Built to lug potatoes, modest Richard Johnson had a will that gave his horses wings

No one can ever have matched titanic sporting achievement with as modest and unchangingly pleasant temperament as Richard Johnson.

It says much about him that for all the astonishing success of his 28 season, 3,819 winner career, the tributes when he announced his retirement after riding at Newton Abbot on Saturday were as much personal as professional. “He is the same person now, as he was then,” said Philip Hobbs with whom, from August 1999, 43 year-old Richard has enjoyed the longest top class trainer/jockey relationship in racing history including a famous Champion Hurdle Triumph on Rooster Booster. “I have never, not once, had a fallout with him over anything. There has never been any fuss, hassle or aggravation. As a person there is absolutely no side to him whatsoever.”

They are amazing words about someone so uniquely driven in an activity so naturally beset with tension and disappointment. But they ring true to anyone who has known Richard down the years. The eager smiling teenager at David Nicholson’s is just the same as the senior figure now returning to the Herefordshire farm life from which he came. Meeting him, so unfailingly polite and friendly, it’s sometimes easy to forget the enormity of what he has done. He was an athlete so durable that no one has ever ridden in as many races over fences and, but for the phenomenon that was AP McCoy, Richard would have had 21 not four jockey’s titles to his name since his first winner, naturally at Hereford, on the family-owned Rusty Bridge,  back in April 1994. Crikey, that was three years before Tony Blair became PM.

It’s not as if he was a reclusive country bumpkin. For several years he and Zara Phillips lived together and the same Richard Johnson could be seen as a smiling, shiny-toppered part of the royal party at Ascot. It was that he never let success add to self-importance. His gifts were his short and magnificently powerful physique, “I was bred to lug sacks of potatoes”; his enduring passion for the game, “I just love riding winners more than anything else;” and his limitless energy. Before Cheltenham last year I logged his vain pursuit of Brian Hughes in the race for the jockeys title and the journey daily journey went from – wait for it – Musselburgh to Newbury, Doncaster, Sedgefield, Wetherby, Exeter, Catterick, Wincanton, Ffos Las, Ayr, Warwick, and still went on for more.

As a rider he did not have the artistry of someone like John Francome, or the moulded, flowing mastery of Ruby Walsh. By comparison he was always a bit upright in the saddle, something emphasised in recent seasons as he struggled with a hip badly smashed as long ago as 2002. But while he may not have cut the most elegant of figures over a fence, he could get horses jumping and, even in what for others should be twilight years, had a commitment off the scale. If you needed someone to believe in you and dig deep, Richard Johnson was your man.

Never was this more perfectly demonstrated than in the legendary tour de force that was Richard’s winning Gold Cup ride on Native River in 2018. Stalked all the way by the classier, speedier Might Bite, Native River was sent into and over each fence as if Johnson’s very will had given him wings. Might Bite was still there when they landed over the last, but the prospect of that sapping Cheltenham Hill, the dour set of Native River’s neck and the implacable determination of Johnson in the saddle, was too much. That day it would have been too much for anything.

But the memories return to the personal.  There were those quick, clipped, uncensorious sentences with plenty of “perhaps” and “maybes” and quite a trace of those Herefordshire roots where he and his young family are once again such a part. There was both the pre-race and post-race calmness whether in triumph or disaster, and above all there was this sense of respect he would bring to a conversation whether it be with the head of the supermarket queue or with The Queen.

It was entirely typical that Richard’s retiring statement should begin by saying: “I have been extraordinarily lucky to have ridden so many wonderful horses and for so many incredible owners and trainers.”

The truth is that any sport, most particularly this terrific but sometimes tarnished and beleaguered old game, would be lucky to have had him.

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