The man who pushed his great friend Sir AP McCoy to countless records during their rivalry was an even greater role model out of the saddle.
That has been an abiding feature of the avalanche of tributes to Johnson, who took the sport by surprise when he announced his retirement – with immediate effect – at Newton Abbot on Saturday night.
At 43, and with over 3,800 winners to his name, the Herefordshire farmer’s son has nothing left to prove. Not even the allure of a first Randox Grand National win was worth the risk as he chose to bow out in his own quietway.
The weighing room will miss his presence; he found it an intimidating place in the mid-1990s at the outset of a 27-year career and he went out of his way to advise, and assist, young riders.
He would personally check on their wellbeing after falls, popping his head around the medical curtain between rides to offer support.
Only the other week he sent a text message to a Yorkshire-based young jockey who had fractured his foot in a final-flight fall. “If you are unsure of anything, give me a call,” he wrote – he meant it.
Even Johnson’s retirement revealed his humility. He did not want it to overshadow this year’s pulsating title race between Brian Hughes, the current champion, and Harry Skelton.
He remained selfless to the end when so many who reach the upper echelons of their sport risk becoming too selfish for their own good. Unlike some, he recognised that difference.
More importantly, there was never a bad word said about Johnson, who became universally known as ‘Dickie’ – he treated his peers, and colleagues, with the respect that he hoped of others. His loyalty to his trainers, most notably Philip and Sarah Hobbs, was based on trust.
Recently, he rode the progressive Small Present to victory at Doncaster for Yorkshire trainers Sue and Harvey Smith. “Win, lose or draw, he was always the same,” said Smith, the show-jumping legend. “His feedback was always constructive.”
Johnson’s last notable success came at Sandown when he won the Denman Chase at Sandown on his 2018 Gold Cup hero Native River before finishing fourth in last month’s blue riband race.
His win at Cheltenham on Native River, after a pulsating battle with Might Bite, had come 18 years after the then fresh-faced rider won the Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble for his future father-in-law Noel Chance and was further testament to his longevity.
But it is likely to be remembered for the 16 years that Johnson finished runner-up to McCoy in the title race before becoming a four-time winner from 2015 until being dethroned last year.
“Being champion jockey, you have to put in a lot of hours. That day at Sandown when AP (McCoy) gave me the trophy, that’s all I’ve ever wanted, really,” said Johnson, who never once showed any frustration over this near-annual predicament. They bought the best out of each other.
That view was shared by McCoy, the record-breaking 20-times champion, with his own tribute immediately after Johnson’s final race. “Sometimes those who challenge us the most teach us the best,” he posted.
“You did both to me for over 20 years. I will be forever grateful to you, thanks buddy. When you go home tonight look in the mirror, you’ll see what a champion looks like. Enjoy your retirement.”
Ruby Walsh, another former weighing room idol, concurred and described Johnson as “a hard man, who has toughness and determination and an incredible pain threshold, as well as being a thoroughly decent human being.”
Jonjo O’Neill jnr, last year’s champion conditional, said: “The ultimate role model to anyone growing up. So determined, yet so humble and gracious.”
Johnson’s great friend Tom Scudamore, 38, who is looking forward to this week’s headline ride on Cloth Cap in the National, posted: “Simply the finest bloke and friend you could wish to have. When I grow up, I want to be like Richard Johnson.”
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