Richard Johnson: ‘Everybody seems to be on my side’
Peter Thomas joins Richard Johnson at home and finds the champion-elect relaxed as he rides to this year's Cheltenham Festival on a wave of goodwill
WHEN Stan Mellor racked up his 1,000th winner, shortly after the last ice age, the shockwaves reverberated around the racing world. This was truly a superhuman feat and it was plain that it would be a long time before anybody came close to matching it - if anybody ever did.
Forty-four years later, Richard Johnson has just passed the 3,000 mark, yet such is the shadow cast by the all-conquering Sir Anthony McCoy that such achievements, once regarded as beyond the realms of possibility, have become perfectly feasible, to the extent that 'Dickie' even had to be alerted to the news by a passing journalist.
Years of following McCoy past milestones of the turf at a respectful distance have taught the 38-year-old the value of patience and the need for regular reality checks and, even now, with the 20-time champion warming himself by the fire in a comfy pair of slippers, that attitude remains in place. His nemesis may be retired and a first title almost in the bag, but this is no time to be getting ahead of himself.
So, although a first double century is on its way this season and a mighty total beckons, McCoy's peak total of 289 winners in one term still sits on the horizon as a spur to continued striving.
"I'm as surprised as anybody by the way the year has gone," says the champion elect as he prepares to shake off the shackles of perennial second place. "There was a sense at the start that if I won people would say it was just because AP wasn't there - and that's still true to an extent - but the way I've gone about it and the number of winners I've had have been very satisfying.
"If I could ever break his record it would be amazing, but it has to be my target, although I'd feel a whole lot better if I was chasing 240 rather than 290.
"After that there's his lifetime record [4,358 including Ireland], but I can't see anybody ever reaching that. I need another 1,400 or so, and even at 200 a year that's another seven years and I'm not as young as I used to be.
"I wouldn't mind going round on a Zimmer frame if I thought it would help, but I'm not sure many trainers would still put me up!"
In the kitchen of the Johnson family's home in the depths of the Herefordshire cattle belt, wife Fiona raises an eyebrow at the prospect of her husband still battering his long-suffering body on the racecourses of Britain at the age of 45; but for the time being the only imminent danger of injury is supplied by young sons Caspar and Percy (sister Willow is at school) and the phalanx of Tonka toys they've strewn around the room, and there's time to reflect on that long-awaited golden year.
In truth, though, the golden days aren't that dissimilar to the past 22 years and 19 consecutive centuries, apart from the name on the trophy.
"It's not been massively different," confirms Fiona. "He's maybe been under a bit more pressure from himself and he probably hasn't missed a Scottish meeting all year, but apart from that it's been about doing what he's always done and trying to stay injury-free. The title is just something that comes along at the end.
"If it does finally happen, though, it will be amazing for him, having had the same objective for so long. Every season there has always been the thought that it probably wouldn't happen, but he's always started with the same goal and the same drive, and as a wife my aim has always been to support him in what he's trying to do.
"I'd have to admit that when AP said he was retiring, I said 'yes!', not in a bad way, but because it changed everything. Since then people have been so supportive of Richard, which shows you he's been doing something right all these years. We're all so proud of him."
From the moment McCoy hung up his boots, an outpouring of bonhomie, from the hub of the sport and from the sidelines, threatened to carry Johnson to the title on an unstoppable wave, with barely a need for the rider himself to lift a finger.
That, however, is not the Johnson way. The man who in his youth decided on a career away from the family farm, "because farming looked like hard work", went on to forge a career from unceasing graft and dedication to the cause. Trainers always saw him as a good man to have in the trenches beside them and that appreciation has been reflected in the monumental figures of the 2015-16 campaign.
His previous best seasonal tally of 186 was in mortal danger with months rather than days left to go; all being well he'll have more rides than ever and the highest winning ratio of his career; his personal best of £2 million prize-money may even be surpassed given a fair wind at Cheltenham and Aintree, and with 29 different trainers having already supplied winners the ammunition should be forthcoming.
"I can't believe it's gone as smoothly as it has," says the man whose expectations once extended no further than agricultural college, until a formative stint with David Nicholson turned his life around.
"When I hit 50 winners I was half expecting to break a collarbone just to make it difficult for me, but thanks to my agent Dave Roberts I haven't really had a slow time at all.
"My aim was to ride four winners a week, 200 winners a year, more so than big winners. I've ridden for the world and his wife to do it and everybody seems to be on my side, from loyal supporters to all the people I've never met before who have wished me well at the track."
