28 October 2001
After breaking his leg, top jump jockey Richard Johnson ponders the three-month rest from chasing McCoy’s tail
So, for Richard Johnson it’s the crutches not the whip. At 24, after four consecutive centuries of winners in vain pursuit of the relentless Tony McCoy, this was going to be Richard’s season. Tuesday at Exeter had looked like being his day. That’s until the fourth fence,.
Ilico II was billed as his best ride of an afternoon in which two later rides duly obliged under other pilots. French import Ilico II had won impressively at Aintree over hurdles last spring but the switch to steeplechasing this term was where the big hopes lay. At home he had schooled brilliantly. At Exeter, he skipped over the first three fences as if he had wings on his heels. At the fourth his and Richard’s luck ran out.
For the jockey it now means three months’ recuperation with a right leg in which the smashed tibia and fibula have had to be plated together. For the horse it was even worse. Owner Terry Warner had lost a good runner in Doctor last month at Chepstow. Now he saw Ilico II, his best ever prospect, get up apparently unhurt from the fall and hack round behind the others before an internal haemorrhage suddenly, and horribly, clutched him down.
“It was no one’s fault,” said Johnson, his shattered right leg propped up on the kitchen chair, his Labrador Pauli and his companion Zara Phillips both looking on with understandable degrees of concern, “One Nation, the horse in front of us, propped at the open ditch and came right-handed, almost stopping us. Ilico II never saw the fence and it just turned him upside down. I suppose he must have landed slap on my leg.”
For someone who had just endured a four-hour flood and motorway-jammed journey from an Exeter hospital to his white cottage near Tewkesbury, Johnson was endearingly free from self-pity. But the farmer’s son who, when racing is finished, sees himself joining his elder brother Nick to work on the family’s 1,000 acres in Herefordshire, has always been almost annoyingly positive. That’s what makes him a good jockey.
In the last four seasons he has had 557 winners from no less than 3,303 rides. In any other era this would easily be a champion’s total. But this is the age of McCoy. Fuelled by the twin phenomena of his own obsession and Martin Pipe’s winner factory, McCoy has torn up the record books.
Each year Johnson has ridden more winners than the previous one. Last season he closed the gap to a mere 29. By Tuesday he had already logged up 81 winners, 40 clear of his nearest pursuer. Yet McCoy was 40 clear of him, having clocked 121. By rights it should make you sick.
“But it’s impossible to dislike him,” says Johnson, looking out across the green vale to where Dumbleton hill stands as a remnant of some ancient volcano. “Success has absolutely not spoiled him. He’s a great competitor but he would never deliberately do you harm.”
“Mind you, that’s true of 99.9 per cent of the jumping boys. It’s because we are all having to cope with the horse. Things may get tight over the last three fences but in the first part of a race we have to look after each other.” In an era when sportsmen’s politeness tends to register in reverse proportions to the millions they earn, an afternoon with Johnson is something to restore the faith.
The BMW in the drive, the pictures of Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble and other triumphs on the wall all pay tribute to a highly paid achiever who has his rides handled by the ubiquitous Dave Roberts, his money by Ian Battersby’s Kingsbridge Investments, and his wider role by the emergent World Sport Solutions, who number Paul Lawrie and David O’Leary among their clients. But the figure on the crutches remains a young man in love with his job.
“Riding a good horse is a terrific thrill,” he says, his blue eyes widening, his tired features suddenly enlivening with uninhibited boyish enthusiasm. “I have been lucky to have ridden some tremendous horses and this year the trainers I ride for have stronger strings than ever. I have made a pretty good start. But then McCoy has had his best start ever. And now this . . .”
For a moment the voice trails away. You remember the Johnson v McCoy newspaper cuttings in the loo showing how close the winners’ totals ran through last season. You look around the spick and span trophy-packed household and try and imagine dark clouds of doubt closing in.
Maybe one day, but meanwhile he should be employed as a cheer-up counsellor for the clinically depressed. “No, I am never afraid,” he says quite openly, “I have always said that I will ride any horse provided it has got some ability. I used to be a bit over eager but I think I understand the game better now and enjoy the challenge more.”
We currently have an exceptional crop of jump jockeys. Besides McCoy we have the likes of Williamson, Fitzgerald, Dobbin and the currently “on fire” Timmy Murphy. Among them Johnson, the smallest at 5ft 5in, has sometimes cut an almost hyperactive little figure. But with the years, and the falls, has come wisdom, and when he resumes the others know that for sheer bouncy, buoyant, dynamism, he brings to the saddle qualities even they cannot match.
First he has to test himself with inactivity. The leg may not hurt much at present (“The hospital were wonderful,” he says), but boredom will be a bugbear. He ponders buying a laptop and getting himself IT connected. He nods his head at the thought of the risk the smooth hall and kitchen flooring hold for a sliding crutch. He plans to go for professional rehabilitation with a Premiership football club. He aims for Zara and he to get some sun for the summer holiday they never had. But that is not what he is living for.
He had posed outside with his racebag. Snaps over, he took a wistful look at it before swinging back into the kitchen. “Don’t put it in the car, Zara,” he said. “We won’t be needing it for a while.”