IT is ironic that Mark Johnston could win the Epsom Derby today with a horse that was not even originally entered for Flat racing’s signature contest.
Yet the Middleham trainer’s logic is faultless – why waste the money of owners with entry fees for unraced yearlings that are unlikely to be good enough?
And so it proved with Permian – a supplementary entry fee of £85,000 was only stumped up on Monday following the colt’s emphatic win in York’s Dante Stakes.
It helps that the horse won £105,000 at York in a race commemorating 1945 Derby winner Dante, the last Yorkshire winner of the great race and that Permian runs in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed’s son. Money is not an issue.
Yet, as befits a canny Scotsman and former vet who saddled his first winner nearly 30 years ago and who will, with a fair wind, land his 4,000th race by the end of 2017, Johnston does not believe in superfluous entries.
With his stables famed for their ‘Always Trying’ mantra, reputations matter – hence why Permian, one of the few horses in today’s 238th renewal with the stamina required to win this unique mile-and-a-half test, is just Johnston’s fourth runner in the Investec-sponsored Derby worth a record £1.6m.
It’s obviously quite unusual for a Derby contender to have run so often – he’s had four races already this season. That might not be orthodox, but, in many ways, there’s got to be a lot of advantages to that, particularly in a big-field Derby.Mark Johnston
“If you look at races like King Edward VII Stakes, Royal Ascot’s Derby, I’ve had quite a lot of runners in that,” Johnston, 57, told The Yorkshire Post.
“I think it might come down to the fact that I, as a Scotsman, don’t like to spend a lot of money if it can be helped. It’s down to the horse justifying the entry. They are not racing for fun.”
If Johnston, who has 220 horses in training, was being brutally honest, the King Edward VII Stakes – which he won with Boscobel (2007) and Monterosso (2010) – would, initially, have been the ultimate target for a horse like Permian.
He says Permian, sired by multiple Group One winner Teofilo, did not stand out when he first arrived at the yard. Yet, while his wife and assistant Deirdre looks at a horse’s markings to watch their maturity, Johnston prefers to follow the form.
That the colt caught his eye towards the end of his two-year-old season, winning three of his six starts, including a competitive contest at Windsor under today’s big-race jockey William Buick, suggests this was no back number.
Yet, like last season’s stable star The Last Lion, who raced nine times after winning Doncaster’s season-opening Brocklesby Stakes before being retired to stud, Johnston believes horses are bred to race.
However, he bristles at the suggestion that his decision for Permian to make his seasonal reappearance in a handicap at Bath, one of the lesser tracks, in April is a poor reflection of this year’s Derby, which has a wide- open complexion.
It was a valuable race – the first prize was in excess of £37,000 – and Permian was unlucky to finish third, beaten a head and short head. The outcome of Flat races, including the Derby, can come down to such fine margins.
Then to Epsom Derby Trial, the eighth race of Permian’s career. He looked set to be a slightly unlikely victor before being beaten on the line by the Frankie Dettori-ridden and John Gosden-trained Cracksman, one of the favourites for today’s date with destiny.
This piece of form is key. Though Cracksman has not raced subsequently, and will only be having his third start today, Permian – in true Johnston style – has kept on racing, winning impressively at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting before denting some lofty reputations in the aforementioned Dante.
That jockey Franny Norton struggled to pull up Permian after this informative one-and-a-quarter-mile test – 10 winners have subsequently triumphed at Epsom – suggests today’s extended Derby trip of a mile-and-a-half will not be a problem. He has the fitness and experience, the question is whether he is good enough on the day and has luck in running.
The challenge will be his 18 rivals – including rank outsiders – as they negotiate the sweeping descent down to Tattenham Corner and then a long home straight with various cambers that test a horse’s balance, and dexterity, as they race into the unknown and a wall of deafening noise.
“Cracksman is our best guide,” said Johnston. “We pulled a bit of a fast one on him there. He was on the inside and Permian held him in for a few strides and got first run on him. Cracksman managed to get out, came after us and caught us by a nose.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind that Permian has come on considerably since that Epsom encounter and Cracksman is going to have to improve significantly to beat him this time.
“It’s obviously quite unusual for a Derby contender to have run so often – he’s had four races already this season. That might not be orthodox, but, in many ways, there’s got to be a lot of advantages to that, particularly in a big-field Derby.
“It can be a rough race. That might play into our hands. We’re one of the most experienced horses in the race and he demonstrated in the Dante that when horses are struggling and not settling, he can just do his own thing and settle wherever the jockey wants him.”
He also does not begrudge Buick taking over the riding reins today – he has won on the horse before and, as Sheikh Mohammed’s retained rider, had first call on the horses that come under the Godolphin operation. “It’s quite a compliment,” he says.
Johnston’s bullishness is significant. He freely admits that he does not know what is required to train a Derby winner – the front-running Mister Baileys was fourth in 1994 after landing the 2000 Guineas.
Yet he also does not expect a Derby win to change his fortunes. Unlike Mister Baileys, who helped put Johnston on the map, the trainer is now regarded as a prolific accumulator of winners and has accrued in excess of 200 victories on six occasions since 2009.
Like National Hunt racing’s record-breaker Martin Pipe, Johnston – a qualified vet whose scientific and analytical mind enables him to spot trends in the form of his horses – believes his owners expect him to train winners first and foremost.
“To win the Derby would be fantastic – and it’s on the bucket list,” said Johnston before noting that Permian is his fourth runner in Epsom’s blue riband race in contrast to Aidan O’Brien, who has declared six horses for today’s blue riband contest. “It won’t change the future of the stable, the village or racing in the North. Derby winners don’t do that these days. When we won the Guineas in 1994, it did change everything.”
After all, this was just six years after Johnston had moved from Lincolnshire to the stables where their predecessor, George Dawes, had gone bankrupt. “They thought we were next,” said the trainer at the time as he recalled acquiring a dilapidated 34-horse box which is unrecognisable to today’s state-of-the-art facilities that include equine swimming pools.
“Winning the Derby will be great but training 200 winners a year is more important to me. That represents a lot of owners. A lot of customers. If we go a week without a winner, they say I am out of form. They don’t pay us to win the Derby with one horse – but at least it will mean Dante is no longer the last Middleham horse to have to won the Derby.”