2yo Run Style Trainers: Charlie and Mark Johnston are among the trainers who habitually send their horses to the front. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

Meeting Charlie Johnston

The most predictable thing about Mark Johnston is his unpredictability, writes Tony Stafford. When most Scotsmen would be thinking of First Footing on New Year’s Eve, his mind was set on Last Running as he let it be known publicly that his entries in conjunction with son Charlie at Wolverhampton on that Friday evening would be his last.

That left Charlie Johnston, 32, as the sole licence holder at Middleham’s Kingsley House Stables. That long-standing name nowadays more importantly incorporates the magnificent Kingsley Park with its independent gallops less than a mile from the High Street.

Middleham has a wide range of excellent existing work facilities available to the other trainers in the area, which Johnston used for the longest part of his 34 years in the town. But with the stable size swelling beyond 200 horses, it became clear there was a need to ensure continuity of exercise every day. As anyone who knows Newmarket will tell you, delays of getting onto the gallops if stuck in behind a big string can be frustrating for trainers and cause difficulties for horses with the potential for over-excitement.

Thus Kingsley Park was designed, and is organised in eight self-contained stable blocks, all with access to the most up-to-date swimming pools, water treadmills, and with the veterinary and farriery expertise needed to keep the massive show on the road. They are all within yards from stepping on to the various gallops, be they grass or artificial. Each yard has its own manager, reporting directly to the management team and several assistant trainers, the best-known being the admirable Jack Bennett.

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Since qualifying as a vet, Charlie has been increasingly involved in the family business and he, his father, and mum Deirdre form the Board of Directors. It was at their quarterly Board Meeting on December 1st that the suggestion of a more immediate change-over was first mooted. Let Charlie explain.

“When we first applied to the BHA for the joint-licence, which began on January 1st last year, we all had it in our minds that it would probably be something which would continue for four or five years as a partnership. It quickly came down to more like two years as the transition had gone smoothly from the outset.

“Then at the last Board Meeting, Dad said: “What about January 1st?” We looked at each other and everyone seemed to like the idea. It had the obvious benefit of making for a tidy transition.”

The first step was to check with the BHA that it could be arranged in time. Then the owners had to be consulted. Charlie said: “As of January 3rd, none of the owners has disagreed with the new arrangement. Of course, Dad will be here every day as usual and all the planning processes that have been in place for decades to decide what and where we run will continue unchanged.

“Mum will, as ever, be riding out her two lots on racehorses every morning, then go across to look after her eventers. She will also continue travelling the country and the world watching eventers she has with other people. The only thing really that will change in the short term is that, when they go on holiday, the phone won’t be ringing non-stop.”

After initially training in Lincolnshire, Mark and Deirdre Johnston moved to Middleham in 1988 buying Kingsley House which, at one time a decade or so earlier, had a less reputable incumbent in Ken ("Window") Payne, the one-time selling-plate king who I knew originally in the days when he trained in the New Forest.

One of his most famous episodes at that time was when he saddled two horses in a four-runner seller, putting his own apprentice John Curant on the “trier” and Lester Piggott on the wrong one. They were the right one (for Ken) and the wrong one (for the betting public) as, Big Jake I seem to remember, strolled home from Mr Bojangles and the Long Fellow.

It was while at Middleham that Payne took charge of a syndicate horse I organised with fellow Daily Telegraph journalists and habituees of Coral’s betting shop in Fleet Street. These included, bizarrely, two punting band leaders in Mike Allen and Trevor Halling – father of boxing commentator, Nick Halling.

Halling senior incidentally got such a kick from that connection that he made a new career in racing journalism in the south-east and was a long-standing regular at Lingfield and all the Sussex tracks. My friend Keith Walton, who is a former boxer who trains professionals, also coaches several Northern jockeys in the skills of the noble art. Keith, a regular on the racecourse in the summer, has a top prospect in David Crawford, known locally as the Black Panther. He promises that when Crawford next appears on a televised bill, he will ask Nick Halling about his father’s health.

Returning to Payne, a horse called Princehood started for us with the remarkable veteran Louie Dingwall who trained on the beach at Sandbanks, in Dorset, where her shack, with its own petrol pump, would represent at least £1 million worth of real estate nowadays – ask Harry Redknapp! One day, aged 86, and with limited vision, she drove her horsebox all the way to the south of France and won the Grand Prix des Alpes-Maritime and £13 grand with Treason Trial, her own horse.

Princehood, a 300gns auction buy, did nothing while in Dorset, but, sent north, won a BBC televised sprint on a Saturday at Lanark just before it closed in October 1977. In typical Payne fashion, he had told us to back him two days earlier in a modest race at Doncaster where he ran a stinker. Nobody had the foresight to take the 14/1 as we watched with dismay during our work break in the King and Keys pub in Fleet Street that Saturday.

Payne’s time at Middleham had various controversies, one of which was the suggestion that as more owners were attracted to the stable, it outgrew its capacity and there were instances of multiple occupation of boxes, fine with a mare and foal, but less advisable with hard-trained racehorses. Also, his accounting was reputedly off course, with it often taking several more than four quarters in a horse to complete the ownership whole! After his wife had gone off with the singer Gilbert O’Sullivan, Payne reputedly went to live in America with his male hairdresser!

The Johnston days happily have been much more conventional. From the outset in 1988 and by October 2017, in saddling Dominating to win at Pontefract, Mark became only the third trainer to saddle 4,000 winners in the UK. Less than a year later, Poet’s Society (Frankie Dettori) won at York at 20/1 to make it a record 4,194 wins and then, in August last year, Johnston crossed the unconscionable milestone of 5,000 victories when Dubai Mile won at Kempton.

Thus, with just the 5,000 (and a few) to aim at, Charlie set off with a 33-1 fourth at Lingfield on Monday and has runners all week from today (Wednesday). Everyone will be wishing this personable young man all the best.

One thing that hasn’t yet taken much of his attention is the use of the family plane, which Mark flies all over Europe and which Charlie concedes is a massive help in the organisation of their time.

“No, flying the plane is probably something that might happen eventually. There is no doubt that it has been a great advantage to be able to supervise everything on the gallops for two-thirds of the morning and still be down at Ascot or Newmarket in time for the first race at 2 o’clock.

“I’m not sure that as well as handing over the licence, Dad will be too excited about being an unpaid pilot for me; but flying has helped keep us in touch with everything, and it would be a shame if it were no longer available to us” he said. It would also make that lovely grass runway just behind the barns a severe waste.

Mark Johnston is relatively young at 63, compared with other senior trainers like Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden, the latter now named on a joint-licence with son Thady. But, as Charlie says, “He didn’t want to go on indefinitely. He and Mum have built all this up from nothing, and he never wanted it to just fritter away. I’ve no intention of that ever happening!”

Don’t worry   - it won’t!

- TS

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