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‘Crunch’ Time: Johansson Comes Through Big at the North America Cup

Trot Feature - Captain Crunch

Nancy Johansson’s daughter Ella had a choice to make between two things she didn’t want to do - go to her brother’s baseball tournament, or go to the Harrisburg horse sale with her mom.

She chose the sale, and spotted a horse for her mom to buy. Fast forward a year-and-a-half, and the family are quite pleased with the choice Ella made. By Keith McCalmont

Ken Middleton’s call of the 2019 North America Cup seemed an exercise of disbelief.

“…26 flat, they sizzled that first quarter,” commanded Middleton.

Captain Crunch, Bettors Wish and Workin Ona Mystery paced 1-2-3, as three of the top four betting choices were part of a blazing pace to the quarter. Captain Crunch, in rein to Scott Zeron, gave up his lead to Bettors Wish, who did likewise to Workin Ona Mystery, heading to the half, but Zeron was out again and moving first-over just past the half-mile call of :52.4, which Middleton deemed, ‘a wild first-half,’ as the trio battled into the sweeping turn at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

Workin Ona Mystery, clinging to a desperate lead as the field turned for home, marked three-quarters in 1:20 flat.

Someone, surely, had to close from the clouds into such a blistering pace?

But it was only Captain Crunch, that serial victor and winner of 9 of 14 starts, who loomed large. Circling outside his rival, Zeron put Captain Crunch to the front with an eighth of a mile to go and powered through the wire.

An incredulous Middleton boomed, ‘1:47.2. Stakes, track and a Canadian record performance for Captain Crunch in the Cup.’

Trainer Nancy Johansson, victorious with her first North America Cup starter, as much drove the horse home as Zeron.

“The last eighth of a mile I must have screamed his name like 30 times,” said Johansson. “My hands actually hurt, but it was exciting to watch the race. Obviously, he didn’t get anything for free. He’s just an amazing animal.”

Zeron piled on the accolades for the Breeders Crown and Dan Patch Award winner in the post-race scrum.

“He’s an amazing animal,” said Zeron, who was winning his first Cup. “This is the best pacer I’ve ever sat behind. It seems I can ask him to do whatever I want him to do and he does it so effortlessly. He’s gotten bigger and stronger.”

Johansson trains Captain Crunch for an ownership group that includes 3 Brothers Stable, Rojan Stables, Caviart Farms and her mother, Christina Takter. Her father, retired trainer Jimmy Takter, called Nancy in Harrisburg, right after the hammer fell on the colt, and asked if they (her parents) could buy in - the other three partners all agreed.

Much has been made of the fact that Takter never trained a North America Cup winner, but this victory was a win for the ladies of the family. Nancy, as the conditioner, and Christina as an owner.

“My mom was the backbone of Takter Stable. She did all the bookkeeping, scheduled flights, made sure horse owners had licenses, that starting fees were paid and that help got paid,” said Johannsson. “She did the day-to-day office work and my dad got a lot of credit and pats on the back for winning big races.

“He has the talent to train a horse but it’s a lot more than training a horse to run a big, successful stable for a long time,” continued Johansson. “My mom never really got the credit she deserved. Not only that, she was one of the big owners for my dad and she always went to the races and was supportive. There’s been talk of how it’s a shame that she’s never been Owner of the Year – if anyone deserves it, my mom does.”

Don’t get it twisted – Johansson is endlessly grateful and respectful for the legacy passed along by her father and his ongoing support – but, as a mom and horsewoman, she would love to see Christina Takter have her time to shine and someday earn honours as Owner of the Year.

“I’m going to do my best to get it done for her since my dad is now retired,” said Johansson. “She owns some nice babies and a few I inherited from my dad. With my dad retired, she may get to be in the spotlight a little more.”

And perhaps Captain Crunch, a colt who doesn’t like to lose, is the horse to help a member of the Takter family earn this other rare first.

* * * *

Horse racing is truly a family affair for the Johansson family. Nancy’s husband is trainer/driver Marcus Johansson and together they have two children - Marcus Jr., and Ella.

How fitting that the daughter of this strong female family picked out the 2019 North America Cup winner as a yearling, and in the most unlikely of fashion.

Ella, a precocious 14-year-old and decided academic, had a decision to make in November of 2017. Should she go to her brother’s baseball tournament or follow her mom to the Harrisburg sale?

“She decided horses were the lesser of two evils. She’s not into horses at all which makes this story that much funnier,” laughed Johansson. “She’s grown up around the sport, but I think her idea of being involved in racing would be to be an owner – which is a smarter idea.”

The attractive bay son of Captaintreacherous-Sweet Paprika caught Ella’s attention.

“She saw Captain Crunch and he had his head down and was such a sweetheart,” recalled Johansson. “She was petting him and the last thing she said to me before she left is, ‘you have to find somebody to buy that horse.’

“Being a good mom, I thought, I better try to find an owner to get this done,” continued Johansson. “I was able to put together a partnership and get him at a good price. The rest is history.”

Hammered down for $85,000, Captain Crunch has proven to be a wise investment - picked out by a young girl with impeccable, albeit expensive, taste - having banked $1,188,960 in purse earnings through wins in the Breeders Crown, Governors Cup and, of course, the pinnacle of Canadian harness racing - the North America Cup.

