jonathan pow­ell

Jonathan Pow­ell pays trib­ute to the de­ter­mi­na­tion and stamina of cham­pion jump jockey Richard John­son

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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

Richard John­son

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