The Yorkshire trainer’s landmark 4,194th triumph came when the outsider Poet’s Society, ridden by an irrepressible Frankie Dettori, won on day two of the Ebor festival.
The historic win in the Clipper Logistics Stakes followed a frustrating number of near misses for the Middleham trainer as he edged towards Richard Hannon senior’s record.
Yet, in many respects, Poet’s Society is the type of horse that personifies the success of Johnston, a qualified vet, since he and his wife Deirdre took out a trainer’s licence in March 1987.
The horse’s 11th win in total, it was the colt’s 26th start this year – many horses don’t have this number of races in their entire careers – and Dettori was quick to pay tribute to the versatility and durability of the Johnston horses.
“Consistency is the key. He has 200 winners every year,” said the rider.
“His horses are very versatile, very tough. He’s a fantastic man to ride for and I wish him every success. It is incredible to win over 4,000 races and I an pleased to partner the one that broke the record.”
Others acknowledging the landmark included Epsom Derby-winning rider William Buick who added: “This is a huge milestone. He is never afraid to run horses and has proven time and time again that what he is doing brings him success. It is a very well-oiled operation with key people behind it and it is a credit to all of them.
“He is very easy to work with. There is himself at the helm, then there is Charlie, who is getting more involved, and Deirdre. He is a joy to ride for. He will keep going and he will not rest on his laurels.”
Ironically Johnston, 58, had few expectations ahead of this seven furlong race – he nearly chose not to go racing – in which he also saddled the equally unfanced Love Dreams. Dettori jokingly asked before the race if the record had been broken and the trainer replied: “I’m saving it for you.”
So it proved as Poet’s Society, owned by the Kingsley Park syndicate, came with a late surge to claim a place in racing history. Dettori then performed a trademark flying dismount before he bowed his head in admiration of Johnston as he shook the history-maker’s hand. They then embraced.
And while the Johnston team would have preferred longstanding stable jockey Joe Fanning to have been aboard the record-breaking horse, the trainer’s relief and pride was discernible – even he was becoming frustrated by the ‘when are you going to break the record?’ questions.
“It’s been very frustrating, but it’s not as if we’ve had loads of odds-on shots beat,” said Johnston. “Relief is the main thing I’m feeling – it’s out the way now and on to the next one (winner).
“If you could have had the perfect result it would have been Joe Fanning on board, but because it was Frankie no one will forget it.”
Johnston’s first winner came in July 1987 when Hinari Video won at Carlisle. Many big-race successes have followed, including three wins in the Ascot Gold Cup courtesy of Double Trigger and dual victor Royal Rebel.
Classic glory has been achieved with Mister Baileys in the 2000 Guineas and the brilliant Attraction in the 1000 Guineas, while he currently numbers 43 Royal Ascot triumphs on his CV.
He added: “I started small. It was just one winner at a time and with horses like this. That’s what it’s about – to run them. This horse (Poet’s Society) epitomises what we’re all about.
“York is a special place to do it, as well, but it’s business as usual now. We’ve got friends over – not for this (the record), but because it’s York – and it’s certainly not going to be a quiet night. From where we started, I’ve got to pinch myself.”
Reflecting further on his achievement, Johnston said: “I don’t think anyone has belittled the record and sometimes I have to take a breath and think how important it is. Now we can get back to business.
“To do it here is great, a big crowd and I really appreciated the applause. I nearly wasn’t here, though. An owner came to see some yearlings we’d bought in France and I had to decide whether to stay and meet him or come and see two runners who were 20-1 and 33-1. When I set out as a trainer it was all about winning Group Ones and Classics, I had no pretensions to train so many winners.”
There was further Yorkshire success when Richard Fahey’s Red Balloons – the mount of Barry McHugh – landed the Yearling Stakes.
Malton trainer Brian Ellison’s The Mackem Bullet, meanwhile, was beaten on the line in the Lowther Stakes by Fairyland who, incredibly, was providing top Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien with a first York win in two years.
Yet they know Mark Johnston will remain the man to beat for the forseeable future as the proud Scot, and adopted Yorkshireman, now chases his 4,195th winner – and counting.