YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT, EVE’S ON THE MARCH
Nick Townsend goes to meet Eve Johnson Houghton, still ecstatic over her Royal Ascot win in the Queen Anne
It is a week on from those opening seconds of Royal Ascot, 98.85 of them to be precise, that had a euphoric Eve Johnson Houghton and her mum Gaie deafening everyone in the vicinity as their colt Accidental Agent prevailed in the Queen Anne Stakes. And, if the tears of an overcome trainer and owner-breeder have long since dried up, the goodwill flowing in her direction hasn’t.
For sheer drama, it was definitely ‘All about Eve’, to borrow from the Bette Davis classic, after jockey Charlie Bishop had timed his challenge impeccably on the son of Delegator.
Johnson Houghton laughingly admits: “I feel like a right celebrity…” as she alludes to the media and public response to her first Group 1 and first Royal Ascot winner.
While certain other owners would have understandably received such an outcome with a calculating, business-like eye, the Johnson Houghtons’ unashamed public display of pleasure endeared itself to all who witnessed it, apart perhaps from those racegoers adjacent to her and Gaie as events unfolded. “There was an awful lot of screaming going on,” she conceded in the aftermath of the race.
This is what racing should be all about – never mind the £367,000 first prize money that Accidental Agent had just earned, or enhanced potential stallion value. Nor the fact that, although Cracksman and Laurens are currently tied at the head of the standings for Cartier Horse Of The Year, the Johnson Houghton colt – named after Eve’s maternal grandfather John Goldsmith’s autobiography about his life as a Special Operations Executive during the Second World War – is also now in contention.
The trainer has now returned to planet earth. “Well, nearly,” she says. “Getting there. All the lovely comments, emails and cards have been quite overwhelming.”
And yet, there is another side to racing. There always is, given the fortunes bet each day, whether it is the millions placed on the Queen Anne (with the Johnson Houghton winner prevailing at 33-1, most of it remaining in the bookies’ satchels or online accounts) or rather less on a midweek event at Brighton.
There is always someone ready to attribute a bet that’s gone awry to the perceived deficiencies of a trainer or jockey. On this occasion, apparently it was the latter. “Just at the moment I’m replying to a rather abusive email from some angry punter – because one (of ours) got beat at Brighton. Honestly!” she exclaims.
Most of us would simply hit the delete button – but not the formidable Johnson Houghton. “I always like to reply to them.” She adds: “These people are complete morons. If you don’t like a trainer, or a jockey, or a horse – don’t back it. There is no obligation.” She pauses. “It makes me laugh.”
That is the wonderfully capricious world into which Johnson Houghton, right, succeeded her revered trainer father Fulke Johnson Houghton just 12 years ago, having assisted him since 1999 at Woodway, the stables steeped in rich achievement, above the village of Blewbury in Oxfordshire. It was from here that Fulke trained such esteemed performers as Ribocco, Ribero, Habitat and Ile de Bourbon.
Not that Eve’s destiny was set from the start. She started off temping in London in her twenties, “just bashing a typewriter, or computer in the office of a small company. Then the person who was manager left, and no-one else was capable of sorting it all out. I was frightfully bossy and took over,” she recalls.
Johnson Houghton later worked for the leading syndicate manager, Henry Ponsonby, with horses including Affair Of State, winner of over £240,000 in the Tattersalls Breeders Stakes at the Curragh.
Coincidentally, Henry Ponsonby Racing’s progressive gelding On To Victory is Houghton Johnson’s representative in today’s Northumberland Plate at Newcastle, traditionally a great betting race. The son of Rock Of Gibraltar last ran in the Yorkshire Cup, finishing 18 lengths behind subsequent Gold Cup winner Stradivarius. “But he found that ground too firm,” says his trainer.
After her stint as office manager, Johnson Houghton, a fine amateur rider, who twice partnered the winner of the Ladies
Diamond race at Ascot, worked for Lambourn trainer John Hills for about seven years before returning to the family base, and ultimately succeeding her father.
As she enthused at the time: “Most people setting out to train would kill for the owners, who have all been very supportive, and the facilities I’ll have at Woodway.”
Johnson Houghton has seized the opportunity voraciously. Five years ago, she had 35 horses, and said her ideal would be double that. Today, she trains 70 and is flourishing. “Because I’ve been quite successful in the past few years, it’s been easier for me to get horses,” she says.
Her current charges include around 30 juveniles. “I’ve got a nice bunch of two-year-olds, but the ground’s really firm so I haven’t been pressing any buttons recently.” Once she does, you expect Johnson Houghton will exceed the half century of winners she topped for the first time last season. Two winners on the day after we spoke brought this year’s tally up to 22 already. However, nothing is likely to compare with Accidental Agent’s latest success, unless of course her elite miler, ridden by Charlie Bishop, follows up at Ascot with a triumph in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Champions Day, a likely next target for the fouryear-old.
What pride her grandmother, the first woman to train a Classic winner in Britain, would have felt for Eve. Helen Johnson Houghton was responsible for the 1956 2000 Guineas winner Gilles de Retz at Woodway.
However, before 1966 the Jockey Club did not allow women to train – lest they fall into the hands of “bad men” as Florence Nagle, one of the most vociferous campaigners for the gender bar to be overturned, was once advised by a Jockey Club Steward – and their licence had to be held by a man. The success was therefore recorded in the name of her assistant Charles Jerdein.
No such problems for her granddaughter Eve whose successes in the last two years with such names as Magnolia Springs, Ice Age, What About Carlo and Scarlet Dragon has advertised her training prowess.
And, of course, the exploits of Accidental Agent whose four victories and three places from 14 runs thus far, has earned her mother a touch over £600,000 prizemoney.
A follow-up in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, an event won by Eve’s father with Rose Bowl in 1975 and 1976, would take that figure to well over £1m. And the exhortations would probably be heard back in Blewbury.
These people are complete morons. If you don’t like a trainer, or a jockey, or a horse – don’t back it. There is no obligation”
“I’ve got a nice bunch of two-year-olds, but the ground’s really firm so I haven’t been pressing any buttons”
Famous father: Fulke Johnson Houghton with Eve