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Johnston ‘top of the tree’

Author: Nicholas Godfrey

27/09/2018
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No apologies here for using this column to laud a truly amazing feat from a few weeks ago. Just in case you weren’t paying attention, on the Thursday of the York Ebor meeting, when Poet’s Society won a mile handicap, the indefatigable Mark Johnston became all time record holder for career victories as a trainer in Britain. The victory was achieved in trademark Johnston style, with Frankie Dettori making all before the 4yo gelding courageously held off his rivals in a 20 runner field to become his trainer’s 4,194th winner in Britain. That figure (which also includes five over jumps!) meant the former vet surpassed the mark set by Richard Hannon Sr to become the most prolific trainer in British racing history.

It was all a far cry from Johnston’s humble beginnings with what he called ‘three and a half paying horses’ at a Lincolnshire yard whose gallops were part of an RAF target practice range. Indeed, he still recalls staring at teletext all night incredulous that he had saddled his first ever winner, a horse called Hinari Video at Carlisle in 1987. Since then, this arch iconoclast, a trait also held by Martin Pipe, the trainer he has always most admired, has had winners at every Flat track in Britain, from lowly all-weather contests (he has long been prolific at places like Lingfield, Wolverhampton and Southwell) to the very pinnacle of the sport. Witness his estimable record at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood: Johnston has 43 winners to his name on the Queen’s famous strip of Berkshire turf, and has 12 times been leading trainer down at the celebrated West Sussex venue.

A couple of British Classic winners (Mister Baileys and Attraction) and two more in Ireland (Attraction again and Jukebox Jury) feature among a multitude of Group race successes. He names Shamardal as the best he has trained: the 2004 Dewhurst winner was Europe’s Champion 2yo and, after being transferred to Saeed bin Suroor, a dual French Classic victor. Dubai World Cup winner Monterosso also started with Johnston, who had a major victory in his own name at Nad Al Sheba when Fruits Of Love won the Sheema Classic in 1999. The trainer’s best known horse, though, and certainly his most popular was Double Trigger, that ‘tough as teak’ stayer who established a record with seven wins in Britain’s major Cup races (Ascot, Doncaster and Goodwood).

Although Johnston has never been Champion Trainer, that prize being determined by prize money alone, he has topped the charts in terms of annual victories no fewer than 11 times. This current season is the 25th consecutive year he has trained a century of wins. Standing at the helm of what is in effect the Godolphin nursery at his purpose built Middleham base, what is most remarkable about this proudest of Scots is that he has risen to the top of his chosen profession by sheer hard graft. ‘Always trying’ is his slightly cheeky motto, but those two words could hardly be more appropriate. Cornelius Lysaght, the BBC’s horse racing correspondent, summed it up neatly.

He said: “Whoever you are: Manchester City, Sachin Tendulkar, Andy Murray, reaching these kinds of milestones is of course important and worthy of very high praise indeed, but what’s so striking about Mark Johnston is how it came from pretty much nowhere. He may have been born with the clear thinking and single minded determination for which he’s famous, but there was no real horsey connection at all.” For all that, however, and amid fulsome tributes from certain trainers and jockeys, other media types and even a prized segment on the BBC Ten O’Clock News, I could not help thinking some of the praise had a hint of ‘grudging acceptance’ about it.

Johnston it must be said, has always ‘paddled his own canoe’, never afraid of ruffling a few feathers. After one extensive interview a couple of years ago in the Racing Post, I wrote the following introductory paragraphs, and they still stand. ‘As well as being one of the foremost trainers of his era, Mark Johnston has long since earned a reputation as a noted contrarian, which perhaps explains why his father once famously suggested his son could start an argument in an empty room. ‘As cogent as he is outspoken, Johnston can be relied upon to fight his corner with gusto, not always winning friends but certainly influencing people with his forthright opinions.

Not for nothing is his column in his stable magazine called ‘Straight Talking’. What this does not tell you, though, is that in many years of contacting Johnston on any number of subjects, he has always, always, been nothing other than entirely helpful, and more often than not enlightening. Yes, he is forthright about many of the ills he sees besetting the sport, perhaps at times blinkered to other opinions, but never let it be doubted that such sentiments spring from a passionate desire to see racing thrive. Even if you don’t agree with him, a fierce intelligence means he is always worth listening to, and now he stands at number one in the all time list. You really can’t argue with that. More power to his elbow.

‘Hats off’ for Spencer'

I CANNOT let this column pass without mention of Jamie Spencer’s ‘star crossed’ weekend in Toronto for the Ricoh Woodbine Mile earlier this month. First up for the jockey came the Woodbine Mile, in which his well fancied mount, the David O’Meara-trained Lord Glitters, was by no means alone in being marooned miles off a tepid pace set by a ‘loose on the lead’ Oscar Performance, who duly added to an impressive CV with another Grade One success over a one turn mile. Given anything like a similarly easy time in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, for which this $800,000 event was a ‘Win and You’re In’ contest, the winner will be mighty dangerous at Churchill Downs. Some will suggest he was just lucky when fellow front runner La Sardane was scratched, leaving the way clear for Oscar Performance to make all, but this is a horse who seems to specialise in ‘getting lucky’.

Lord Glitters, for his part, had no chance settled towards the rear off pedestrian fractions (sectionals of 24.60s, 48.78s and 1m 11.49s). On the other hand, Spencer was left to rue the attentions of habitual front runner Tiz A Slam when the Canadian contender hassled Godolphin’s Hawkbill all the way in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf. After the hot favourite, now looking a shadow of his former self, faded to finish a dismal eighth of ten behind hometown hero Johnny Bear, Spencer reflected: “We were harried by the other horse the whole race. It ruined his race and mine.” Quite what Tiz A Slam was supposed to do remains a mystery, given that he was hardly a ‘no hoper’ himself and all his form is on the lead.

But at least Spencer enjoyed some reward for his transatlantic journey on the Sunday card when the Charlie Appleby-trained La Pelosa put herself in line for a crack at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies’ Turf with a powerful rally to win the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes. Mind you, even then there was a sting in the tail for Spencer, whose powerful drive resulted in a $3,000 fine (20% of his prize money earnings) for striking his mount above shoulder height. (I counted nine strong cracks in just over a furlong). According to the official report, Spencer ‘said he, Spencer’ is tall with long legs and his horse is small but he did his best not to break the rules’. We believe you, Jamie. Though it is tempting to say that thousands might not!

Nicholas Godfrey
International sportswriter

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27 Sep 2018
Issue Number: Issue 648
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