RICHARD JOHNSON’s season to remember continues to gather pace after the champion jockey-elect became just the third jumps rider – after Sir AP McCoy and Peter Scudamore – to record 200 winners in a single season.
So long in the shadow of McCoy, the now retired 20-times champion, Johnson finds himself within touching distance of a long-overdue first championship – he has ridden 85 victories more than his nearest pursuer with two months of the 2015-16 season to go.
He also signalled a desire to become a multiple champion, scotching any suggestion that he might hang up his riding boots at the end of the current campaign.
Yet, given that the 38-year-old is the only jump jockey, other than McCoy, to have ridden more than 3,000 career victories, it is a measure of Johnson’s consistency that his win on Claire Dyson’s Cheat The Cheater at Warwick was the first time that he had reached a double century of winners in a single season.
The fact that the National Hunt fraternity have been willing Johnson over the line in his quest should not detract from his ambassadorial qualities which are equally meritorious. Like McCoy before him, no autograph request – or interview – is too much to ask and no-one in the weighing room has a bad word to say about a horseman who goes out of his way to help younger riders, and invariably at the expense of time spent with his young family.
Not many champions in any sport retain this humility, but Johnson competes in a gruelling sport where the protagonists – human and equine – are never more than a split-second away from calamity.
“The season has gone so well and to get to 200 has been amazing,” said Johnson, a perennial runner-up to McCoy in the title race.
“I’ll be here all day thanking all the people who have given me rides, and the support I’ve had from racegoers around the country has been amazing. Being champion jockey has always been my goal since I was 19 and it’s taken me a long time to get there.”
Johnson paid special tribute to his long-term trainer Philip Hobbs. “It’s been a funny old winter. It’s been very wet and mild. Some yards haven’t fired with their usual frequency, but Philip’s have been in great form from day one,” he added. “For the first six months you obviously just want to get as many winners on the board and you do slightly worry because you never know in our job what is round the corner.
“There’s Sam Twiston-Davies and lots of other young lads coming through and snapping at my heels. They want to be champion as much as I do. You can’t take anything for granted. The important thing now is to start in May again and get another one under my belt.”
The aforementioned McCoy still holds the record after riding 289 winners in the 2001-02 campaign and admitted following his retirement that his failure to get to 300 after suffering injury in his final year was one of his biggest regrets.
Eight-times champion jockey Peter Scudamore enjoyed 221 winners during the 1988-89 season and expects Johnson to beat his tally before the end of this term.
He said: “I’ve followed Richard’s career all the way through, with us both being Herefordshire lads, and I rode against his grandfather and his father in point-to-points.
“Only three of us have done it and for two of us to be from a small county like Herefordshire is amazing really.”
One of the few major races missing from Johnson’s CV is the Crabbies Grand National – one possible mount could be Bishops Road who he partnered to victory at Haydock last weekend.
Bishops Road is trained by Kerry Lee who is looking to continue her remarkable run of success in long-distance chases when she saddles Russe Blanc in Newcastle’s four-mile Betfred Eider today. However, a 10lb hike in the weights leaves Lee’s horse vulnerable to the likes of the Warren Greatrex-trained Ballyculla, the mount of Gavin Sheehan.
Meanwhile, Sue Smith is represented by Lackamon, the horse that provided the High Eldwick trainer with her 1,000th winner under NH rules when coming from last to first to win Catterick’s North Yorkshire National under a resurgent Danny Cook.
Earlier, Smith and Cook’s novice steeplechaser Smooth Steeper will look to live up to his name when lining up against Cheltenham Festival contender Seeyouatmidnight in the opener.
Trained by Sandy Thomson in the Scottish Borders, Seeyouatmidnight was a convincing winner at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day before missing Wetherby’s Towton Novices’ Chase following a bad scope.
However, Thomson, and jockey Brian Hughes, have opted to give the horse more experience over fences ahead of the RSA Chase next month.
Keith Reveley has paid tribute to Night In Milan after his stable star was put down following a fall in Doncaster’s veterans’ race on Wednesday.
The 10-year-old excelled on Town Moor where he recorded three of his eight career victories. “He’s been a great horse for us,” said Saltburn-based Reveley. “The day he won the Grimthorpe (March 2014), I’ve never seen a horse jump or gallop around Doncaster like he did. He was in a lot of pain after the fall and it was the kindest thing to do. He was a brilliant horse, but it was just one of those things...”