THE TIMES SPORT, Monday 9 March 2020
Time’s winged chariot never reckoned to have Richard Johnson at the reins. When he arrives at the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday, it will be 20 years since he won the Gold Cup on a big bay horse called Looks Like Trouble, but it will also be after 12 days of a travel intensity only normally exceeded by desperate Prime Ministers running for office.
But Richard is not seeking votes. He is chasing a fifth consecutive jockeys’ championship after being 16 times runner up to the indomitable AP McCoy and is chasing it with redoubled energy as he tries to overhaul current leader Brian Hughes after a five week lay-off with a broken arm. The return, with two rides and two winners, was at Musselburgh, just south of Edinburgh a week ago last Thursday. Since then Richard and his driver Roy Partridge have criss-crossed the country and shared the driving to Newbury, Doncaster, Sedgefield, Wetherby, Exeter, Catterick, Wincanton, Ffos Las, Ayr and yesterday, Warwick. No speeches but 29 different horses to handle at the gallop in one of the most brutally unforgiving games of all.
On Thursday evening a now burly and heavily bearded Wayne Rooney played a skilful elder statesman’s role as Derby vainly tried to stem the resurgent tide of his former club, Manchester United. It was back in February 2003 that Wayne won the first of his 120 England caps in a career which included 14 seasons at United. On Friday morning Richard drove from his Herefordshire home for four rides at the soggy Carmarthenshire delights of Ffos Las racecourse culminating in a grinding last gasp victory with a finishing power that still makes other jockeys shake their heads in wonder. Wayne Rooney is 34. This July Richard Johnson will be 43.
It’s this abiding strength combined with a complete lack of quarrelsomeness that continues to amaze. “There have been some great jockeys over the years,” says Peter Scudamore, himself an eight times champion. “Richard rides quite old fashioned and upright with his whole foot rather than toe in the iron and he is effective rather than stylish over a fence, but I have never seen anyone as strong from the last. He is short and sturdy and uses his whole body to really lift them towards the line.”
Peter’s father Michael had the strongest physique I ever saw. But he was stopped at 33. For Richard to be still riding ten seasons later sets a benchmark for long-lived, top level physical and mental resilience unmatched in any sport. But it has not come without cost. In October 2001 Richard smashed his right leg at the same Exeter open ditch where his latest injury happened this February, and 10 months later the same limb was fractured up at the femur in a worse fall at Newton Abbot.
The effects of that injury lingered to the point where three years ago saw him in such pain that he was considering retirement, only for the intervention of top physiotherapist and fellow parent, Kate Davis, who spotted him limping outside the school gates and whose routines Johnson religiously carries out in the weighing room before racing. “I was very lucky to meet up with her,” he said on Thursday about Davis whose elite clients include both rugby and ballet stars. “There’s no doubt she has given me a few more years. I know I am lucky and I still love riding winners more than anything else.”
The words are quick, clipped and polite with plenty of “perhaps” and “maybes” and quite a trace of the Herefordshire farming world into which he grew up and has now with his own family returned, roots where jump racing was part of the fabric. Peter Scudamore rode in a point to point with both Richard’s father, Keith, and his grandfather, Ivor, for whom in April 1994 Richard rode the home bred Rusty Bridge to win by a head in a photo finish. By then he was already working for David Nicholson whose wife Dinah remembers the ever-willing little boy who had first come in the school holidays and whose only fault was severe dyslexia which left him nonplussed when David asked him to read the form.
“The thing about Richard is that he has never changed,” says Dinah echoing the verdict of distinguished sports agent, Jon Holmes, whose clients Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen were both excitedly on the phone 19 years ago this Sunday after Jon’s horse Under The Sand had won first time out with Richard in the saddle at a helpful 20-1. By unhappy coincidence it was in the same scarlet and yellow hoops that Richard received his latest injury when Westend Story decked him at Exeter.
“That evening all Richard wanted to do was to apologize,” says Holmes. Adding admiringly, “in all the time that he has ridden for us he doesn’t appear to have altered materially as a person. He is unfailingly polite and modest and his feedback is extraordinary. People tell me that he is not the most gifted, but then Lineker and Atherton will say that. They have made themselves exceptional. So has Richard. There is no massive ego there, but there must be a steely determination within.”
The man himself shrugs off the compliments, and smiles wryly when comparing his current self to the younger Johnson who drove Looks Like Trouble so dynamically up the Cheltenham Hill twenty years ago. “I ache a bit more in the mornings,” he says, “and I am probably a bit wiser. I think, perhaps, when I started I was a bit apt to ride all the horses the same, but now, I give them more of a chance. Hopefully that is a positive. Depending on the horse but if you get hardened old handicappers, a bit like myself, you can keep asking them the question.”
His ultimate signature ride was of course the attacking tour de force with which he won the 2018 Gold Cup with Native River, the chaser now sadly sidelined with injury leaving Richard without fancied mounts in either of the Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle. “It’s very disappointing but as you get older you learn to accept it and just make the best of things. I am lucky to have some good rides, Brewin’upastorm in the Arkle (Tuesday), and Thyme Hill in the Albert Bartlett (Friday) would be the best of them and I would love Thyme Hill to win for Philip.”
Johnson’s 20-year association with trainer Philip Hobbs for whom he rode Rooster Booster to win the Champion Hurdle in 2003 is now the most enduring top flight partnership in the history of the jumping game. They are both as understated as they are high achieving and reflect the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and loyalty. Richard Johnson knows that success will be hard to come by at Cheltenham, that bridging the 20 winner gap to Brian Hughes looks near insuperable, and that age will inevitably claim him.
But that’s not something he will complain about. He will just keep chasing the chariot along.