Record-breaking Mark Johnston on the big race at Doncaster and his glorious career
Ride your own race, he will tell Hart before the jockey mounts Royal Patronage for the Group One Vertem Futurity Trophy, and do not worry about your rivals.
Straight-forward, it is also an approach that has yielded nearly 5,000 winners since Johnston’s first success in 1987, while training on a RAF bombing range in Lincolnshire, before moving to Middleham the following year.
It is also paradoxical Britain’s most successful trainer of all time – Poet’s Society’s victory at York in 2018 under an excitable Frankie Dettori provided Johnston with his record 4,194th win – has never been his sport’s champion.
If the trainers’ title was determined on winners – the benchmark used by jockeys – Johnston would be a multiple champion by now (this is the ninth year that he has saddled over 200 victories in a calendar year since 2009).
Yet prize money is the determining factor – and while the 61-year-old says in a new authorised biography Phenomenon that he is not “crying” over this omission from his CV – he remains driven by results.
Johnston, who is incredibly proud of his working-class roots in Scotland, concedes to The Yorkshire Post that he remains as “self-critical” as ever.
“There have been a couple of times in the last two or three months where I’ve been sat at our Friday (management) meeting with my head in my hands,” he discloses.
“It’s been John Martin, our vet, who has said that we have had 50 more winners than any other trainer. We’re flying in terms of winners. It is also a myth that we are the biggest yard in the country – we’re not by a long shot.”
Arguably Britain’s most analytical and data-driven trainer, Johnston’s horses, by Thursday night, had won 204 races and £3.1m. By comparison, champion trainer-elect Charlie Appleby had 101 wins and £4.7m to his name.
Yet, while Johnston accepts that Appleby, who trains exclusively for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, would have been difficult to catch, his own quest for a trainers’ title was hit by two blows in high summer.
The first came when Subjectivist, a runaway Ascot Gold cup winner, suffered a season-ending leg injury that still leaves the horse’s future career in the balance.
If that was not serious enough, Sir Ron Priestley – the gallant horse that Johnston ran in the Goodwood Cup in place of Subjectivist – broke down with a career-ending injury.
“If you had asked me in June how 2021 was going, I would have said absolutely fantastic – as long as it continued for the rest of the season,” continues Johnston.
“Ideally, you need two horses to each win £1m – that is what sets the champion trainers apart – and I certainly thought we had a horse in Subjectivist who could win a million. I could see nothing beating him.
“If Subjectivist had been sound and raced at Goodwood, Sir Ron Priestley would never have run there and sustained his injury.”
Johnston makes another profound point as he reflects on his ill-fortune so soon after the Dr Jim Walker-owned Subjectivist turned the Ascot Gold Cup into a one-horse race. “If you don’t have a top-class horse, nobody notices you. We’ve already had a Group One win this year with Subjectivist, but another one would be the icing on the cake.”
In Royal Patronage, who runs in the colours of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, Johnston has a horse who, form and fitness permitting, could be a contender in next year’s Epsom Derby.
The winner of York’s Acomb Stakes after making all under Hart, the two-year-old confirmed his burgeoning reputation by landing Newmarket’s Group Two Royal Lodge Stakes.
This was the race that saw Royal Patronage set the early pace before the Appleby-trained Coroebus, a colt with a massive reputation, burst clear.
Looking like the winner under William Buick, Coroebus then faltered – and Royal Patronage reeled the leader back. One of his most satisfying wins of 2021, Johnston explains that he was particularly pleased that his jockey – still relatively inexperienced at Group One level – rode his own race and did not panic when challenged by Coroebus.
“It is why I will say to Jason Hart to ride his own race and what the others do will be up to them,” explained the trainer, whose biggest concern is soft going at Doncaster. “I’m looking forward to it. The form is looking better and better all the time. He certainly deserves a shot at a Group One and I hope it comes off.”
How Royal Patronage runs might also have a bearing on when Johnston decides to stop training in his own name and take out a joint licence with son Charlie, his current assistant.
Though Phenomenon states that “by the start of 2022, it is planned that Charlie will join his father in a partnership”, Johnston senior stresses that there is no definitive time-scale.
He made no secret three summers ago, as he approached the 4,194-winner landmark, that he would particularly like to saddle a Derby winner after Dee Ex Bee chased home Masar in the 2018 renewal of the Flat’s blue riband race.
In the meantime, there are still races to be won if Johnston is to accrue an aggregate number of career winners that will pass the test of time.
“Good horses always train themselves,” he maintains. “There are times when you think any idiot can do it. There are other times when I tell myself it’s just luck.
“When you see the number of people who start with big strings and then go downwards in terms of numbers, and others who start with nothing and build big strings, it’s not just luck.
“One thing is not cutting any corners. In our case, I am my own biggest enemy. I never take anything for granted. There is not a day that I’m not thinking about the job and business and how I could run it better. You need to be open-minded and passionate about horses.”
And be confident enough to keep it simple – and trust your winning instincts.