IT speaks volumes of Richard Johnson’s rich run of form ahead of today’s Hennessy Gold Cup – one of jump racing’s signature steeplechases – that he regards the past month as one of the best of his illustrious career.
This, after all, is a jockey who has won 2,763 races in Britain and Ireland, and Johnson’s horsemanship would have even greater public recognition and respect if his career had not overlapped with his great friend and rival AP McCoy.
However, it is Johnson, already the second most successful jump jockey in history, who is brimming with confidence as both men look to win Newbury’s premier steeplechase for the first time. The 37-year-old partners the talented, but lightly-raced Fingal Bay, while McCoy, back in the saddle after six weeks of injury woe, is aboard Jonjo O’Neill’s Merry King.
Already buoyed by veteran Wishful Thinking’s exuberant victory in last month’s Old Roan Chase at Aintree, Johnson headed to Wetherby on November 1 and partnered The Grey Taylor to a hard-fought win over McCoy’s mount, Chieftain’s Choice.
The winners of a combined 7,000 races between them going hammer and tongs up the Wetherby home straight was a sight to behold and Johnson’s day was to get even better when Menorah took advantage of the good ground and won the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase.
Johnson then recorded a magnificent seven victories at Cheltenham’s prestigious Open meeting – the superb septet included Grand National runner-up and course specialist Balthazar King’s stirring win over the cross-country track – before Menorah put up a career-best performance to finish second behind Silviniaco Conti in Haydock’s Grade One Betfair Chase last weekend.
Today, Johnson is reunited with Fingal Bay, who has won eight of his 12 career starts, including a thrilling Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival in March when the Philip Hobbs-trained horse was victorious in a four-horse battle to the line, which included subsequent Aintree hero Pineau De Re.
His only worry is the eight-year-old horse’s inexperience over the larger obstacles – he has only had three chase starts and has not tackled fences since running out at Exeter in December 2012 when a muscle problem was diagnosed.
“I have never had a November like this. It would be nice to finish off with a good weekend,” said Johnson in an exclusive interview after partnering the Steve Gollings-trained The Grey Taylor to another success at Wetherby on Wednesday.
“Philip has the horses in great condition – long may it last. Touch wood, the yard is in good form which is a plus. Fingal Bay is very well at home – the only worry is his inexperience – but he has schooled well. He jumped very well at Chepstow two years ago and was then second to Dynaste at Cheltenham. That form is rock solid.
“He then ran out at Exeter, but there was something the bother with him and he was off for more than a year.
“To come back and win a competitive handicap at the Cheltenham Festival under top weight tells you all you need to know about the horse, and the handicapper is taking no chances. He might be slightly vulnerable to a lightly-weighted horse open to improvement, but the nice thing is that he doesn’t mind soft ground. There’s nothing flash about Fingal Bay.
“He’s the only horse to beat Nicky Henderson’s Simonsig and he is just very, very solid. He’s still a young horse with not many miles on the clock.”
It is to Johnson’s credit that not one rider has a bad word to say about the jockey who has been runner-up to McCoy, the relentless 19-time champion jockey, on 14 occasions.
Johnson, a protégé of legendary trainer David Nicholson, has ridden a century of winners every season since 1996-97 and much of his success can be attributed to the strength of his relationship with West Country trainer Hobbs – one of National Hunt racing’s true gents.
The jockey was the beneficiary of the injury misfortune which befell Richard Dunwoody towards the end of his career, and the partnership remains one of racing’s most enduring and successful.
“I had a bit of luck to start with and the rest is history as they say,” said Johnson, a farmer’s son from Herefordshire.
“Philip is an amazing boss. He is very level-headed. You wouldn’t be able to tell from his demeanour whether he has had a good day or a bad day.
“He is not singing your praises one day and then cursing you the next.
“He also has an amazing knack of getting his horses fast and fit each season – horses like Menorah, Captain Chris, Wishful Thinking, Balthazar King and many others. To get them out at the top level year-in and year-out is not easy. To keep them mentally and physically right is no easy thing. There are very few owners that have a bad word to say about him.”
Certainly not Graham Whateley, whose booming urgings of “Come on, Richard” became more intense as Menorah chased home Silviniaco Conti last weekend – the William Hill King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, says Johnson, is the target if the ground does not become too testing at Kempton.
Many in racing would share Whateley’s sentiment if Johnson led the Grand National field over the last – his mount What’s Up Boys was collared by Bindaree on the run-in of the 2002 renewal, while Pineau De Re proved too good for Balthazar King this April.
However, it is the prospect of winning a National on Balthazar King – and the dream of being champion jockey – that is helping Johnson retain his appetite for the sport.
“Balthazar King is an amazing horse. He has now won at Cheltenham eight times and has gone for a winter break. His next race, all being well, will be the National,” added the jockey.
“He’s a horse you want to ride every day because he tries so hard. He makes a jockey’s life so easy. Fingers crossed, he gets reasonable ground at Aintree.
“He was second last season and I had no excuses. He’s such a tough individual and there’s every chance of going back there and running to the same level again. I’m sure my three children would be happy if they could say that their dad had won the National. Even people who have no idea about racing can relate to it. It’s been amazing to be second a couple of times.
“However, I’ve always wanted to be champion jockey – and that hasn’t changed. To me, there is no better accolade. AP has a perfect record, but it would be lovely to get it just once.
“All I can do is try and ride as many winners as possible. Being runner-up, it used to hurt – but I’ve come to terms with it. AP is an amazing man. He’s brilliant for racing and he is a very good friend.
“When he had to give up a ride in a walkover at Wetherby, you knew he had a fairly major injury problem. It’s a privilege to ride against him. There is no animosity – he is the same with me as he is with a lad having his first ride. There are very few legends who conduct themselves in such a way.”
They are also words that apply in equal measure to Richard Johnson.
Sympathy for Mania after he bows out
RICHARD JOHNSON spoke of the sacrifices that jockeys make after Ryan Mania, the rider who rode Sue Smith’s Auroras Encore to glory in the 2013 Grand National, quit the sport because of weight issues – and the time spent on the road away from his family.
“I am lucky with my weight – and that’s a massive part of the job,” he said. “The greatest hardship is the travelling. I do 70,000 miles a year, give or take a few thousand, and it’s tough knowing you’re not going to be home at teatime.
“For Ryan, he was a very good jockey and his decision took us all by surprise. Your heart has got to be in racing – it is not a job you can do 95 per cent. In a year’s time, maybe he will think differently.”
While 25-year-old Mania did win a National, a race that continues to elude Johnson, he did say that he wanted to regularly compete at meetings like the Cheltenham Festival. His best result was this year’s Pertemps Final when he was a close fourth on Tim Easterby’s Trustan Times to Johnson’s Hennessy hope Fingal Bay.
In contrast, Johnson is one of a select number of jockeys to have won all four of Cheltenham’s showpiece races – World Hurdle (Anzum, 1999); Looks Like Trouble (2000 Gold Cup); Flagship Uberalles (2002 Champion Chase) and Rooster Booster (2003 Champion Hurdle).