Johnson’s quiet exit is testament to true champion

It seems fitting that Richard Johnson retired after a third place on Easter Saturday at Newton Abbot, rather than waiting to go in a blaze of glory at next week’s Grand National meeting – or even Sandown’s season finale.

None would have begrudged Johnson, affectionately known as Dicky, a final shot at a Grade One with Thyme Hill, a last spin around the National fences or a fanfare on the final day of the campaign.

However, he is not a man who would take the spotlight away from a National winner or a newly-crowned champion jockey.

Richard Johnson in full flow on Thyme Hill en route to victory in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury this season
Richard Johnson in full flow on Thyme Hill en route to victory in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The 43-year-old is famed for his easy-going attitude, willingness to help and above all his dedication to the saddle – which has seen him notch up a remarkable set of statistics over his long and hugely successful career.

It is almost 27 years since he secured his first winner aboard Rusty Bridge in a Hereford hunter chase – and in the subsequent years he established himself as one of the greatest as well as most popular National Hunt jockeys in history.

Johnson rode more than 3,800 career winners, including two Cheltenham Gold Cup successes aboard Looks Like Trouble (2000) and Native River (2018), a Queen Mother Champion Chase triumph on Flagship Uberalles (2002), Champion Hurdle glory with Rooster Booster (2003) and the World Hurdle on Anzum (1999) – the biggest four races at the Cheltenham Festival.

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The Grand National evaded him, as it has so many others – his second place on Philip Hobbs’ What’s Up Boys the nearest he came, in 2002. But that did not stop him being accorded an OBE in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List, for services to horseracing.

It is fair to say he has come a long way since growing up on a Herefordshire farm and getting the leg-up on his first pony, Twinkle – and yet he had to spend most of his career in the giant shadow of the greatest of them all, Sir Anthony McCoy.

Johnson’s statistics are nothing short of staggering, but even they do not quite measure up against 20-time champion McCoy’s mind-boggling figures.

Having finished runner-up to the Ulsterman so many times in the jockeys’ title race, Johnson could be forgiven for having felt his day at the top might never come.

But rather than becoming bitter, he saw his close friend and rival – who retired, having ridden an all-time record 4,358 winners – as an example of what can be achieved through hard work and dedication.

He once said: “I had years of great racing with AP (McCoy), and it was frustrating not to beat him, but I had a fantastic time. Apart from the fact that I didn’t beat him, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”

With his mother Susan a trainer and both his father Keith and grandfather Ivor successful amateur riders, Johnson was bred to be a jockey.

After graduating from ponies, he started riding out for the brilliant trainer David Nicholson in the school holidays before becoming pupil after leaving school at 16. After initially riding as an amateur, Johnson turned professional in 1995 – and the following year was crowned champion conditional.

It was a long wait to finally get his hands on the champion jockey trophy, but he first achieved that feat in 2016 – and then entered his own short period of domination, notching three more wins in the following years.

Sporting John's success in the Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown was one of Richard Johnson's big-race winners this season
Sporting John’s success in the Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown was one of Richard Johnson’s big-race winners this season (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Johnson could well have made it five last season had he not broken his arm in January. He made a swift recovery in just 37 days – but with the campaign curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, he lost any chance of making up ground on Brian Hughes.

The winners did not flow quite so freely this term – although Thyme Hill, Sporting John and old ally Native River ensured some high spots along the way.

The fact Johnson was so content to bid adieu aboard a horse sent out by Hobbs, his long-time retained trainer – regardless of result – demonstrates the loyalty and respect of their enduring partnership.

It is a shame coronavirus restrictions meant his wife Fiona, daughter of dual Cheltenham Gold-Cup winning trainer Noel Chance, and their three children could not be there for his farewell – and the crowds he has thrilled over almost 30 years had to stay away too.

But Johnson bows out a true giant of the weighing room, the epitome in every sense of a sportsman.

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