Sunday 18 March 2018

Johnson's last wish was to see Rocky Creek in the Hennessy

Jim McGrath

David Johnson’s last racing wish before he died on Saturday was that Rocky Creek, a horse he shared with friend Andy Stewart, should be aimed at the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November.

“I know he will be looking down from above when the race comes around,” Stewart said. “He was a great mate, and we had a Cheltenham winner in March when Salubrious won the Martin Pipe, with Harry Derham aboard.”

Johnson, champion owner over jumps six times, enjoyed his crowning achievement at Aintree when Comply Or Die won the 2008 Grand National, ridden by his retained jockey Timmy Murphy.

Johnson, who died at 67 after a battle with cancer, was a millionaire who had up to 100 horses in training in his prime. A docker’s son from the East End of London, he started his working life as a teller with the Midland Bank in East Ham and his first connection with racing was settling bets for the Tote. But he retained simple tastes. After a big win, he liked celebrating with a plate of skate and chips and a bottle of Blue Nun.

DJ, as he was known to his friends, became seriously interested in racing in the Eighties when he owned Mister Majestic, trained by Robert Williams to win the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket.

Sitting in a restaurant near Headquarters, he looked up on the wall and saw a picture of The Minstrel, ridden by Lester Piggott, who was wearing the iconic ‘green, blue and white colours’ of Robert Sangster. Johnson decided that he would register similar silks, and thus with just the colour of the body being transposed, his colours became almost as famous in jumping over the following two decades.

Johnson loved the racing game, and those in it. From a first meeting with Peter Scudamore, he was then introduced to Martin Pipe, with whom he was to form a close and lasting alliance. When A P  McCoy came to ride for Pond House, the Johnson/Pipe/McCoy triumvirate enjoyed a fantastic run of success.

One of their greatest gambles came when the lightly raced French-bred chaser Champleve got up to beat Hill Society by a short head in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in 1998. Champleve had run only twice pre­viously over fences, and Johnson and his pals had taken 33-1 before the gelding had first run over fences only a few weeks before the Festival.

If Roger Charlton sticks firmly to his belief that you must plot a selective course mid-season in order to have enough left to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in the autumn, he has every chance of triumphing in Paris on Oct 6 with his brilliant five-year-old Al Kazeem.

Charlton, who is in his 24th season with a licence, was rightly satisfied with Saturday’s Coral-Eclipse win, but now he wants the horse to miss Ascot later in the month, have a decent break and then come back for one run prior to the Arc. It is a sensible strategy.

But a possible rival is three-year-old Intello, who won yesterday’s Prix Messidor at Maisons-Laffitte as a warm-up for Deauville. Both Intello and Al Kazeem are 6-1 joint-favourites for the Arc with Paddy Power.

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