Runner-up to the now retired Masar in last year’s Epsom Derby, Dee Ex Bee firmly established himself as a leading stayer in the first half of this season with impressive victories in the Sagaro Stakes at Ascot and the Henry II Stakes at Sandown.
Hopes were high he could provide his trainer with a fourth victory in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot last month, but he was ultimately unable to resist the late surge of the Frankie Dettori-ridden Stradivarius who has dominated the staying division for the last two seasons.
Trained by John Gosden, the champion will be hot favourite on July 30 to become the first three-time winner of the Goodwood Cup since the hugely popular Johnston ace Double Trigger managed the feat in the mid to late 1990s.
But no trainer has saddled more winners in this country than Middleham-based Johnston – he recorded the landmark 4,194th success at York last summer – and his tally of 78 winners at Goodwood’s flagship festival is only two behind Sir Michael Stoute among current trainers.
He also says trainers should never be afraid of one horse.
“I’m very, very happy with Dee Ex Bee. He hasn’t done anything fast (since Ascot), but he’s looking really well,” said Johnston.
“We know it’s a tall order and we know it’s not ideal coming back in trip. Going into the Ascot Gold Cup the extra half-mile was a question, but he confirmed he got every inch of the trip and wouldn’t have minded a bit more.
“It occurred to me at Royal Ascot that Stradivarius is the people’s horse.
“I was oblivious to it beforehand in the same way that I was oblivious to Double Trigger being the people’s horse, even more so than Stradivarius maybe because of his colour and longevity. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about Stradivarius.
“You can’t belittle him in anyway. Somebody asked me the other day if we were looking for chinks in his armour, but I’m not sure he’s got any.
“He’s won two Ascot Gold Cups, so you couldn’t question his stamina. All you could say is maybe Dee Ex Bee has got more.”
As is so often the case with Johnston runners, Dee Ex Bee set out to make all at Royal Ascot.
A change of approach in an attempt to reverse the form seems unlikely, with Johnston of the view that tactics are overrated.
“I get the impression that other trainers do (think about tactics), but I think horses are more akin to Formula One cars than human athletes,” he added.
“Some of the greatest trainers in the world will disagree with me, but in my opinion tactics don’t win you races, they only get you beat. Tactics are sometimes forced on me by owners and employed by jockeys, but generally I never set out with a plan.
“The horse who runs the two miles of the Goodwood Cup or the one mile of the Guineas fastest, wins. I worked that out before anybody gave me a trainer’s licence and that’s the policy I have applied for 32 years.”
With other opportunities available on the staying scene, Johnston could have been forgiven for swerving a rematch with Stradivarius.
“We did consider going for the Doncaster Cup and the Prix du Cadran, which might not have Stradivarius in them, but you never run away from one horse – and if we didn’t take him on nobody would,” he added.