“Imagine if AP McCoy had never been born.” Richard Johnson MUST have mused over that possibility. He’s only human. I would have done if I was him. Thing is, if AP wasn’t around we would now be eulogising about RJ. He would probably be chasing his 4,000th winner and his umpteenth jockeys’ title. Instead, while the racing world prepares to celebrate the remarkable McCoy, RJ remains in his shadow, the perennial bridesmaid, the best jockey never to be champion. But his own riding achievements are pretty remarkable. So let’s put AP mania to one side and pause to pay homage to this fine jockey…
If you search for Richard Johnson on Wikipedia, then Richard the jockey doesn’t even make the list of famous sportspeople. It comes up with three cricketers, a couple of golfers and two American football stars. I have never heard of any of them. But I have heard of Dickie Johnson. If you scroll down to the “others” section you’ll find Richard Johnson (jockey). This is the chap who lived with Zara Phillips for five years. However, most people outside racing would still not recognise his name, never mind spot him in the street.
Finishing second 15 (or is it 16 or 17, I’ve lost count) times to AP McCoy in the Jump jockeys’ championship would frustrate most people. But AP is held in such regard by his peers that Richard probably regards it as an honour. Johnson and McCoy are no Lauda and Hunt, or Ovett and Coe…There is no animosity that can be the hallmark of such sporting rivalries. They are past that and are pals.
Johnson burst on the scene as a cherubic 18-year-old, winning the conditional jockeys’ title in 1995. He cut his teeth under the intimidating gaze of David Nicholson, whose yard had been a conveyor belt of riding talent with Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody and Adrian Maguire his predecessors. He replaced Maguire as number one jockey for The Duke in the mid-90s and a big race win on Zafarabad in 1998 was his first Grade one winner for Nicholson.
But his big breakthrough came on tiny terrier Anzum (pictured left) in 1999. The little horse with the big heart was out with the washing in the World Hurdle (then the Bonusprint Stayers’ Hurdle) before Johnson somehow conjured a sustained run of almighty proportions to get up on the line. It was a remarkable ride and a tribute to the never-say-die attitude of the jockey (and horse).
The early noughties saw a raft of red-letter days for the upwardly mobile Johnson: Cheltenham Gold Cup success on Looks Like Trouble in 2000; Champion Chase glory on Flagship Uberalles in 2002 and then a steering job on Rooster Booster in the 2003 Champion Hurdle.
His association with Philip Hobbs has spawned countless other Grade One victories on the likes of Detroit City, Menorah, Captain Chris, Made In Japan and Massini’s Maguire. The Grand National is the only big race to elude him and What’s Up Boys heartbreaking second in 2002 when he was mugged by Bindaree is probably his best and worst National experience.
Top of his game
But all the time he has been playing second fiddle in the numbers game to McCoy. While Dickie has consistently ridden 100 winners-plus, his friendly nemesis has always trumped him, usually riding 200 winners and more. The closest he has got to AP was in 2005/2006 when he got within 11.
Broken bones are an occupational hazard for jump jockeys and Johnson has had more than most. He even broke his leg twice in the 2002 season but still managed to come second!
In 2003, Richard became the eighth National Hunt jockey to ride 1,000 winners in Britain on Quedex at Stratford. He recorded his 2,000th career winner aboard Fighting Chance at Newbury on 16 December 2009. He is currently on 2,500 winners-plus, more than double anybody else (apart from that man AP).
A class act
Richard Johnson is now 36 and ridden more winners than any other jockey in National Hunt history… (apart from AP of course). He continues to ride at the top of his game. The timing, strength and confidence are all still there. He is simply looking for the next winner and if the horse is good enough, then the jockey certainly is.
AP McCoy is a class act and I’m sure he will spare a thought or two for Johnson as he is pestered by the media over the next few days. His drive and commitment is second to none. But it is the presence of Johnson that has probably been one of AP’s chief motivators to keep going.
In fact if Dickie Johnson had never been born, then I don’t think AP would be anywhere near 4,000 winners. He would not have stretched every sinew to get a beaten horse up on the line. Or snatched victory from the jaws of inevitable defeat. With Johnson chasing him, he has travelled thousands of miles in his unending quest for winners.
RJ is three years younger than AP and if there’s any justice he will one day become champion jockey. Will there be a similar fanfare to the one we are witnessing for McCoy when Dickie is approaching his 3,000th winner? Let’s hope so… it would be thoroughly deserved.