Johnston calls for revamp of championships

Mark Johnston is expected to become Britain's winning-most trainer this year.
Mark Johnston is expected to become Britain's winning-most trainer this year.
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MARK JOHNSTON has called for the introduction of 12 month championships to determine Flat racing’s leading trainer, owner and jockey.

The prolific Johnston spoke out at, potentially, the start of a record-breaking year that should see him becoming Britain’s winning-most trainer.

Raz de Maree and James Bowen clear the last in the Coral Welsh Natiional.

Raz de Maree and James Bowen clear the last in the Coral Welsh Natiional.

Thirty years after taking out a licence, he needs just a further 176 successes to overhaul the 4,180 winners accumulated by National Hunt handler Martin Pipe, the current record-holder.

Only the retired Richard Hannon senior – with 4,145 wins to his name – has saddled more victories on the Flat than Middleham-based Johnston.

He’s trained 200 or more winners in seven of the past nine seasons and is critical of the lack of consistency in determining championships in the latest edition of his stable magazine Kingsley Klarion.

Even though the Flat turf season traditionally begins in late March at Doncaster, and ends on Town Moor in November, the title races now start in May on the day of the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, the first Classic of the year, and finish on Champions Day at Ascot in mid-October.

Sixteen-year-old James Bowen after winning the Welsh National.

Sixteen-year-old James Bowen after winning the Welsh National.

Winners accrued outside of this period, or on the all-weather throughout the winter, don’t count for championship purposes – even though they count towards the overall career record of horses, trainers, jockeys and owners.

As for National Hunt racing, its own championships are determined over 12 months, culminating at Sandown’s traditional season-ending meeting at the end of each April.

“It is time to stop putting the interests of individual courses and sponsors ahead of the overall interests of the sport,” writes Johnston.

“Let’s get back to 12-month championships for all, with the Flat racing championships sticking to the calendar year.”

The trainer says this makes greater sense rather than curtailing the campaign – a move instigated by Great British Racing.

“With much of our Flat racing categorised by the age of the horse, and thoroughbred horses all being deemed to have their ‘birthday’ on January 1, there is no other logical time period,” says Johnston who, perversely, has never been champion trainer because it is determined by accumulated prize money and he doesn’t have the equine firepower enjoyed by the likes of Aidan O’Brien and John Gosden.

“I also heard raised the issue of whether the trainers’ championship should be based on number of winners or prize money, and I heard Richard Fahey point out in a TV interview that, by number of winners, he would have been champion for two years, 2015 and 2016.

“Well, if it were calculated in that way, I would have led the table on 11 occasions, but I have never suggested that this should be the case. As I see it, it is a trainer’s job to get the best out of each individual horse in his or her care, with the owner’s best interests to the fore, and that is best measured by prize money. That said, I can’t help feel that, at times, too little is made of the importance at all levels.”

The 58-year-old, who saddled his 4,000th winner at Pontefract late last year, attributes his yard’s success to the calibre of his staff and the consistency of his yard.

“We have long boasted of the fact that we hold the record for the number of consecutive centuries of winners (24, the next closest being Richard Hannon snr with 16), and that figure almost seems old hat now that we are targeting, and often hitting, 200-plus winners in a season,” he added.

“But it is that consistency of getting into the hundreds that has enabled us to chip away at Richard Hannon’s record. I believe we now lie just 176 winners away from that all-time record.

“All we need now is to continue to do what we have done for more than 20 years. It looks inevitable that it should be achieved in 2018 but, in this business, nothing can be taken for granted. From zero, 176 is still a big number.”

Johnston knows better than most that records are there to be broken and this certainly happened when 16-year-old pony racing graduate James Bowen became the youngest ever jockey to win the Coral Welsh National.

That he did so on Raz De Maree, a veteran horse just three years younger than the top conditional who is still too young to drive, made this victory all the more remarkable.

Only the second 13-year-old to win the race after Snipe’s bridge in 1927, Raz De Maree was nursed into the attritional race at Chepstow under the teenage tyro before hitting the front.

Ironically the runner-up Alfie Spinner was also 13. Bowen’s mount, trained in Ireland by Gavin Cromwell, had more luck than Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds who was still travelling well under Danny Cook before being hampered by Wild West Wind’s crashing fall at the 12th. The Yorkshire challenger dropped back before running on to snatch fourth.

Yet this should not detract from the winner – Bowen has long been tipped as a future champion jockey and amongst the first to congratulate him was his current boss Nicky Henderson, the champion trainer.

Bowen’s parents Peter and Karen are successful trainers in Wales while the rider’s talented older brother, Sean, is attached to the yard of Henderson’s great rival Paul Nicholls.

“He’s (Raz De Maree) only a few years younger than me! We didn’t travel anywhere at all and I thought we’d do well to get round and pick up a place,” said an elated Bowen who speaks and rides with a maturity beyond his tender years.

“Once he passed a few horses, he then picked up the bit and we ended up getting there too soon. It’s amazing to win. You grow up watching these races at home and to win it in my first full season riding is amazing.”

The Grand National is now on the agenda for Raz De Maree – provided the ground is soft – when Bowen will hope to become the first 17-year-old to win the Aintree marathon since Bruce Hobbs on Battleship in 1938.