The Kentucky Derby or a mission!
The true story of Johnny Burton’s decision between missionary service and a chance to ride in the Kentucky Derby!
The story as related by Elder Glenn L. Rudd, April 27, 1999:
I was assigned to attend and participate in the Miami Stake Conference in February 1963. This was my first trip to Florida. I asked the stake president who the small, young people were that were sitting on the front row. He said, “Why don’t you wait until the meeting is over and do down and introduce yourself and talk to them. You will find them quite interesting.” So I went down after the meeting 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 Midwest. In his youth, Johnny didn’t grow to the size of his brothers and his father. He began to ride horses, inasmuch as he was the size of most good jockeys. In time he went to California and worked for Rex 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. Ellsworth and Mr. Tenney watched Johnny closely, and soon realized that he had the potential to become a great jockey. In time, Mr. Tenney told Johnny the story of the restoration. He 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 this fine young horse, who was named Swaps. Johnny was given the opportunity to break him and work with him until the horse matured. Swaps became a consistent winner on the west coast of the United States. The 1955 Kentucky Derby was approaching and Ellsworth and Tenney entered Swaps in the race which would give Johnny Burton an opportunity to ride in the greatest of all horse races, the Kentucky Derby. All three of them prepared for months.
After a while, the bishop of the local ward called Johnny into his office and said: “I am sure the Lord wants you to serve a mission.” Johnny said, “I can’t serve a mission because of the Kentucky Derby and other races in which I am obligated to ride.” He went to see Brother Tenney and told him that he might receive a call to go on a mission. Tenney immediately said, “That’s impossible, you can’t go!” They went and talked to 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 must let that boy go on his mission. If we don’t, the horse will fall and break his leg, or something worse, and we’ll lose out. We can’t fight the Lord nor His church.” They informed Johnny that if he really wanted to fill a mission, they would sustain him. Johnny received his call to serve in one of the Canadian missions.
That left Ellsworth and Tenney in a real bind as Johnny was the only person who had ever been on Swaps. It was just a short while before 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, while serving his mission in Canada, he went tracting.
I was aware of the fact that the horse had indeed won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, which is known as the Triple Crown of Racing. I asked Johnny if he had any idea how much money Willy 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 just a little sorry that you didn’t stay and ride Swaps?” He said, “No, I wouldn’t trade one day of my mission for all that money and fame!”
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