The Kentucky Derby or a mission
The true story of Johnny Burton choosing to serve a mission rather than ride in the Kentucky Derby.
I [Elder Glen Rudd of the Seventy] was assigned to the Miami Stake Conference in February 1963. This was my first trip to Florida. I asked the stake president who the small, young couple on the front row was. He said, “Why don’t you wait until the meeting is over and go down and introduce yourself and talk to them.” So I went down and met Brother and Sister Johnny Burton. He and his wife were both converts to the Church. He was a professional jockey and this is his story.
Johnny Burton was from a little country town in the mid-west. In his youth, Johnny didn’t grow to the size of his brothers and father. He began to ride horses, inasmuch as he was the size of a good jockey. In time, he went to California and worked for Tex Ellsworth, who owned fine race horses. Johnny discovered that Mr. Ellsworth and his assistant, Mr. Tenney, were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mr. Tenney watched Johnny ride horses and realized the he had potential to be a fine jockey.
In time, Mr. Tenney told Johnny the story of the Restoration. Johnny accepted the gospel and became an active member of the Church. Ellsworth and Tenney told Johnny that they had the greatest race horse in the world. One day they showed him a fine young horse named Swaps, and Johnny was given the opportunity to break him and work with him until the horse matured. Swaps became a winner of horse races on the west coast of America.
The Kentucky Derby was approaching and Ellsworth and Tenney had entered Swaps in the race which would give Johnny Burton an opportunity to ride in the greatest of all horse races, the Kentucky Derby. They prepared months in advance. Soon, Johnny’s bishop called him into his office and said: “I am sure the Lord wants you to serve a full-time mission.” Johnny replied, “I cannot go on a mission because of the upcoming Kentucky Derby and the other races in which I am obligated to ride.” He went to see Mr. Tenney and told him that he might receive a call to go on a mission for his church. Mr. Tenney immediately said, “That is impossible. You cannot go!” They went and talked with Mr. Ellsworth and the two owners agreed that it would be impossible for Johnny to leave at this time. Johnny was discouraged, but nonetheless accepted the situation. After a sleepless night, Brother Ellsworth told Tenney: “We need to let that boy go on a mission. If we don’t, the horse will fall and break his leg, or something worse, and we will lose out. We cannot fight the Lord nor His Church.” They informed Johnny that if he really wanted to serve a mission, they would support his decision. Johnny soon received his call to one of the Canadian missions.
Brothers Ellsworth and Tenney were left in a bind, as Johnny was the only person that had ever ridden Swaps. It was just a short time until the Derby. They contacted Willie Shoemaker, who was at that time the most famous jockey in America. Willie flew out to California and agreed to ride this great horse in the Derby. Johnny told me that on the day of the Derby, he and his companion tracted all day long. Swaps won the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes that year, which is known as the Triple Crown of horse racing. I asked Johnny if he had any idea how much money Willie Shoemaker made riding Swaps during the two years that Johnny was on his mission. He told me that he would have made at least $200,000 riding “his” horse. I said to him, “Aren’t you sad that you didn’t stay and ride Swaps?” He quickly responded, “No, I wouldn’t trade one day of my mission for all that money or fame.” (From the files of Glen L. Rudd, April 1999)