As he celebrates his second successive jump jockeys’ championship, Richard Johnson says his admiration for one-time arch-rival AP McCoy is greater than ever.
Johnson, 39, has dominated the riding ranks since the record-breaking McCoy’s retirement two seasons ago; he had been runner-up to the 20-time champion on no fewer than 16 occasions.
Now it’s Johnson casting the long shadow in which opponents headed by Brian Hughes, Sam Twiston-Davies, Aidan Coleman and up-and-coming youngster Harry Cobden are forced to live.
“Some people seem to think it’s going to be easy to do it again, but it’s very, very difficult because there are an awful lot of lads who’re very keen to try to get in front of me,” said Johnson.
“I think it shows AP’s dedication that he was able to keep on doing it for 20 years running.
“It really was an amazing achievement when you consider I was chasing him hard and lots of other eager young lads were too.”
Though not his biggest tally of winners – that was 235 wins in the 2015-16 campaign – a figure in the 180s this season provides Johnson with a very comfortable winning margin.
And it means he has galloped well past the century mark and into three figures for a fairly remarkable 21st successive season.
Speaking on the 5 live Racing Podcast, Johnson nominates his season’s principal highlights as rides on star pair Native River and Defi Du Seuil.
Native River, eventually third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, heralded his emergence into the big time when guided by Johnson to striking wins in Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh Grand National.
The unbeaten hurdler Defi Du Seuil, trained by long-term supporter Philip Hobbs, received rave reviews when thrashing his rivals in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham’s Festival.
Also rated among Johnson’s very best moments was the unexpected reopening of the racecourse at Hereford after nearly four years of closure. The jockey is a true local – born, bred, resident and rode his first winner there.
At the other end of the scale, Johnson, whose 3,200 winning mounts make him easily the second most successful jump jockey of all time behind McCoy, became the first champion in years not to take part in the Grand National.
It prompted speculation that he might actually dislike the Aintree feature.
In 20 attempts, although second twice, he has otherwise endured what you might call ‘mixed luck’, a situation rather underlined this time when forced to watch the win of One For Arthur, which at one stage could have been his mount.
- The 5 live Racing Podcast is available now
- Calendar: The National Hunt season ends at Sandown on Saturday 29 April
“I find [the race] frustrating,” Johnson said. “Look, it’s the one thing obviously that I’d love to be able to win before I finish, but unfortunately because it only comes around once a year, it’s not that easy.
“I was on standby in case Derek Fox didn’t get back [from injury, for One For Arthur] which was slightly ironic, and after that unfortunately the right horse didn’t come along.
“But at other times I know I’ve been very, very fortunate that sometimes my luck has been other people’s bad luck – Barry Geraghty missing Defi Du Seuil at Cheltenham because of injury is one example – so it’s swings and roundabouts.
“When you get to my age and have been at it so long, you have to look at it realistically, and optimistically for the future.”
Because of the position of May Day, jumping’s closed season lasts just one day before it all resumes at Warwick and Kempton on Bank Holiday Monday with every jockey’s score back to zero.
Obviously, it means any celebrations, let alone a family holiday with wife Fiona – whose father Noel Chance trained Johnson’s Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble (2000) – and their three children, is on hold.
|Richard Johnson’s landmarks|
|1st winner: Rules on Rusty Bridge (at Hereford) April 1994|
|1,000th winner: Quedex (at Stratford) on April 2003|
|2,000th winner: Fighting Chance (at Newbury) December 2009|
However, the reigning champion relishes the challenge of getting on with things and seeking to continue his ‘Mr Dependable’ reputation, as he tries to add a third title to his CV.
People naturally wonder how long Johnson, who is also involved in the breeding of racehorses, will continue plying his trade, or whether he’ll ever challenge McCoy’s 4,358 total over jumps.
Success number one for Johnson came on Rusty Bridge, owned and trained by his parents Sue and Keith, at Hereford – the course named its new restaurant after the horse – in April 1994, and he’s hopeful the finishing line isn’t yet in sight.
“I’m loving doing what I do, especially when riding nice horses,” he said. “I’m lucky – AP struggled more with his weight, and other lads have got different things, but at the moment my body’s pretty well.
“It’ll happen one day, but when you’ve got support from trainers like Philip Hobbs, Henry Daly and Tim Vaughan, it makes my job easy.”
Two years? Three? Four?
“I want to go on as long as possible.”