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The picture-perfect story of Ashlee Brnjas and Johnny Bear

By Chris Lomon

To say the two photos of the same horse – one handed to her five years ago, the other taken in the Woodbine winner’s circle this September – are meaningful to Ashlee Brnjas, wouldn’t be saying nearly enough.
 
It was a mixture of hope, anticipation and unease for the young thoroughbred trainer in the days leading up to the 2012 Canadian Premier Yearling Sale.
 
A handful of yearlings stood out, including one in particular: Hip No. 225.
 
Little did she, or anyone for that matter, ever envision that the then unnamed son of English Channel, now known Johnny Bear, would take an unconventional road to reach this Sunday’s Grade 1, $800,000 Pattison Canadian International, at Woodbine.
 
“I always do my homework,” recalled Brnjas. “Amanda – my assistant at the time – and I had shortlisted a bunch of horses. Richard Hogan, who consigned the horse, we went to see him and we asked how much he thought he was going to go for. He said, ‘This guy is the pick of the litter.’”
 
If she was anxious in the weeks leading up to the sale, the daughter of longtime horseman John Brnjas (Colebrook Farms) was, as she remembered, “a bundle of nerves” on the big day, the one she had circled on her calendar months before.
 
Her father and fellow owner Danny Dion (Bear Stables Ltd.)  were also at the Woodbine Sales Pavilion five years ago, seeking out horses to buy individually and in partnership.
 
“Amanda and I were at the sale – my dad and Bear were at the bar in the back area – when they asked, ‘Who do you like?’” recalled Brnjas. “We said we wanted No. 225. We were joking around, but never thought for a minute that we’d get this horse.
 
“I was standing at the window, Amanda was out near the ring, each doing our own thing, and my dad came over and said, ‘We’re not buying any more horses,’” she continued. “I said, ‘Okay.’ A few seconds later, he said, ‘We’re going for the big horse.’ He told me that Richard likes the horse and that we were going to do it. I was still in denial.”
 
When bidding started for No. 225, the John Brnjas-Dion tandem weren’t the only ones vying to purchase the coveted chestnut.
 
“The bidding started and Bear decided he was going to bid,” recalled Brnjas. “Bear and my dad are up front, we’re in the bar and the next thing you know, bidding starts going up by $25,000. Now the price is up to $200,000. I say to myself that we’re done – we’re out.”
 
Believing it was indeed over, Brnjas simply shrugged the experience off. She was ready to move on.
 
Then she saw the Bear heading her way. 
 
“He comes back to the bar and gives me the photo of the horse and says, ‘Congratulations. Here you go.’ Not only did we buy this horse, but now I get to train him? I was completely honoured.”
 
It was, seemingly, a horse racing fairytale: a young trainer given a can’t-miss yearling.
 
That’s not how it would play out, at least not early on.
 
“As a two-year-old, he was a marshmallow,” noted Brnjas, of the over $278,000 purchase. “He didn’t do anything. And everyone was disappointed that the sales topper wasn’t do anything. I just kept saying, ‘We’ll get there. He hasn’t developed yet, but he’ll get there.’
 
And he did.
 
In his 33rd lifetime start, Johnny Bear, under Luis Contreras, pulled off a brilliant upset score to earn his first graded stakes win in the Northern Dancer, contested on September 16 at Woodbine.


 
While the Ontario-bred’s Grade 1 victory caught many off guard, his connections had faith the horse could have a solid career. They thought that the moment the gavel fell at the sale.
 
“I really did my research when we purchased him and he was a very expensive purchase, at least for us,” said Brnjas, who has 235 career training wins. “The English Channels are not early comers and I know that everybody was all hyped up about him at the very beginning because he was so expensive and he was a yearling sale topper and he was a bit of a disappointment as a two-year-old. But he’s technically not designed to be that and he’s proving that his breeding is exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s long, turf, older.”
 
Johnny Bear, bred by Tall Oaks Farm, has returned that loyalty with a 2017 season that includes five of his seven career wins, which boosted his lifetime earnings to nearly $500,000.
 
Whenever Brnjas looks at both the sales and Northern Dancer photos, something she does regularly, she’s struck by the same thought every time.
 
“At the heart of it all is that my father is so devoted to supporting Ontario racing,” offered Brnjas. “Danny puts so much into racing and is also a huge supporter of Ontario racing. To see the hometown connections on the world stage is wonderful. I’ve worked for my dad for a decade and he’s been in the sport for 40 years and I’m so happy for him. He’s almost 80 and he’s so thrilled to be in this position. He deserves this.”
 
And, if the racing stars align on October 15, there could be another meaningful photo for Ashlee Brnjas to add to her collection.
 
“I can’t even imagine what that would be like,” she said.

Photos by John Watkins

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