Sir Ron Priestley scores on comeback

Mark Johnston’s 2019 St Leger runner-up Sir Ron Priestley defied a lengthy absence to make a winning return in the MansionBet Barry Hills Further Flight Stakes at Nottingham.

Having made giant strides as a three-year-old, which culminated in his second to Logician at Doncaster, Sir Ron Priestley was having his first run for 571 days.

Originally he was to be sold to Australia. But that deal fell through, and he then picked up two separate injuries which ruled him out of the whole of last summer.

Bounced into an early advantage for Franny Norton, Sir Ron Priestley kept on picking up the pace all the way down the straight – with favourite Ocean Wind moving up menacingly.

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However, just as so many that hail from the Middleham yard do, the 9-4 shot kept on finding for pressure – and with half-a-furlong to run, he began to pull away once more, winning the Listed contest by a length-and-a-half.

While his father completes the last few days of quarantine – having been on hand to witness Subjectivist, another smart stayer, win in Dubai last month – assistant trainer Charlie Johnston is holding the fort.

He said: “That was everything we could have asked for and more really.

“We were very happy with him at home. Franny had been to sit on him and said he felt as good as ever – but when they come back from that sort of lay-off, there is trepidation.

“He was very heavy compared to where he was 18 months ago, but he’s just a better horse now.

“We’re over the moon with that, and it’s got us dreaming about the summer ahead.”

There was a time the Johnstons dominated staying events with a pair of brothers in Double Trigger and Double Eclipse – and Sir Ron Priestley is a half-brother to Subjectivist.

“With Subjectivist, we are pretty certain we’re going down the Ascot and Goodwood route – but I think this lad could be more versatile in terms of trip,” Johnston told Racing TV.

“We made an entry this week for the Jockey Club Stakes over a mile-and-a-half.

“Nayef Road (last year’s Gold Cup runner-up) will try and defend his crown in the Sagaro, but he’s got to follow up two horses who have put up fantastic performances in the last fortnight.

“It’s a great hand to have in this division, for sure.”

Themaxwecan tops bill in Johnston’s Musselburgh haul

Themaxwecan highlighted a Mark Johnston four-timer at Musselburgh when landing the valuable Betway Queen’s Cup.

The Middleham handler is currently in isolation, having travelled to Dubai to watch his Subjectivist turn the Dubai Gold Cup into a procession last weekend.

His son and assistant Charlie is carrying out the duties in his absence – and the yard’s horses are clearly thriving, with Ben Curtis relishing his new link-up by riding three of their four Musselburgh winners.

Themaxwecan was one of five in the £75,000 Queen’s Cup for Johnston but was never far away as stablemate Hochfeld and Cardano set the pace.

The three dominated throughout – with nothing coming from the back – but it took Themaxwecan (13-2) the whole of the straight to get on top, beating Cardano by a neck.

“It was a fantastic result, because his owner Douglas Livingston is a Scotsman and he was on track today,” said Charlie Johnston.

“He’s always a horse we’ve thought highly of, and he’s been highly tried, but he was due his day in the sun.

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“He was never a straightforward horse, so we had been thinking of gelding him for a while. Whether that made the difference, or the fact he’d slipped down the handicap, I don’t know.

“Ben made a positive move down the back straight, and it probably won him the race – because the first two didn’t stop in front.

“We’d been thinking of the Chester Cup next, so I’d imagine that will be where he goes.”

Curtis was also on The Gatekeeper (9-4) in the opening Betway EBF Novice Stakes, Johnston’s first juvenile winner of the season.

“It’s just nice to get a winner on the board this early,” said the assistant trainer.

“It gives you a bit more confidence in the gallops at home and what to run going forward. He’s only our second two-year-old runner. There’s a lot of stamina in his pedigree – he’s not even two yet, so I’m sure he’ll improve a lot.”

Naamoos was a wide-margin winner at Beverley last season
Naamoos was a wide-margin winner at Beverley last season (Tim Goode/PA)

Naamoos (11-2) beat stablemate Forest Falcon in the Betway Royal Mile.

Johnston added: “It was a bit hard to know what to make of Naamoos, because he beat trees at Beverley and then got bogged down at Pontefract at the end of the season.

