IF horse racing was a popularity contest, Richard Johnson and Menorah would be already assured of a second successive victory in the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase – Wetherby’s feature race of the year.
Jumping aficionados love old stagers like Menorah, the 2014 winner, and there is also a groundswell of support for Johnson’s quest to become champion jockey after he was runner-up 16 times to the now retired AP McCoy.
Now a McCoy-like 40 winners clear of his closest pursuer, this most likable farmer’s son has been in racing long enough to know there are no certainties, not least in today’s £100,000 race which has attracted its best field in years.
Not only will the Philip Hobbs-trained Menorah have to contend with rain-softened ground and the presence of this year’s Crabbies Grand National winner Many Clouds, but he will also face formidable challenges from Cheltenham Festival heroes Dynaste, Cue Card and Holywell who are all Grade One-winning chasers.
It is a line-up which would not look out of place at next March’s National Hunt Festival and, by then, Johnson will hope to have an unassailable lead in his title pursuit. “We’re only at the halfway stage of the season in terms of time, and the good racing is only about to get going, but it’s a lovely position to be in. Fingers crossed it stays that way,” the 38-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“The support I have had from trainers, owners and the public has been amazing. I didn’t know I had so many supporters – complete strangers come up to me at the races and wish me well.
“It’s nice to be part of a sport and industry in which people care about everyone so much. We all have good and bad days, the nice thing is you never get too big for your own boots because you never know what is around the corner.
“Everyone wishes everyone else on, which doesn’t happen in any other sport. We’re rivals on the track, but friends off it. It’s a slightly stranger world, but one I’m proud to be part of. The most important thing is to ride winners every day of the week.”
McCoy would concur. However, it is refreshing that Johnson’s positive outlook has not changed since the start of the 2015-16 season when switched from being the hunter to becoming the hunted – the jockey that every other rider wants to emulate. He has always been a great ambassador for his sport and he has always been as committed as his great rival.
It helps, says Johnson, that he has McCoy’s long-standing agent Dave Roberts on his side. “My job is easy – I just ride horses – while he organises all the bookings and my wife Fiona manages everything at home.
“They, and all my trainers, are the ones who do the hard work. I just go to the races and steer the horses. If my name is being talked about favourably, it is thanks to them – it is a massive team effort and I just hope I can repay their faith and loyalty.
“I’d like to think AP and I were good for each other. We both have the same attitude – very driven – and it didn’t matter if it was a Monday or a Saturday, we wanted to win. Even though he’s not riding, he’s still driving me on because I want to be champion and he set the standard. His work ethic was amazing and that stays with you. He set such an example to the younger lads that they all want to be like him which is good for racing.”
The jockey, who is closing in on his 3,000th career victory and is the second winning-most rider in National Hunt history, already has one accolade that eluded McCoy – the 20-times champion never won the Charlie Hall Chase during his record-breaking career.
Johnson was at his brilliant best last year on Menorah, who relished the good ground – the recent rain will not have helped his cause – before partnering Diana and Grahame Whateley’s horse to victory at Sandown’s season-ending meeting last April on that emotional roller-coaster of a day when McCoy took his leave of the sport that made him.
“The Charlie Hall is a prestigious race and good to soft ground will be fine, we wouldn’t want it soft,” said Johnson, who recorded his 117th victory of the year when the Whateley-owned Garde La Victoire made a winning novice chase debut at Uttoxeter.
“I think the main thing about Menorah is that he is very tough. To stay at the top for so long is a massive quality for any horse. He travels well and still has natural speed – he won a Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2010 over two miles – and he loves jumping off good ground. That is when you see him at his best. In the Betfair Chase after the Charlie Hall last year, he stayed all the way to the line, but it was very soft and he was just touched off by Silviniaco Conti. The track at Wetherby, with two long straights, definitely suits him – there is no hiding place.
“My job is the easy one – Philip (Hobbs) does all the grafting. It’s not just about getting these horses back every season. To keep them at the very top, it is quite an art. The Flat, you might have one season. Over jumps, it is four, five, six or seven years. What’s great is the public warm to these horses.”
This was exemplified by the response to the near fatal rib injuries suffered by Balthazar King in the Grand National – the horse was inundated with cards and mints. However, Johnson reports that there is still a chance that the ever popular veteran will line up in the Cross Country race at the Cheltenham Festival if he is “A1 and full of enthusiasm”.
In the meantime, Richard Johnson’s priority is becoming champion jockey. “Hopefully, it’s my year,” he says. National Hunt racing would concur, starting with Menorah today.