With the exception of the phenomenon that is Tony McCoy, no other jockey in history has ridden more winners than Richard Johnson, who has spent the best part of the last two decades chasing the shadow of ‘The Champ’ but is no less a jockey for failing to have won the championship himself.
Seven winners over the three days of the excellent Cheltenham November meeting were proof, (as if proof were needed), that Johnson remains an outstanding rider “with a head on his shoulders” as the say; in other words, a jockey who uses his brains to get the best out of his horse and isn’t just about brute strength – although there would be few stronger riders in a finish when push comes to shove.
The 37-year-old Johnson has averaged more than 150 winners a season over the last six years in his never-ending pursuit of his bête noir McCoy, and while he has won each of the big four Cheltenham Festival races, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble, and the Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster, the one race to have consistently avoided the Johnson grasp is “the world’s greatest steeplechase”, the Grand National, at Aintree.
He’s come very close though, including a memorable effort back in 2002 on the gallant grey What’s Up Boys, trained by Johnson’s boss of many years, Philip Hobbs. Backed down very nearly to favourite for the four-and-a-half mile marathon in the days before the race underwent significant changes and the awesome fences were made a shade easier, 10/1-chance What’s Up Boys arrived at Aintree on the back of a fine run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup where he finished fifth behind the legendary triple winner, Best Mate.
Richard Johnson gave What’s Up Boys one of the best losing rides in recent times. Despite an error early on in the race, he got his mount settled at the back of the 40-runner field and just made sure he got round the first circuit without further incident. It was only at the 25th of the 30 obstacles that What’s Up Boys began to really pick off his rivals and within two fences he had moved into second place, on the heels of Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bindaree.
Biding his time, Johnson booted What’s Up Boys into the lead at the last and was three lengths clear with 150 yards to run, but suddenly the concession of 16lbs to his main rival began to tell, and in the dying strides Bindaree swept back past the luckless Johnson, to beat What’s Up Boys by just three-quarters-of-a-length.
Then last year, in the 2014 renewal, the first £1 million Crabbie’s Grand National, Johnson partnered the in-form Balthazar King, (also trained by Hobbs), who arrived at Aintree on the back of a last-gasp win in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival a few weeks earlier. Riding a very different race to his 2002 effort, Johnson had Balthazar King close to the pace throughout the contest and again appeared to have his mount in the perfect place as he approached the final fence in second position ahead of the 440-yard famously long run-in. This time though Balthazar King couldn’t quicken with the eventual winner Pineau De Re, (who was receiving 7lbs) but he kept on well to finishing a five-length runner-up.
Johnson and Balthazar King are due to try their luck again on April 11 at Aintree and are generally on offer at 25/1 in the ante-post market for the Grand National. Greatly respected by his weighing room colleagues and by the racing public alike, it is hard to think of any current professional jumps jockey who would get a bigger cheer on Merseyside if he could finally achieve the one big win missing from his CV.