Yet the man who is on the brink of becoming British racing’s winning-most trainer has never been afraid of innovating – or running his horses.
And his decision to run Epsom Derby second Dee Ex Bee at Goodwood, scene of so many of Johnston’s successes over the years, is typical of his modus operandi and his stable’s motto ‘always trying’ that has become synonymous with winners.
For, while next month’s St Leger at Doncaster is the horse’s top target, he believes today’s four runner Qatar Gordon Stakes is a winning opportunity for a horse who followed his Epsom exploits by being unplaced in the Irish Derby before finishing a gutsy third in the Grand Prix de Paris last month.
“We made the entry for Dee Ex Bee on Monday morning, as there were only six in it at that stage, and it was one of those we felt too good to pass by really,” said the Middleham trainer whose only concern is unduly quick ground at the Sussex track.
“We don’t want to go to the well too often on fast ground this summer as we want to still have the horse in good form for his main target, the St Leger. It looks a good opportunity for him. He is 8lb clear on official ratings. We know he handles the track as he won here last year.”
Johnston has been in a reflective mood after wins at Goodwood, and Epsom, on Thursday left him just 15 victories shy of Richard Hannon senior’s all time record of 4,194 victories.
A qualified vet, he, and his wife Deirdre, trained their first winner in 1987 from their then Lincolnshire stables when Hinari Video prevailed at Carlisle – the fledgling trainer couldn’t take in the enormity of the achievement until he drove home and saw the result for himself on Ceefax.
Hinari Video kept on gamely after making the running and would go on to run in another 126 races. Despite being of limited ability, he would also win 11 more races – and symptomatic of Johnston’s approach when he moved to Middleham the following year.
Though long overdue Classic success for Middleham followed with horses of the calibre of Mister Baileys and Attraction, the proud Scot has become racing’s greatest accumulator of winners and always prefers his horses to make the running.
His first 1,000 winners were accumulated in record time – 90 days quicker than previous holder Sir Henry Cecil – and he’s won at least 100 races every year since 1994. Now he’s disappointed if he doesn’t record a double century of winners in the calendar year.
“Quality arguably matters more than quantity, too, but there is no getting away from it that all owners – big and small – are in this for winning,” the 58-year-old told Great British Racing in an interview to mark the forthcoming landmark.
“We know how important getting winners is. When we are having a season like we are having this year and that most owners have had a turn at winning a race, I know those owners will still be here next year.
“To us, it’s very important to win more races than anybody else and we’ve done that through unprecedented consistency. All yards have peaks and troughs, but we have less troughs than anybody else and we have managed to sustain these high numbers every year now for 20-odd years.”
Johnston is the first to admit that he’s not afraid to make mistakes. “Thousands. Right up to this day, one of the things about me is that I’m always looking at new ideas and always looking to change things,” he says.
“For every new thing we bring to the industry, that people see, there’s half a dozen that we’ve tried and they’ve gone wrong. If you don’t try, you don’t succeed. I’m always looking, always thinking about it. Most of the things are trial and error.”
And, even though the workload has been eased by Johnston’s son, Charlie, becoming assistant trainer, the appetite for winners is self-evident and stems from the example set by the aforementioned Hannon senior – racing’s current record-holder – before handing the reins to his son Richard junior.
“He was also a great believer in running his horses. He had a big team and ran them a lot, and young Richard is the same since,” added Johnston. “Certainly, if I was an owner I wouldn’t want my horse in a yard where the chances of it never running, never mind winning, were fairly high and that does apply to a lot of yards.
“It could not be said of Richard Hannon and it couldn’t be said about us. One of the compliments you could pay to Richard and people like him are that these are the type of trainers you don’t want to get a horse from because you know he’ll have had the best out of them.”