Richard Johnson will finally achieve a lifetime ambition when he is officially crowned champion jockey for the first time at Sandown today.
It is almost 22 years since the rider secured his first winner aboard Rusty Bridge in a Hereford hunter chase and in the subsequent two decades he has firmly established himself as one of the most successful National Hunt jockeys in history.
Johnson has ridden over 3,000 career winners, including a Cheltenham Gold Cup success aboard Looks Like Trouble (2000), a Queen Mother Champion Chase triumph aboard Flagship Uberalles (2002), Champion Hurdle glory aboard Rooster Booster (2003) and the World Hurdle on Anzum (1999), the biggest four races at the Cheltenham Festival.
It is fair to say Johnson has come a long way since growing up on a Herefordshire farm and getting the leg-up on his first pony, Twinkle, and yet he has had to spend most of his career in the giant shadow of the greatest of them all, the recently knighted Sir Anthony McCoy.
Johnson’s statistics are nothing short of staggering, but they pale into insignificance when put up against 20-times champion McCoy’s mind-boggling figures.
Having finished runner-up to the Ulsterman on no less than 15 occasions in the jockeys’ title race, Johnson could be forgiven for having felt like his day at the top might never come, but it is a measure of the man that rather than becoming bitter and jealous, he saw his close friend and rival – who retired last year having ridden 4,358 winners – as an example of what can be achieved through hard work and dedication.
“I had years of great racing with AP (McCoy) and it was frustrating not to beat him, but I had a fantastic time. Apart from the fact that I didn’t beat him, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” said Johnson.
“You always want to be competitive and you want to win every day. Racing is very unique in that we do all get on very well, we’re friends and we get changed in the same room, but we are very competitive.
“If you’re not competitive, you wouldn’t be doing it. I was always chasing AP which spurred me on and, hopefully, I pushed him.
“When I was growing up it was Peter Scudamore, followed by Richard Dunwoody. To ride against Richard Dunwoody was an honour for me and to this day I still think he’s one of the best jockeys I’ve ever seen. He was what I wanted to be.
“AP has been the role model for the last 20 years and he conducted himself so well. It’s actually made me realise in the last two or three months the extras he did for the last 20 years.”
With his mother Susan still holding a training licence and both father Keith and grandfather Ivor successful amateur riders, Johnson was bred to be a jockey.
After graduating from riding ponies, he started riding out for trainer David Nicholson in the school holidays before becoming a pupil after leaving school at 16. After initially riding as an amateur, Johnson turned professional in 1995 and the following year was crowned champion conditional for the one and only time.
Married to Fiona Chance, daughter of dual Cheltenham Gold-Cup winning trainer Noel, he will journey to Sandown along with his family to be presented with his champion jockey trophy by McCoy, and admits it will be a special day.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “This season has gone so well and I’ve had so much support off the world and their wife. Every owner and trainer in England and Ireland have supported me, which has been amazing.
“A massive thanks go to Philip Hobbs and Henry Daly, who have been my two longest-serving trainers and have been with me through thick and thin.
“The Whateleys have been fantastic owners, but all the owners have been very supportive.”
Looking back, he continued: “I’ve many fond memories. Rusty Bridge and Derring Bridge are two horses that helped me get going and it sounds soft, but it’s always special to ride a winner for mum, whether it was back then or now.
“The three stand-out horses, though, are Rooster Booster, Looks Like Trouble and Anzum, who was my first winner at the Cheltenham Festival and David Nicholson’s last.
“Again it sounds so corny but I’ve been very spoilt with so many good horses.
“Winning the title is something that I’ve always wanted and it’s going to be a very special day and bit surreal I think.
“It was a strange day at Sandown last year with AP finishing (retiring) and it’s probably going to be a bit strange this year. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”
While there will be a huge sense of relief today, Johnson has no intention of resting on his laurels, with the defence of his crown set to begin almost immediately. “You can’t sit back and think it’s going to happen, because it’s not. You’ve got to go out there and ride the winners.”