Articles Racing Post 



MARK JOHNSTON AND THE WINGED SPUR - Brough Scott

Mark Johnston is good company but he doesn’t like comfort zones. That’s why the country’s numerically most successful trainer has felt the need to rebrand his operation with a new logo incorporating the winged spur crest of the Johnston Clan set above his own trusty motto of “Always Trying.”

You will see it on the tartan livery of the staff leading up the many Johnston runners at Goodwood this week, but to really appreciate the spur that pricks the trainer you need to be with him at Middleham looking out at what should be the most satisfying view in the country. “I need to have a project,” says the 52 year old who had sent out his 105th winner of the season the previous day, “the rebranding is to remind people we are not dead, not finished and to start a drive to get more horses and more quality.”

From where he stands the ground slopes down to the River Ure with the timeless beauty of Wensleydale on the horizon. In the foreground are the horses, all weather tracks, barns, paddocks and even an aeroplane strip that represent the most innovative training career in Britain. Since he and his wife and closest ally Deidre first came to Middleham in 1988 he has not only made himself into a major player but with over 120 staff and ancillary employment put new life into the old town which once had Richard III as its guardian. Yet the Johnston has made his progress by challenging both himself and others assumptions. What he wants to challenge now is the assumption that outside being a feeder yard for Godolphin he is a silk purse from sow’s ear man rather than a natural base for the sort of expensive yearlings that make classic hopes.

“Our numbers are down,” he says. “Sheikh Hamdan (Sheikh Mohammed’s endurance-riding son) has 60 but that is from a peak of 100 and while I have 120 others, few are of classic quality. Next month we will have a brochure to match the new website as part of the rebranding exercise to persuade people to buy more horses and to see what we can do. Sheikh Mohammed’s support has been a huge boost to our business but the deal (as with the Dewhurst and subsequent French Guineas winner Shamardal) was that the good ones would go to Godolphin and so if I was to win a classic for them it would almost be a mistake.”

Johnston’s first classic win came when Mr Bailey’s blazed up the Rowley Mile to land the Two Thousand Guineas in 1994 and it was that year in exactly this week that I paid my first visit to Middleham. He was to train a hundred winners by the end of that season, a feat he, uniquely, has done every year since and actually topped the 200 in both 2009 and 2010. He was a young man of driving ambition and experimental ideas to whom his present self looked back almost wistfully last week.

“I often ask myself whether I am as good as I was,” he says, “and how much things have improved. But I think we take it for granted that we had Mr Baileys and Double Trigger (the Ascot Gold Cup and triple Goodwood Cup winner) in the stable. They would be the horses of anyone’s lifetime. We had about 80 horses back then with an average rating of about 75 and we now have about twice that with an average of around 95. But you have to progress and I want now to take it to another level.”

Seasoned Johnston watchers will be used to the harshness of the self questioning. Indeed it is from that which most of his most dramatic innovations have come starting with a radically different diet “to put something extra in the tank.” Feeding four times a day (including the middle of the night) and using a high level of animal fat he was able to get more calories into his horses, exercise them more and therefore have them fitter on the racecourse and allow them to develop the classic Johnston style of daring pursuers to come past them.

The BSE crisis saw a ban on animal fats in feed but by using vegetable products the Johnston charges still get 8% oil in their diet and are still fed through the night. “We have two men who work 6 hour shifts,” explains Mark back at the kitchen table. “So a horse who gets fed at 9 will be fed again at 3 am and so we can achieve the maximizing of calorie intake.” He talks like the vet he is but as he pulls a laptop in front of him you realize how much of a manager he has had to become.

On it is what he calls his “colour chart” a computer programmed system which allows him to scroll down a list of all 180 of his horses and see at a glance exactly what level of exercise they have been through over the last 42 days. “Green is in full work,” he explains, “yellow is just walking and trotting, while red is box rest. What’s more by clicking on to the horse’s name I can show which box it is in, what lad looks after it, and all other details from veterinary details to race results and gallop reports. I also have an I Pad so if I am away at the races I can pull up everything about a horse in seconds.”

It is a dazzling piece of kit which I have no doubt every trainer will be using sooner rather than later. It is also the latest stage in an ongoing attempt to impose basic business principles into the often over optimistic and always labour intensive world of racing. It started with agreed monthly targets and monthly budget meetings with his original partner Brian Palmer and had its first breakthrough when the British Racing School’s Rory McDonald came up in the late 1990s and devised the yard management system which continues to this day.

“What Mark was trying to do was an impossible job” says Rory, “by adopting a basic modular system it freed him up and made others take responsibility down the line rather than have one head lad take over the whole load when he was away.” Every month each of the six yard managers will set a prediction of how many winners they will provide. Every Friday, they and Mark and assistant trainer Jock Bennett sit down and assess how they are measuring up to their targets. “I think he is quite a hard taskmaster,” laughs Rory, “but you have to admire both his success and the way he gets all his staff involved.”

Understandably it has not developed without its crises and at the end of 2004 Johnston found himself so stressed that he rang his business man friend Ian Harland and told him he wanted to stop. It seemed an inexplicable decision in a record year of Attraction’s 1,000 Guineas double and Shamardal’s Dewhurst and one in which Mark had completed the purchase of the Peter Walton’s  275 acre Park Farm  nearby on to which he planned to shift his training operation. Harland made the trainer to complete a time and motion questionnaire which revealed that the biggest and apparently non delegatable chore was completing the next day’s exercise plans for the next morning.