“That tells us where we should be aiming going forward, and the second is nice too. They are two exciting Saturday horses for the year ahead.”

The Johnston yard had already added Eton College’s 11-1 success in the Betway Musselburgh Silver Arrow Handicap, with the return to turf sparking him back to life.

“I said to (jockey) Franny (Norton) that this was last-chance saloon for Eton College,” said Johnston.

“I was cursing Franny when he decided to go through the field. But he got a clear run – and as long as he got the gaps, he was always going to win.”

Eric Alston’s eight-year-old Jabbarockie won first time out once more when just clinging on to land the Betway Scottish Sprint Cup Handicap.

Despite his advancing years, he certainly retains all his old speed – and Jason Hart was able to get his mount sharply away from the stalls to bag the favoured rail for an advantage he would not relinquish.

However, it was tight when the line came as Hollie Doyle on Ed Walker’s Came From The Dark and Connor Beasley on David Barron’s Zarzyni were both finishing with an almighty rattle.

Jabbarockie just had enough left in reserve to cling on, though, holding on by a short-head from his fellow 4-1 joint-favourite Zarzyni – with the same distance back to the third.

Subjectivist may head straight to Gold Cup

Easy Meydan winner Subjectivist is likely to head straight for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

Mark Johnston’s four-year-old backed up his Group One win in France with another profitable overseas success in last weekend’s Dubai Gold Cup – a near all-the-way success under Joe Fanning by almost six lengths.

His rivals can count themselves unlucky, however – because his initial target had been Saudi Arabia.

“He had a fantastic campaign last year – we always thought of him as a genuine St Leger horse, but that was probably his most disappointing effort through the year,” said Johnston’s son Charlie.

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“We campaigned him quite aggressively last year – he ran in the Gordon, the Voltigeur, the March and then the Leger, so it was a busy summer.

“There is an element to say he’s best when he’s fresh – but he’s also just a bigger, stronger horse this year. Last year you could struggle to keep condition on him, but this year he’s taken all the work we have thrown at him.

“Plan A was Saudi, and we were annoyed he didn’t get in there – we couldn’t fathom the logic.

“I know Phil Smith framed the staying race as a handicap – and because of weight for age, it worked against him. But there were horses running that had been getting beaten in handicaps and went off 50-1, while he’d won a Group One on his last start.

“As soon as he didn’t get in, as he was half-ready in early February, Meydan was an opportunity for another big pay day – and it was a fantastic performance.”

Looking towards the summer, Subjectivist has two big aims.

Johnston added: “We’ve given him a Yorkshire Cup entry – but one of the main attractions to Dubai was that he had no penalty for his Group One, while he would have in a Sagaro, Henry II or Yorkshire Cup.

“I think Plan A will be to go straight to Ascot, because we’ve proved we can have him in the form of his life fresh. I think the two he’ll definitely go to are Ascot and Goodwood in the summer.

“There’s certainly lots to look forward to. He nearly won at Royal Ascot (King George V Stakes, last year), and Mogul only just caught him at Goodwood – both of those were over a mile-and-a-half. We always said he would get better with age.”

Sea The Shells makes striking impression on racecourse bow

Sea The Shells could go on to much better things after making an impressive belated winning debut at Wolverhampton on Wednesday.

Several minor setbacks kept the Mark Johnston-trained colt off the track as a two-year-old and having been meant to run last week, he got his career off to the best possible start in the Get Your Ladbrokes Daily Odds Boost Novice Stakes.

“We’re very pleased. He was due to run at Chelmsford on Friday, but that was abandoned so that’s why he got rerouted here,” said Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father.

“He’s always a horse we’ve liked. He’s from a good pedigree and had the physique, so it was good to see him deliver on the racecourse.”

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The nine-and-a-half furlong contest got off to an unsatisfactory start with the gates being opened before the reluctant Countessa had been installed.

Sea The Shells, sent off the 2-1 favourite, ran very green in the early stages – but the Derby entrant certainly got the message at the business end.

Bursting into the lead over a furlong out, Franny Norton’s mount quickly put the race to bed and scored by six and a half lengths, despite being eased in the last 100 yards.

