When Thoroughbred racing was America’s leading national sport, William R. Johnson, known as the “Napoleon of the Turf,” was the game’s most prominent figure.
Johnson was America’s first great horseman. He was born into a prominent southern family in Warrenton, N.C., in 1782, seven years before that colony achieved statehood. He began training racehorses in North Carolina and Virginia before his 21st birthday.
By age 25, Johnson had developed a taste for politics and served in the North Carolina Legislature from 1807-1814. He was elected to the Virginia Legislature in 1818 and became a Virginia state senator four years later. Johnson spent a total of 28 years in public office, but politics never interfered with his success as a trainer.
Johnson’s dominance on the turf became evident when he won 61 of the 63 races his Thoroughbreds entered during the racing seasons of 1807-1808. He built and presided over the largest and most prominent racing stable in the country during the first half of the 19th century.
From Johnson’s stable came Hall of Famer Sir Archy, America’s foundation sire; and Hall of Famer Boston (a grandson of Sir Archy), winner in 40 of his 45 career starts. He also trained star fillies Reality, Vanity, Maria, Bonnets o’Blue, Havoc, Argyle, Trifle, and Ironette.
Johnson became incredibly wealthy through racing. He owned an 18-room mansion in Virginia where he talked politics and racing with friends Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. From Johnson’s front porch they were able to watch the horses work on a two-mile straight track that ran through the front yard.
Johnson’s reputation as the leading American horseman withstood two significant defeats in North vs. South competitions. He trained Sir Henry, defeated by American Eclipse in 1823; and Boston, bested in a match with Fashion in 1842.
William Ransom Johnson was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1986.
Johnson trained Sir Henry
Sir Henry as depicted on an 1823 scarf, NMR collection