NOT even AP McCoy begrudged his great rival Richard Johnson’s big race success at Ascot aboard the hurdler mudlark in Reve De Sivola in a race that saw the record-breaking 18-times champion come to grief at the last when his race was already lost.
McCoy, third in this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll, credits the commitment and dedication of Johnson, runner-up in 14 jockeys’ championships and counting, for driving National Hunt racing’s greatest rider to 4,000 winners and beyond.
In many respects, it is to Johnson’s misfortune that his emergence in the late 1990s coincided with the unequalled dominance of McCoy – he has 2,500 winners to his name and is second on the all-time list. In any other era, he would be regarded as one of the all-time greats.
But it is to the 36-year-old’s credit that he has never once expressed any bitterness about McCoy as he heads to Kempton for Boxing Day’s William Hill King George VI Chase.
He will partner the Philip Hobbs-trained Captain Chris who was cruelly robbed of victory 12 months ago in the shadow of the winning post when Nicky Henderson’s Long Run mounted one final thrust in the bottomless going to snatch the spoils.
With there being a possibility of McCoy sitting out the King George, Johnson’s prowess in the saddle should not be overlooked – even if the forecast rain at the Surrey track is likely to dampen Captain Chris’s chances against the young guns headed by Cue Card.
The eminently likable Johnson is a great tactician – as exemplified by his winning ride aboard Reve De Sivola who made all of the running to claim back-to-back renewals of the Grade One Wessex Youth Trust Long Walk Hurdle.
This is a horse that gave Saltburn jockey James Reveley a Grade One win in France in the autumn, and the eight-year-old’s stamina came to the fore in the exacting conditions.
McCoy’s mount At Fishers Cross, the winner of the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, jumped sketchily early on, but improved along the second circuit as he strived to atone for an awful mistake at Newbury on his seasonal bow.
But the JP McManus-owned horse made another howler at the final flight as he catapulted McCoy ingloriously out of the saddle, and onto the rain-sodden turf, when in second place.
Connections of the Paul Nicholls-trained Salubrious might also feel a little hard done by as the six-year-old made a costly gaffe two out when seemingly still full of running.
“He’s a very honest horse – he’s a very good horse,” said Johnson with his trademark modesty. “He’s a very, very good hurdler and we know soft ground suits him very well.”
Reve de Sivola, trained by Nick Williams, is likely to bypass Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle, the intended comeback race for the legendary Big Buck’s next month, and head straight to the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the National Hunt Festival in March. However soft ground, and better jumping, will be key to his chances.
Most significant remains the mutual respect between Johnson and McCoy.
“I owe a lot of my success to him as he’s kept me honest and working hard for the last 18 or 19 years,” McCoy said of his rival.
“He’s a fantastic lad and he would never let you slack, he’d make sure you worked hard every day.”
Johnson’s response? “It’s been a pleasure to ride with him and you’d struggle to find a nicer person to work with, either, on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
That’s why both men are so revered – such generosity of spirit between rivals is rarely seen in other sports.
Dan Skelton’s arrival to the training ranks has been little less than astonishing as Willow’s Saviour brought about his 15th and most important winner in The Ladbroke.
It is less than four months since Skelton sent out the first runner from his purpose-built stable.
Staged in near-dusk, Willow’s Saviour powered through the mud under the trainer’s brother, Harry, who paid tribute to their father Nick – the 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning showjumper.
Meanwhile, Yorkshire’s Harvey Smith, another former Olympic showjumper, was in a bullish mood after Mwaleshi won Haydock’s novice chase by five lengths under young conditional Jonathan England.
“I just hope the handicapper doesn’t go overboard or he could prove hard to place,” said High Eldwick-based Smith.
“The second had a silly rating, in my opinion.
“It’s three years making these horses into steeplechasers and the BHA are guessing at these marks rather than horses earning their handicap mark.”
Another Smith horse with a bright future is Blakemount who was a wide-margin victor at Newcastle under Grand National-winning rider Ryan Mania who is 24 today.
A winner at Wetherby last month before finishing third in a very competitive race at Newcastle, he will be given a break now.
He could still head to the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but he’s likely to go steeplechasing next season and Smith’s wife Sue is happy to bide her time.
“You can’t get carried away, I’m not sure what he beat, but he can’t do anything more than win,” said the trainer.
“He’s going to have a break and we’ll probably leave him until the beginning of February; he’s had three quick races.
“Whatever we get this season is a bonus – we’re looking forward to going chasing with him next year.”