Johnston added: “I’m surprised it wasn’t a false start, but it was far from ideal circumstances the race was started in.

“There was a moment three (furlongs) out to two out where he was quite green and came under quite stern pressure and probably looked in trouble briefly.

“Then the penny dropped and he really powered away. That would maybe make us lean towards getting a bit more experience in a similar kind of race at some point in March, and then hopefully he can be ready to step up into better company when the turf comes around in April.”

The son of Sea The Stars looks a snip at the 40,000 guineas he cost at Tattersalls Book One Sale in October 2019.

“He certainly looks cheap now,” Johnston went on.

“There’s quite a bit of speed coming from the dam’s side of his pedigree, but physically he’s a very big, strong scopey horse. A mile and a quarter is ideal for him now and I’m sure he’ll stay a mile and a half standing on his head.

“There’s lots to look forward with him.”

The stewards inquired into the start and found that due to human error the race had been started before Countessa was loaded.

They ordered a report to be forward to the headquarters of the British Horseracing Authority for further consideration.

Johnston team mulling Riyadh date for Mildenberger

Mildenberger could have big assignments in Saudi Arabia and Lingfield following his victory at Wolverhampton.

The Mark Johnston-trained stayer booked his place in the Betway Marathon Championship on All-Weather Finals Day on Good Friday in a fast-track qualifier on Monday.

Before that, the six-year-old could pay a visit to the Middle East for the Long Distance Turf Handicap at Riyadh next month.

“He’ll definitely go to Lingfield on Finals Day and he’s in at Saudi next month,” said Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father.

“I’ll have to clarify how their system works out there as to whether he’ll get a penalty for his win, because at the moment he’s not guaranteed a run. Were they to pump him up the weights slightly, that might get him in.

“Were he to get a run, he could quite possibly go to Saudi. That’s about six weeks before the all-weather finals, so it won’t have any bearing on him going there.”

Prix Royal-Oak winner Subjectivist, the yard’s other entry in the one-mile-seven furlong handicap, has yet to secure a place, much to Johnston’s surprise.

“Subjectivist is in the same race at Saudi. I was a bit perplexed when I saw the entries that our 111-rated last time out Group One winner isn’t guaranteed a run and there are some pretty out of form horses above him in the weights,” he said.

Subjectivist (right) has an entry in Saudi Arabia
Subjectivist (right) has an entry in Saudi Arabia (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“He’s going to need a couple of horses to come out to make sure he gets a run, so we will have to see how that transpires over the next couple of weeks, but he is back in work and we’ve got half an eye on that should he get in.”

Johnston revealed Leopardo is in Dubai and likely to run at Meydan next week. The three-year-old colt has an entry in the Saudi Derby.

“He is out in Dubai and he’ll probably run in the Al Bastakiya Trial next Thursday,” he said.

“He does have an entry in the Saudi Derby, but again he’s not guaranteed a run.”

Subjectivist seals Group One-winning weekend for Mark Johnston

Subjectivist put up a fine front-running performance to land the Prix Royal-Oak (French St Leger) at ParisLongchamp and complete a memorable weekend for the Mark Johnston stable.

The victory was the second leg of a Group One double for the Middleham yard after the success of Gear Up in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud 24 hours earlier.

Seventh in the St Leger at Doncaster on his previous start, Subjectivist showed staying was his game when making all the running over just short of two miles in the hands of Joe Fanning.

The son of Teofilo had to dig deep to keep his rivals at bay and was not helped by hanging to the left in the straight, with it later transpiring a front shoe had come loose. It failed to stop him, however, as he kept on stoutly to beat Valia by two lengths.

Holdthasigreen, the winner in 2018, took the third spot he also occupied last year, while Tony Mullins’ Irish raider Princess Zoe was fourth, never really looking like repeating her victory in the Prix du Cadran of three weeks earlier.

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“It was absolutely brilliant and I’m over the moon for everybody involved,” said Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father.

“Plan A had been to go to Ascot for the champions stayers’ (Long Distance Cup), but when we saw Stradivarius and a few others were declared we thought we’d reroute to France – the added bonus being it’s a Group One. We felt it was going to be a weaker race and it proved to be the right decision.