Underpinning the edifice, as ever, has been Philip Hobbs, Johnson's comrade-in-arms since time immemorial, who's enjoying a better than 30 per cent strike-rate with his main man this season. The Somerset trainer has provided not just a steady stream of winners down the years but also big ones such as Champion Hurdle hero Rooster Booster and Champion Chase star Flagship Uberalles, along with the less measurable yet equally vital commodities of loyalty and the confidence that comes with it.
"You don't want to ride for somebody for six months if you can ride for them year after year," says Johnson, and Hobbs shares this heartening view of a relationship that has endured for so long as to be almost part of the furniture in both men's houses.
There's more to his old ally, though, than may meet the eye. "He's a very reliable jockey and a very good bloke, which is why it's worked for such a long time," says the master of Sandhill Stables. "He's top class and particularly good with the owners, which is very important. He's ridden more winners than Francome and Dunwoody combined - which is amazing for a man who's never been champion - and you'll never see him throw his toys out of the pram if we've sent him to the wrong meeting and he's missed a couple.
"But the one thing you should never underestimate is his toughness. He's rather lived in the shadow of AP all these years but I've seen him ride on through some dreadful knocks - he's as hard as they come.
"I'm sure there have been times when I could have found another jockey and he could have gone off to ride for another trainer, but I don't think either of us has ever felt the need to."
Before we get ready to elevate Johnson to the sainthood, it must be said there have been times down the years when his vain pursuit of McCoy has engendered feelings, if not of animosity then at least of deep-seated frustration.
Age and life took care of that in good time, however. Now his focus can switch between work, fatherhood and family in seamless fashion, with no reason for anybody to feel short-changed.
"Once I got married and had children I got more realistic and accepted that all I could do was ride as many winners as I could and not worry about the rest of it," he shrugs. "Kids make you look at life in a different way. They make you smile and help you understand being miserable won't help you be better at your job.
"And I'm doing a job I always wanted to do and riding winners every day of the week, so what's not to smile about."
Meanwhile, The Festival beckons, with Hobbs's customary strong team being readied and a host of others to look forward to. Promising novice chaser Garde La Victoire and old warrior Balthazar King - now fit, well and primed for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase - are setting the Johnson pulse racing, but there are other events still missing from the CV of a man who has won pretty much everything The Festival has to offer.
He retains a philosophical approach even to those, however. "I've been second twice in the Grand National and the King George, so those would be the biggest missing pieces," he says. "It would be nice to win them but I'm not going to retire unhappy if I don't. I'll keep riding for as long as I can, because I enjoy it and I can't see how I could ever enjoy another job as much.
"When I do pack it in I'd like to breed and sell horses, but I think if you went to the bank manager and said you wanted to be a National Hunt trainer, if he looked into it properly there's no way he'd give you any money. Compared to training, being a jump jockey looks like a pretty good business plan."
It's a good plan all right, and one that very few people have executed with the same longevity, consistency, common decency and success as the admirable Dickie Johnson.
'What a remarkable effort'
Dave Roberts, agent
It's been a natural progression. AP has retired and Dickie's in demand, but even so it's been a remarkable effort to get to the number of winners he's had.
AP did it a lot of times but it was a lot of hard graft, and that's what Dickie's done, gone everywhere, never taken a day off when there have been rides. If you want to be champion you have to do that. You can't beat experience and if you're riding as many winners as he is, people are going to be keen to use you, which makes my job pretty simple. It's like dealing with a friend, just like it was with AP. He never rings, just lets me get on with it.
Every year you start out wanting to ride as many winners as possible, but I don't think anyone will ever reach the 289 AP got. You have to remember that was the best winter weather-wise, he never got a ban and he was picking up rides from three or four top jockeys who were injured. It's near on impossible for anybody to repeat - even Dickie.
'He's such a grounded person'
Chris Maude, valet
He's one of the last ones I actually used to ride with before I started valeting in 2001, so I remember him as a little spotty kid setting the world alight at the Duke's and I've seen him progress from there.
His parents have obviously brought him up extremely well because he's such a polite and decent chap and he's probably the most consistent person I've ever met, as a jockey and as a human being. He's stayed so level-headed, even through some fairly tough times.
I think in the early years when he was trying to topple AP he was a bit frustrated but he grew out of that and didn't let it affect him in his everyday life. Now he's such a grounded person that I don't know if all the talk of records is going to affect him.
This year has been amazing. I think the whole racing community is desperate for him to be champion jockey - even the Flat jockeys ask after him.