Though the first objective will be difficult as long as his great rival AP McCoy is in the saddle, the second remains a more realistic possibility after Balthazar King landed the odds in the Glenfarclas Cross County Chase at Cheltenham to complete a treble for Johnson and his trainer Philip Hobbs.
Remarkably, this was the 10-year-old horse’s eighth win at the home of jump racing and Balthazar King’s growing band of faithful followers will be hoping that the chaser can go one better at Aintree next year after chasing home Pineau De Re in April.
Though the veteran made some uncharacteristic jumping errors yesterday before pulling clear of his great rival Uncle Junior, Johnson’s respect for his equine warrior could not have been more effusive. “I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a horse who tries as hard as him,” said Johnson, whose month began with victory aboard Menorah in Wetherby’s bet365 Charlie Hall Chase
“He hated every minute of it (yesterday) as the ground was too soft for him, I couldn’t ride him as aggressively as normal because of that.
“If every horse tried as hard as him it would be easy. I have never had a treble at Cheltenham before, so I will enjoy it.”
Balthazar King will now be given a long lay-off before the National – he is 25-1 with William Hill according to spokesman Jon Ivan-Duke.
Earlier, Johnson was the beneficiary of McCoy’s injury absence when Bold Henry took the Paddy Power Handicap Chase for owner JP McManus.
He was then aboard Champagne West who beat stablemate Colour Squadron to give Hobbs a one-two in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase that has been won previously by the likes of Dynaste, Imperial Commander and Denman.
A number of fences had to be bypassed because of the low sun, but Johnson observed: “I know people might not be satisfied with missing the fences, but when we came up the straight we couldn’t even see the boards dolling off the fences, never mind the fences themselves.”
The early pace had been set by Urban Hymn for Malton trainer Malcolm Jefferson and jockey Brian Hughes. “He’s a big horse, but a really lovely mover,” said the handler. “Better ground will suit him better and he could be one for the RSA Chase back here in March.”