Former NFL player Oscar Johnson Jr. got his first pari-mutuel win ever as a trainer at Shenandoah Downs this past Saturday (April 22) with Dr. Scott Woogen’s pacer KJ Erich, then four races later — albeit the next afternoon — struck again with Woogen’s Just A Passenger in Sunday’s fourth.
Johnson has been involved with harness racing for years as a co-owner in horses but this was the first one at a pari-mutuel track where he was listed in the program as trainer. Oscar has established himself in the world of harness racing and he has a very interesting story that led him to his current position.
His first love in life was football. He had a five year NFL career after playing collegiately for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs — Terry Bradshaw’s alum — where he was an offensive lineman. He chose Tech over schools like Baylor, Marshall, Mississippi State, Troy and UAB. He was drafted in 2013 and played guard for the Tennessee Titans for three seasons before heading to the Carolina Panthers for the last two years of his career.
“I loved getting to be around that great atmosphere and college life especially coming from a country town. It was very exciting” said Johnson about his journey coming from the small town of Crystal Springs, Mississippi and going on to play football at a Division I school then at the pro level.
“In the NFL, I loved getting to travel and to be around people with different mindsets, positive people and hard working people,” he said. “Everyone is dedicated to it.”
He showed a particular enthusiasm for playing in Cincinnati against the Bengals. “I have to say Cincinnati (Ohio) was my favorite place to play. The crowd was just different.” He named his fellow Tennessee Titan Chance Warmack as his favorite person he ever got to play with in the NFL.
Initially, Oscar was an undrafted free-agent in the 2013 draft. He described his experience on draft day as being “Very emotional and long. You’ve got to be patient waiting around to see if your name is going to be called, but it’s still very exciting.” He was picked up by the Titans after the draft.
Even when he was playing football at the highest level, Johnson was always involved with harness racing. During his career on the field he still shipped horses with his long time friend Lawrence Cooper — who has competed in Woodstock since the track opened in 2016 — and whenever he got the chance, loved to come out and watch the harness races. He never wanted to leave the NFL but when he had a surgery on his shoulder that slowed him down on the field, Oscar was happy to have another passion to fall back on full time.
Johnson is happy in his new career and sees the challenges that come with training race horses to be part of the process. “I don’t really struggle because, like I said, I’ve been around it so long, I got a bunch of people that helped me that have been in the game a long time. So any type of problem I run across, I just go straight to them.”
His favorite memory from harness racing goes back to the first horse he ever claimed at the Thunder Ridge track in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. “Just going and seeing him win almost every week was very exciting to me, I just got more and more horses after that one.” His favorite horse he ever owned was named Blueridge Straight, a horse that started 132 times and earned $77,803 in purses in his career before retiring in 2015.
Asked about similarities between football and harness racing, he said “They are the same in a lot of ways and both take lots of hard work. The more you put in the more you get out.”
Taking care of harness horses is hard manual labor and Oscar has nine of them he tends to. It is clear that he is getting the same gratification from his horses competing as he was when he was under the stadium lights.
This is Oscar’s first year racing at Shenandoah Downs and he only had positive things to say about his experience at the track and racing in Virginia as a whole. “I love it, it’s beautiful and there are a lot of great people involved.”