in her $84,900 International Stallion Division at The Red Mile in her seventh start of the year.


JK She'salady's win in the Breeders Crown 2-Year-Old Filly Pace was her 12th in as many starts and cemented Horse of the Year honors for 2014.

“I wasn’t nervous, really, when she’s raced, until we went to Lexington. That day I was so nervous,” he said. “She went out and won and after the race — I can barely talk about it —I got really, really emotional and almost started crying. She looked at me and seemed to say, ‘Come on, dude, what are you worrying about? I had it.’”



Marcus Johansson said it was an emotional moment when he arrived at Chris Coyle’s Olive Branch Farm in Wingate, N.C., in early January to pick up JK She’salady after the filly enjoyed six weeks of paddock time. When JK She’salady saw Marcus, she walked right up to him. Nancy and Lena were waiting at White Birch later that night to meet them when Marcus arrived with the Horse of the Year in tow.


“When Marcus pulled up I said, ‘Hi, Lady. How are you my big girl?’ And she started hollering at me,” Lena said.


Two days later, JK She’salady was on the track, taking the first steps in preparation for her sophomore campaign.


“If she doesn’t come back, people are always going to say something about it,” Marcus said. “But we’ve got to remember, she is a horse and anything can happen. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and we expect big things from ourselves, especially when we have a horse like this. I think we add on pressure. I don’t know how the public sees it or looks at it, but for us, we’re not happy unless we make her one of the best ones that there’s ever been.”


Having such a tremendous horse so early in their careers is clearly a blessing, but Marcus said he and Nancy would have to double their efforts to produce more champions like her.


“We have discussed a lot of times and we cannot let up and believe that she is going to be the one horse in a lifetime because we’re going to have to try to make other ones,” he said.


Call that, and the heightened expectations that come with Nancy’s Rising Star award, good problems to have.


“I kind of feel like it’s not really an award for your accomplishments,” Nancy said. “It’s kind of an award like, ‘Now we expect something more from you,’” she said, laughing. “It’s the Pressure Award, a little bit. But I expect a lot from myself, so, obviously it’s nice to be appreciated and people see that maybe you have some talent or something going for you that could turn into something great one day. It’s an honor to be recognized. “There are a lot of people that never get recognized. I’m just happy that they gave it to a trainer. It goes to a driver pretty much every year.”


Two drivers — Yannick Gingras and Tim Tetrick — are former winners of that award and both men have sat in JK She’salady’s sulky. Gingras drove JK She’salady in nine of her first 10 starts (Marcus was in the bike for the other one). But before the Breeders Crown, when Nancy asked Gingras for full-time allegiance to JK She’salady, Gingras said he couldn’t make such a commitment because he also drives for trainer Ron Burke. Nancy immediately opted to put Tim Tetrick down to drive JK She’salady with the full support of the owners.


No matter who is in the filly’s sulky when she returns to the races this summer — hopefully in time for the C$455,000 Fan Hanover at Mohawk on the June 20 Pepsi North America Cup card — Nancy said the bulk of the pressure will be on her and Marcus and Lena. They all know keeping the filly unbeaten will be extremely difficult over a grueling campaign, no matter how well JK She’salady eats.


“She has to lose sooner or later,” Alan said. “I remember Nancy telling us one day, ‘You know, she’s not going to win every race.’ We know that, but we can hope.”


Still, it’s going to take a pretty tough horse to beat her.


Three Brothers Stables topped off a banner year in 2014 with JK She'salady Breeders Crown triumph at the Meadowlands.

“It’s not like she’s gotten lucky and won her races on luck,” Nancy said. “She worked for a lot of those wins, first up, grinding. She’s not one of those horses that sits on the rail and just explodes and wins. She grits it out.


“I love her to pieces.”


Career Year
On a cool night in Ontario in June 2014, the Katz brothers stood in the Mohawk winner’s circle passing the Pepsi North America Cup trophy between them. When the conversation shifted from JK Endofanera — their homebred winner of the $920,000 race — to the pacer’s little sister, Alan Katz boldly predicted big things.


“We hope to come back in August for the She’s A Great Lady with her,” Alan said, beaming.


