Jonathan Powell pays tribute to the determination and stamina of champion jump jockey Richard Johnson
Talking to Richard Johnson about his old rivalry with AP McCoy
Jump Jockeys are riding longer these days despite the ever present hazards of their perilous trade. Richard Johnson, the tireless dual champion,is 40,the estimable Noel Fehily even older and, as for old Father Time Andrew Thornton, he is nearer 50 and shows no sign of slowing down.
It’s all in marked condition contrast to the days when the late, great Josh Gifford retired at the age of 27. To be fair he did start a lot younger, too, as he was apprenticed on the Flat at eleven to Cliff Beechener before moving on to Newmarket to join Sam Armstrong’s army of apprentices.
When the schools inspector arrived unannounced at Beechener’s one morning to check on Gifford’s school attendance the trainer’s quick-thinking assistant Hugo Bevan volunteered the novel explananation that he was actually Gifford’s private tutor.
Lack of hours in the classroom evidently did Josh no harm for he was the nicest man you could possibly meet and later became champion jump jockey four times before his early retirement to take over the reins from Ryan Price at Findon.
I thought of Josh on Sunday when Richard Johnson reached his latest century of winners in the final race at Cheltenham as dusk began to fall.
It is a measure of Johnson’s relentless achievements that no-one was in the least surprised that he reached three figures more than a month before Christmas.That is the norm these days for a man who has dominated the sport since the recordbreaking Sir Anthony McCoy hung up his saddle in 2015.
McCoy rode over 4,000 winners while Johnson reached 3,000 in January last year and is marching on relentlessly with no sign of letting up on his stamina sapping schedule.
Gifford and other top riders of his era would look at their statistics in disbelief.
In a career frequently interrupted by injury the highest total of winners Gifford achieved in a season was 122 in 1966-67. The other three years he was champion jockey he posted figures of 70, 94 and 82.
That was at a time when jump racing enjoyed a proper break of more than two months in the summer which benefitted everyone in the sport. Now, absurdly, the season ends at Sandown late in April and starts again a few days later.
Gifford and those of his era didn’t embrace the change and he was also not a fan of Sunday racing,aware that the current band of jockeys are flat out on the treadmill 12 months of the year.
Riders today travel many thousand more miles and ride in many more races. Some,inevitably,don’t last the hectic pace as injuries and tiredness take their toll,yet Johnson seems to thrive on a hectic schedule which sees him on the road from his home in Herefordshire long before dawn most days to distant racecourses.
He also rides out three mornings a week for his principal employer Philip Hobbs whose base on the slopes above Minehead was once described by John Francome as almost as far away as Mars.
At least Johnson has a driver as he criss crosses the nation’s motorways in his unrelenting pursuit of the next winner and if he finds the schedule too demanding at times he is far too nice and polite to say so.
McCoy set the searing pace for 20 years with the astute guidance of his agent Dave Roberts and Johnson, who also employs Roberts,maintains the same frantic tempo without complaint.
He started young, too, though not quite as young as Gifford.The current champion began riding out for David Nicholson in the school holidays as a teenager,had his first ride in a point-to-point aged 16 at Larkhill in January, 1994, won his first point-to-point three months later and
recorded his first winner under rules on April 30 that year in a hunter chase at Hereford on Rusty Bridge trained by his grandfather Ivan Johnson.
His mother Susan enjoys relating the story of her boy who went away for a couple of week’s work experience to Nicholson’s famed academy and never returned.
She explains, “He was always pretending to be a jockey as a little boy and wanted to find out what it was like at Nicholson’s. He couldn’t have gone to a better place.”
History relates that Nicholson was twice champion trainer but his greatest achievement was surely to give many dozens of jockeys and would-be jockeys the chance to fulfil their ambitions.
Johnson recalls with typical modesty: “After that first success I couldn’t even have dreamed what my career might bring.It was a dream just to have a ride in a race and a fairytale is how it has all turned out. We knew that Mr Nicholson liked to see his young riders do well and there was a great bunch of lads there at the time,a great buzz about the place and it was a privilege to be part of the team.
“It was a very good grounding for any youngster because the boss made sure that everything was done properly with no cutting corners, it all had to be done exactly as he wanted.
“He set the highest standards so there were no short cuts, but it never felt like hard work because it was fun, too. There were quite a few of us hoping to get the chance to ride in races”.
I was working with Nicholson on his autobiography at the time and remember him telling me about a youngster called Richard Johnson who had the talent to make it as a jockey. But he was not in a hurry to promote his protege and was keen for him to gain more experience in point-to-points and bumper races.
The trainer also encouraged Johnson to sharpen his skills by riding on the Flat as an amateur which was sound advice.
The farmer’s son from Herefordshire was a quick learner and soon it became apparent that he was ready for the challenges that lay ahead. Such was his progress that he became the youngest ever champion conditional in 1995-96 with over 100 winners.
The previous year’s champion conditional was a certain AP McCoy.Little did we know then that Johnson would be runnerup to McCoy in the jockeys’championship 16 times.
It is a credit to both men that their enduring rivalry down the years never overflowed into acrimony.
Johnson concedes:“OK you are frustrated and you are always determined to beat him and everyone else but at the end of the day I can only do my best.
“I’d have been upset if I hadn’t given every inch every season but I did. Unfortunately it still wasn’t enough because I never managed to ride as many winners as AP.
“And he was a gent to work with even if he was rather frustrating to ride against.
“Ever since I started riding 24 years ago my target has been to become champion jockey. It was all I ever wanted and I’ve always thought about it though it took me longer than I hoped.
“Yes, there are plenty of miles involved but if you are doing it to ride one 59-1 shot, as some guys do, it would be much harder.
“There were no guarantees that once AP retired I was going to be champion. You need so much to go right, and then horses you ride to be in form. And every jockey wants to be champion so you have to work for it.
“AP was great to ride against – tough, committed but very fair, talented and hard-working. He gave us all something to aim at.
“Everyone thought it was the best day of my life when he retired. But I enjoyed his company and riding against him.He was a massive part of the weighing room.
“As for the future the target is always to be champion until I retire and I want to go on as long as possible.I have no intention of retiring any time soon and hope to have another two or three years.”
I leave the last word on Johnson to his greatest rival who has taken immense pleasure in his exploits since he left the stage.
Sir Anthony McCoy says, “You will never hear a bad word about Richard and I couldn’t have been more pleased that he was champion jockey at last in 2016 then ended up on top again. He has worked so hard for it.
“He has always been a proper professional and his success shows that hard work and perseverance pays off.
“I am sure he was delighted when I retired – I made it a little bit easier for him. But he rides every horse like I did, full on. They are all important, both to him and to those connected.
“We always had a friendly and respectful relationship. Over 20 years I can genuinely say that we never had a cross word.
“When two people are competing at the highest level that says a lot.We always had banter and he jokingly asked me once to give him a break.
“I won the title 20 times but records will always be broken. Some day someone will pass that.The only good thing is that I know Richard will not be racing in 20 years’ time!”
AP McCoy wins the Grand National on Don’t Push It in 2010