“The lad who led him up said he was quite fresh in the paddock and Joe said he was quite keen on the way down to the start. I think he benefited from being that bit fresher.

“Having a slightly longer break was good for the horse and also the ground is a real positive for him and a real stamina test over this trip has helped as well.”

He added: “From the middle part of this year we were thinking he’s going to be a Cup horse for next year and hopefully we could have his big brother Sir Ron Priestley back aiming for the same kind of races. That would be nice problem, and not forgetting Nayef Road as well.”

Subjectivist was quoted at 20-1 for the Ascot Gold Cup with Paddy Power.

Johnston pointed towards the Derby at Epsom as Gear Up’s main objective in 2021.

“This was a bit of a reroute. After he won the Acomb, the plan was probably to go for the Royal Lodge and then the Vertem Futurity.

“Although we thought we had a genuine excuse in the Royal Lodge, with the way the race had been run and it wasn’t a true test of stamina, it slightly dented our confidence.

“As a result we thought we’d go for the Criterium de Saint-Cloud, which was guaranteed to be more of a test of stamina and a slightly weaker race than Doncaster, although when (Dewhurst runner-up) Wembley got withdrawn (at Doncaster) I was thinking maybe we should be there rather than Paris, but thankfully it all worked out great.

“Gear Up was one of six yearlings we bought for the Teme Valley syndicate, who wanted to buy a horse to go and win the Derby. We’ve got a Group One-winning two-year-old now and it looks like the Derby is going to be his principal target for the first half of the year.

“When you’ve won a Group One at two in many ways the options are few and far between in the first half of the year.

“There’s a lot of water to run under the bridge between now and then, but the obvious plan for him next year would be the Dante, then the Derby.”

German trip may beckon for Elarqam

Elarqam could be given the chance to claim an elusive first Group One success in next month’s Grosser Preis Von Bayern in Munich.

In what has been a largely frustrating campaign for the Mark Johnston-trained son of Frankel, connections are now considering supplementing him for the mile-and-a-half prize on November 8.

After failing to score in his first three starts this season, Elarqam took full advantage of a return to Group Three company last time out to open his account for the year in the Dubai Duty Free Legacy Cup at Newbury.

Johnston’s son and assistant Charlie said: “It’s frustrating, because in a normal year we would have gone to North America for either the Canadian International or Northern Dancer.

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“A Group One is what is missing from his CV, and we thought those are the ideal places to have gone to try and get it.  As it is, he may now run in the Grosser Preis von Bayern – which is two weeks on Sunday.

“He is still in full work but he would need to be supplemented, so we would need to be 100 per cent happy with him for the next 10 days and for (owner) Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and his team to be happy.”

Nayef Road will be campaigned to try to go one better in next year’s Ascot Gold Cup, after a decision was made to draw stumps for this season with the Galileo colt.

Johnston added: “Nayef Road is finished for the year now. It has been frustrating in some ways that he has picked up the baton from Dee Ex Bee and banged his head against the Stradivarius wall.

“In hindsight, maybe we should have saved him for Ascot on Champions Day rather than run in the Lonsdale, but at the time we thought that looked a good opportunity.

“After York we thought he had done enough for the year, so we will look to have him back next year to have a go at the Ascot Gold Cup again.”

Sir Ron Priestley will be given the chance to try and become a potential contender for the Ascot Gold Cup (Martin Rickett/PA Images)
Sir Ron Priestley will be given the chance to try and become a potential contender for the Ascot Gold Cup (Martin Rickett/PA Images)

Next season’s Ascot Gold Cup could be a target too for 2019 St Leger runner-up Sir Ron Priestley, who has missed the current campaign through injury after a deal to race in Australia fell through earlier this year.

Johnston added: “There were offers for him to go to Australia earlier this year. He passed the vets to go in February/March time, and that deal fell through.

“He has had two separate setbacks this year, one in the spring and then a completely unrelated one about a month ago – which has written this year off.

“The plan will be to bring him back as a five-year-old and try to make him into a Gold Cup horse.”