At that point, the Art Major—Presidential Lady full sister to JK Endofanera had only one third-place effort in a qualifier. Today, Alan said the 3 Brothers were pretty high on JK She’salady training down, but in no way thought in June that she might be a candidate for Horse of the Year.


“To say we thought she’d be that caliber, I’d be lying to you,” he said.


Campaigning two homebred equine siblings to the top of the sport made for the best year the three Katz siblings ever had in 36 years in the sport, one that ended with them earning the Breeder of the Year award and tied for Owner of the Year with Canadian John Fielding.


The 3 Brothers use the initials JK in their horse names as a tribute to their late father, Jack Katz, who first got the family involved with horses in the late 1970s. Northwood Bloodstock’s Bob Boni sold the family its first two yearlings. As Boni tells it, Jack Katz had built a successful linen supply business in New York City and was looking for a hobby. The owner of a delicatessen the Katz family frequented was a horseplayer that was friends with Pine Hollow Stud’s Morty Finder. The owner of the deli suggested that Jack should get into the horse business and introduced Jack to Finder. The rest is history.

“The next thing I remember is them coming up to the farm when I worked there,” Boni said. “It was the boys and their mother and father — Pearl and Jack. They had no idea what they were looking at.”


In the fall of 1978 at the Liberty Bell Sale, Jack Katz bought two sons of Fulla Napoleon: Dr.Zweig and Jukebox.


“Neither of the horses did much good,” Boni said.


But the Katz family was hooked.


“Every time (JK She’salady) races and wins, the first thing I think about is my mother and father and what if they were here to see this,” Alan said. “My mother, forget about it, she loved the horses.”


When Pearl was dying of cancer, watching her favorite horse L’Chaim race was the only thing that provided her comfort.


“She had so much pain, my mother, it was unbearable,” Alan said. “When that horse raced and won on a Friday night at Yonkers, all the pain went away for about three minutes. It was amazing. She was able to stand up and watch it and she was usually bed-ridden at that time. So, that was one mare we’ll never sell.”


Though the Katz family has had many good horses — including Giant Force, the winner of the $500,000 International Trot at Yonkers in 1993 and a number of strong New York Sire Stakes horses — Alan said 2014 was the best year the 3 Brothers Stables has had.


“Oh, my God, by far,” he said. “I’ve never had a summer like this traveling around to watch JK She’salady and JK Endofanera. It was a great, great season. We traveled to Canada twice. We’d never been to Canada. We’ve been to Saratoga, Vernon, Tioga. Usually we don’t go. We watch it on TV. But when you have horses of this caliber of this we couldn’t miss it.”


Lost Opportunity

Alan Katz, one of the three brothers of the Three Brothers Stables and co-owner of JK She’salady, said he is embarrassed to admit he did sell Presidential Lady, the dam of both 2014 Horse of the Year, JK She’salady, and 2014 North America Cup winner, JK Endofanera.


“I have to blame myself on that,” he said. “I’m the one that really said to my two brothers, ‘How many mares do you want to own?’ They said, ‘Look, do what you want to do.’ Obviously, you make good moves and you make bad moves. It’s a business,” he said. “But one of the most knuckle-headed things we did was sell the dam.”


Presidential Lady was sold for just $450 at the 2013 Blooded Horse Winter Speed Sale in Delaware, Ohio. Alan said that at that time, the 3 Brothers had too many mares, JK Endofanera was just an unraced 2-year-old and Presidential Lady was 18 and had trouble getting in foal. Though Presidential Lady had produced $100,000-winner JK Matchmaker p, 3, Q1:54.2 ($116,621) , the mare had either been barren or had produced a dead foal five times over her broodmare career.


“JK Endofanera was a really big horse and when we were breaking him, no one said, ‘This is a special horse.’ No one came back ecstatically and said, ‘Wow, what a horse.’ So we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s sell this (mare) and two other broodmares’ and we kind of gave them away because we wanted to stop the bills,” Alan said. “Now I’d like to buy her back just to keep her on a farm and live the rest of her life out.


“I spoke to the gentleman who bought her and all he told me is, ‘His phone hasn’t stopped ringing.’ I wanted to make him an offer, but I don’t know what he wants. All we’re looking to do is buy her back and give her a home.”


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