AS only the second National Hunt jockey in history to ride more than 3,000 winners, Richard Johnson’s big race triumphs are too numerous to list.
Yet few have given him more professional and personal satisfaction than his 13 successes to date on the ever dependable Menorah who has been competing at the top since landing Cheltenham’s Supreme Novices Hurdle as long ago as 2010.
Winner of Wetherby’s 2014 Charlie Hall Chase, Johnson also partnered the veteran to victory at Sandown in late April on the emotional day when he finally became champion jockey.
Johnson, now 39, is experienced enough to realise that his 11-year-old horse faces a massive task in today’s bet365-sponsored Charlie Hall, with £100,000, if defending champion Cue Card, from the Colin Tizzard stable, is as good as ever.
Yet he also knows ground conditions at the West Yorkshire course will be ideal for the Philip Hobbs-trained Menorah who runs in the two-tone blue colours of ever enthusiastic owners Grahame and Diana Whateley.
“Most of us in jump racing have been praying for rain but, for Menorah, I’m quite pleased it has stayed away,” Johnson told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“He should love the conditions, they will be pretty similar to two years ago. He hated the soft last year. It’s not ideal that he’s giving weight to younger horses, but he has a very good chance of being in the first three.
“Colin Tizzard’s horses are in great form and, over the past 18 months, Cue Card is the horse we all have to beat. Cue Card and Menorah have had some good battles over the years, it’s what makes jump racing so special.”
Asked to account for Menorah’s durability – the horse has won 14 of his 40 career starts – Johnson says: “Gosh, I wish I knew. Philip is very, very good. He’s a great trainer but he’s very good at keeping some of those older horses on the go season in season out.
“Menorah, Wishful Thinking, Captain Chris, they kept producing the results. That’s half the battle, keeping them in one piece and holding their form. Menorah has been a pleasure to ride and he will always be special to me.”
The reason is that special Sandown day when Menorah won a third successive Celebration Chase minutes before the universally admired Johnson, 16-times runner-up to Sir AP McCoy, was finally crowned champion.
“It meant everything to me,” said Johnson, as he recalled the guard of honour formed by his rival jockeys before he received his trophy from McCoy, his long-term friend, rival and nemesis. “That day was very special. For him (Menorah) to win the race before I received my trophy, I couldn’t have dreamt it. The day itself was amazing but the win really capped it off.”
In action at Sedgefield on Thursday, Johnson rode out yesterday in his native Herefordshire at trainer Tom Lacey’s stables before driving to Uttoxeter. His cross-country itinerary includes Wetherby today and Carlisle tomorrow.
Yet the prestige of being champion jockey has not changed Johnson. Pleased to help anyone and everyone, he remains his sport’s ultimate ambassador, typified by Middleham jockey Henry Brooke praising the champion’s countless messages of encouragement following a life-threatening fall.
“On a daily basis, it doesn’t make any difference,” says the ever modest Johnson. “We’re quite a close-knit community. Even though we compete against each other every day of the week, we are fully aware that it could be any of us on the floor. It’s the one sport where an ambulance follows the competitors. The first thing when back in the weighing room is to check everyone is okay.”
On the 96-winner mark for the current campaign, Johnson is taking nothing for granted – even though the aforementioned McCoy’s retirement in 2015 has eased his task.
Yet Johnson says 20-times champion McCoy’s legacy is the emergence of a new generation of gifted young riders who appreciate what it takes to be champion.
“I’ve won it once, I’ve now got to fend off the young riders to see if I can do it again,” he said. “The target is 200 winners. If I get there, I will have a great chance. There are lots of young lads snapping away at your heels – the main three are Sam Twiston-Davies, Aidan Coleman and Brian Hughes.
“There are more British jockeys than ever coming through because of Pony Racing, which has to be one of the great innovations of the last 10 to 15 years. When I was growing up, I looked up to Peter Scudamore and then Richard Dunwoody who was unbelievably strong, tough and a brilliant horseman.
“And then came AP who wanted to go everywhere, win everything and keep improving. I don’t miss the days when he rode three winners to your two, or he came upsides at the second last, but he made all the younger jockeys, and all the older jockeys, work even harder.”
As for the equine stars of the future, Johnson was very impressed with Thistlecrack’s novice chase debut at Chepstow under Tom Scudamore. “I wasn’t good enough to get close to him, but he’s the young chaser everyone has got to beat,” he added. “He finds it easy when others find it hard. He is an unbelievable talent who we should embrace and enjoy.”
Just like Richard Johnson and horses like Menorah.