RICHARD JOHNSON was always hopeful that Village Vic could win a big a race after the injury-prone horse galloped to a confidence-boosting victory in the Bobby Renton Chase, the highlight of Wetherby’s season-opening meeting in October.
Now his confidence and judgment have been vindicated after the lightly-weighted gelding made a mockery of his 10st handicap mark and led from start to finish to record a heart-warming win on Saturday in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup, Cheltenham’s prestigious pre-Christmas chase.
The result was particularly satisfying for Johnson, who subjected himself to a starvation diet to make the weight after choosing to ride Village Vic over stablemate Champagne West, who was a commendable second and provided trainer Philip Hobbs with a memorable one-two.
Having told The Yorkshire Post after the Wetherby win that he had once regarded Village Vic as a “potential superstar”, the lightly-raced horse is beginning to justify this confidence – he followed up the success at the West Yorkshire track with a victory at Musselburgh before making all the running at Cheltenham.
“I felt after the race at Musselburgh that this was the ideal race for him. It was a hard decision to make, but it was purely for the fact he had such a light weight I went for him,” explained the victorious rider. “He was very fresh on the way to the start, but one thing he does is jump very well and when I let him go he jumped the first fence well and just got into a rhythm.
“We’ve always thought the world of him and, as a young horse, he was not that far behind The New One, but he has had a lot of injury problems. The owners have been good and have not rushed him and they are getting their rewards for it.
“This is the first time he’s really stayed two and a half on a very stiff track, but I always felt like he was going to find a bit more. I wouldn’t do 10st too often, but it’s been well worth the while.”
The success, in the colours of Alan Peterson, who enjoyed so much success at Wetherby with the much-missed Fair Along, was also emblematic of Johnson’s determination to become champion jockey for the first time following the retirement of his great rival and friend AP McCoy.
On the 97-winner mark after Village Vic’s win at Wetherby, this latest success was the 158th of the season for Johnson, who has now ridden a McCoy-like 60 victories in just two months.
Barring calamity, he will win a deserved championship. He is 60 winners clear of his nearest rival Aidan Coleman and closing in on his career-best mark of 186 in the 2003-04 campaign.
This is the 20th successive year in which this farmer’s son has recorded a century, a level of consistency only surpassed by that man-in-a-million McCoy.
Appropriately, it was Johnson who was in the saddle when 2014 Grand National winner Pineau De Re returned to winning ways at Carlisle yesterday.
It was the first time a National winner had won a race subsequent to their Aintree heroics since Bindaree added the 2003 Welsh National to his big race win in 2002.
The rapidly improving Old Guard – winner of last month’s Greatwood Hurdle – galloped into Champion Hurdle contention after landing the StanJames.com International Hurdle at Cheltenham for champion trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Sam Twiston-Davies.
It remains to be seen whether this form will be good enough to defeat reigning champion Faugheen, but Twiston-Davies won the corresponding race in 2013 and 2014 with The New One for his father Nigel and clearly has confidence in Old Guard. The big disappointment was Nicky Henderson’s JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Peace And Co, who pulled too hard and was a leg-weary last.