Johansson enjoys talking about her family and is proud of both her children, who are developing their own personalities and interests.

“Ella is not horse crazy by any means, sometimes I wonder where she came from,” smiled Johansson. “She’s very academic and studious. She has good taste. She grew up in the business and maybe has inadvertently learned what to look for.”

While mom trains rocket ships like Captain Crunch for a living, Ella wants to be an aerospace engineer when she grows up and will attend an all-girls preparatory school in Princeton next year.

“I won’t be surprised if she’s a CEO of some company in the future. She graduates middle school this year and she won the leadership award. She’s got a very bright future ahead of her,” said Johansson.

* * * *

Johannsson, like her mom before her, has made sacrifices to get to the top flight.

In order to prepare Captain Crunch for his North America Cup score, Johansson spent nearly two weeks in Ontario with the colt while her family stayed home in New Jersey.

“It’s a tough balance, but all of us that have children in this sport have to make decisions on where you’re supposed to be at any given time. We try to spend quality time with our children because we don’t get to spend quantity time – especially during the racing season,” said Johansson.

The sacrifice paid off for the North America Cup, even if Captain Crunch made her sweat after breaking in the first turn of his elimination, before parking the entire mile and hanging onto the fifth and final, spot in the rich final.

“They were going pretty fast into the turn and a shadow got him off his gait a little bit and then he comes into the shadow of the [moving] starting car and it was too much at that point,” said Johansson. “He’s a good horse and got back on stride right away, because he knows it’s what he’s supposed to do. It’s not easy to catch a field, they went a quick third quarter.

“He was parked on the outside the entire mile but he never gave up,” continued Johansson. “He still came home in 26.3.”

While Captain Crunch was overcoming struggles on the track, Johansson was busy being both a trainer and a parent.

“It’s a bit of a juggle,” admitted Johansson, on the morning of the Cup. “Being a mom, we worry about things differently than dads do. I’m trying to figure out what horse needs to go where and who is going with the horse and who will be with the kids when I’m where I am. I’ve been in Canada now for 10 days and my children are home, but they know they can call me. We talk every day.”

Both parents lean on each other as they oversee a busy operation. And it works.

“Children that grow up in horse racing families don’t know any different. It’s their norm. My dad was a trainer growing up too, and I turned out okay, I think,” grinned Johansson.

* * * *

Comparisons between the famous father and his daughter are inevitable.

It’s a tired subject really for both writer and trainer, but Johansson leaned into the topic on the morning of the North America Cup.

“It would be fun to win the North America Cup because he’s never done it,” started Johansson. “But, if we write a list of stakes races that he’s won that I haven’t, he outweighs me by a lot. There’s no point in getting into a comparison.”

Rather than compare, Johansson looks at the Cup as an opportunity.

“The North America Cup is one of the greatest races in our sport,” said Johansson. “Being from Swedish heritage - we don’t have pacers in Sweden - it would be great to be able to continue to win classic races for pacers as well. It’s something different, and a race that people want to have a checkmark beside by the end of their careers.”

Johansson is relishing in her success in a career that is arrowing upward – and, still young, she has time to grow from strong roots and a resume that includes stars such as 2014 Horse of the Year JK Shesalady.

“I’ve only been a trainer for five years and have three Dan Patch Award winners, a Horse of the Year in Canada, and a Horse of the Year in the U.S.,” said Johansson. “I think it’s actually lucky that I had success and was doing well while my dad was still training. He had his barn and I had mine and we each had our own success, so it was hard to loop me under being Jimmy Takter’s daughter. I’ve had Kissin In The Sand and Darlinonthebeach, Western Vintage and JK Shesalady. I’ve had some great horses, so I think that has helped set me apart a little bit.”

Ironically, it’s in discussing her father that the similarities between the two become apparent.

“I just have to be happy with how far I’ve gotten in such a short period of time. Working for my dad all these years, I expect that of myself,” said Johansson. “I think I’m a little bit spoiled because I’m used to us being involved at the top part of the sport. It’s what I have to strive for. I wouldn’t be happy otherwise.”

And Johansson pulls a line right out of the Jimmy Takter quote sheet when discussing what she feels her best traits are as a conditioner.

“I’m not going to say I’m a bad loser – I’m not. But I want things to be as perfect as perfect can be,” said Johansson. “When I put a horse on the track, I want us to be as close to 100% perfect as we can be. Sometimes it gets to me if I know I only had the horse at 97% and we didn’t end up winning. It’s like, how can I get that extra 3% for next week? I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

There really is no story to be told of the burden of training in the shadow of her famous father.

“My family is very supportive and I have a good life,” said Johansson. “I get to wake up every morning and do something that I love. A lot of people don’t get to do that.”

And on Sunday, June 16, Johansson woke up as the trainer of a North America Cup winner. Something she’s worked hard for, and a rare first in a family that’s filled a lot of trophy cabinets through the years.

“That would be fantastic,” dreamed Johansson the morning of the race.

And it was.

This feature originally appeared in the July issue of TROT Magazine.
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