Harland persuaded Johnston that not being able to delegate proved that his systems were still not adequate. So today not only does Jock Bennett have charge of completing “the list” each evening but each yard manager puts up his own suggestions taken from the pattern evolving in the “colour chart.” Harland is adamant if this strips away a bit of the mystique it only enhances the trainers effectiveness. “He can always intervene,” explains Ian, “but this way he does not get bogged down in minutiae and can look at the bigger picture.”

By 2009 that meant finally switching from the Middleham Moor gallops to the 10 furlong Tapeta surface that he had installed on Park Farm and up which his horses were coming towards us on Wednesday morning. There have been two hundred winners in each each of the subsequent seasons but Johnston admits that the change of basic work bench was not without its problems.

“When we interrogated the figures” he said (those Friday morning meetings again), “we found that the two year olds were underperforming and we realised that bashing up this last steep bit of hill was too much for them. Now three times a week they just spin along the reverse way on the level. That is better for them but otherwise we keep to much the same rhythm and canter at the same pace.”

Below us half a dozen horses spin powerfully up the final slope bringing privileged personal memories when I sat atop Double Trigger one morning in 1996 and appreciated first hand that basic winning fitness which is at the core of the Johnston horses and which has made so many punters happy as the challenger come alongside but the Middleham contender digs deep and battles home. The trainer is clear in what he is looking for. “I like horses to be galloping free, I like the going fast,” he says with an emphasis on the final word, an  exact Scottish echo of the Eric Liddell line “god me fast” in Chariots of Fire.

“When Michael Dickinson comes to look at the Tapeta surface he always says we have it too firm, but then he was a jumps trainer,” says Mark before adding. “As a rule my horses are not as good on soft ground and are better on galloping tracks, I think that’s one reason why we do so well at Goodwood and maybe why, now it’s always so heavily watered, we don’t do as well as we used to at York.”

Everyone knows, and those at BHA who don’t soon will, that opinions flow ceaselessly from the Johnston brain. But what makes them particularly interesting on the training ground is that they are based on professional veterinary knowledge as well as over twenty years of training experience. Up the gallop came a horse with an “overscope” attached to his bridle through which the monitoring team from Glasgow University could check its breathing and no doubt reinforce Johnston’s theory not only that endoscopes at rest are often give faulty readings but that the majority of surgical interventions are unnecessary.

“I have a great debate with Patrick Pollack of the University,” says Mark who funded the overscope in return for one day a month’s usage and treatment at cost. “Patrick believes that surgery, particularly tie forward surgery works and that tack has little effect. I have come round to thinking that the best thing is a cross noseband and a spoon bit which stops the tongue from curling back on itself. I haven’t used a tongue tie for seven years now. It’s not that I find them obtrusive I just find that too many horses dislike them.”

He has a default position of distrust of both elaborate race tactics or excessive tack telling how Bobby Elliott would be happy to ride up the gallops with a bitless bridle and giving fulsome praise to the straightforward skills of the Brazilian Sylvestre de Souza .“I would not hesitate to put him up in the Guineas, Derby or anything. He has absolute confidence in his own ability and the big occasion does not phase him at all. Confidence is the most important thing and he is absolutely brimming with it.”

Lack of complication is a basic Johnston watchword and it was in answer to the touch-the-nose conspiracy theorists who would ask the, to him offensive question, “are you off today?” that his “Always Trying” slogan was coined. And despite despising the machinations of the handicap system, his stable is very successful in handicaps by using the most elementary three number system to deduce the most suitable race. Each event is categorized by the numbers of horses in it which have been respectively first second or third. The lowest score is the best entry.

Of course travel is the most permanent of all complications and one of the other responses to the “mini crisis” of 2004 was to buy a Piper Cherokee 6 which can take off from the air strip next to the grass gallops and which is used for all racecourses south of Leicester and can get to Goodwood in an hour and a half. But that is not all. Turning across from the horsebarns in what will eventually be the main centre of his operation Johnston leads down into another building which opens up to reveal nothing less than an aircraft hangar housing his latest “toy” a 1962 Cessna 172 which he picked up only last week.

“It is statistically the safest plane in the air,” says Johnston before relating a rather hair story of a stuck valve and a labouring engine on his first journey to Middleham “I only started to learn to fly when one of our pilots was going to have to retire. So I started lessons in November 2009 and go my pilot’s licence in January this year. I don’t intend to fly solo to the races but I will be going with up front the pilot down to Goodwood.”
Standing in front of the plane all the engaging Johnston energy and detailed enthusiasm for a “new project” comes flooding out and we have barely move a quarter of a mile away than we come up against another. Three greyhounds pups in a specially boarded up paddock the product of a Johnston challenge in a pub in Naas two years ago that his early vet days at dodgy dog tracks in Northern Ireland combined with his developed ideas of nutrition and exercise would make training greyhounds a shoe in. Sheffield is the likely target later in the year. You have been warned.

But next week is the serious stuff in every way. At Goodwood on Wednesday morning Ian Harland will be amongst the “five just men” who make up the “Strategy BOARD” who make a once a quarter review of progress. Johnston will have many winners to report and likely Goodwood winners – possibly Namibian in the Goodwood Cup  -  to tip. But most of all he will have ambition to pledge.

The wings on that logo may prove to be more apposite than anyone thought at the time of Robert the Bruce and some of the particularly nasty things the Johnstons did to the Moffats and the Maxwells in the 16th century. Because what Mark Johnston is really doing with his new drive and revamped website is going global. If he is to find owners who want to compete in the big time – “for £3million a year I could put them in the top three owners” – he may have to go even as far as China.

We just hope he remembers the rules of delegation and doesn’t try and fly there in the Cessna 172.