The turf

Nice guys do finish first

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

3 March 2016

3:00 PM

Richard Johnson, possibly the nicest man to occupy a saddle and certainly the most modest, once said of his Irish rival Ruby Walsh, ‘Ruby never seems to fight horses. It never looks forced with him, he never throws the kitchen sink. But I do — metal ones and porcelain if necessary.’

There weren’t too many of us there to see it but there was a trademark kitchen-sink job in Warwick’s third race last Friday, the Listers Audi Novices’ Handicap Steeplechase, worth just £2,972 to the winner. Johnson’s mount Cheat The Cheater shared the lead much of the way but before the last turn the nine-year-old was passed by three horses who appeared full of running. Most jockeys would have given up then and waited for another day. Two punters in the stand next to me, who had been yelling, ‘Come on, Cheater,’ groaned and tore up their tickets. They had forgotten who was riding the 4–1 co-favourite. As the others sailed into the straight eight lengths clear, Richard Johnson, in that inimitable style, was still clicking and kicking, urging his one-paced mount not to give up. The front two faltered and began running through glue, and suddenly, who was on the leader’s shoulder at the last fence but Cheat The Cheater, who soared over it and went away up the run-in. All around me, amid the applause, heads shook ruefully or admiringly as everybody asked themselves, ‘Just how the hell did he do that?’ When we put that question to the winning rider, the typical reply was, ‘You need a horse that helps.’

Cheat The Cheater’s victory was a landmark in another way: it was the first time Richard Johnson had scored 200 winners in a season — and that with two months still to go. Some bookies are already paying out on the jockeys’ championship in which he is running 85 wins clear of his nearest rival. There is nothing most of us have wanted more of this jumping season than for Richard Johnson to take that title. For two decades, until the retirement of his good friend and rival ‘A.P.’ (now Sir Anthony) McCoy, it has been the personal property of the phenomenal McCoy.

Johnson never let that get to him, but it must have been galling to know that in any other age he would have been champion jockey many times over. He finished second to McCoy in 16 championships and there is no doubt he is the second-best jump jockey ever. In January, Johnson passed a career total of 3,000 winners: that means he has already ridden more in his career than those two great champions John Francome and Peter Scudamore combined. When I asked Richard at Warwick what set him and McCoy apart from the rest, he grinned and replied, ‘Greed’. What he meant was that many of the other jockeys want to win big races; he and McCoy want to win every race. What you get when Johnson rides for you is the same effort whether it is Fontwell or Fakenham on a Friday or the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.

It is not that Dickie Johnson’s career has been short of quality. He is one of the few jockeys, alongside Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty, to have ridden winners in all the Cheltenham Festival’s top four races: the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the World Hurdle. His World Hurdle victory came in 1999 when it was still known as the Stayers’ Hurdle, when he got up by a neck on Anzum in a thrilling finish. It meant a lot to him that not only was Anzum his first Festival victory, it was also the final Festival win for David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson, the man who had given him his first big break. Compliments on the 200-up were all diverted to his other trainer-backers and to agent Dave Roberts.

Loyalty is the other Johnson trademark, stamped through the farmer’s boy from Hereford like the message in seaside rock. At Warwick, trainer Henry Daly noted, ‘He has been coming to me every Tuesday and Friday since I started training and he never changes. All the staff love him. He is both amazingly phlegmatic and unbelievably competitive. It’s an odd combination but it sums him up.’

McCoy always appreciated his rival’s competitive urge, insisting, ‘If you’ve somebody that talented on your tail, it doesn’t half drive you on.’ Johnson will be the new champion, he says, because he makes fewer mistakes than anyone else. But what is heartening in an age when so many sports are disfigured by sledging and by professional fouls, by bitter rivalries and financial jealousy between team-mates, is the genuine friendship between the two greatest riders we have seen and Johnson’s own attitude. Hate, he says, is no part of his inspiration: ‘I don’t need to feel anger against someone to compete with him.’ And he is shining proof that nice guys don’t always finish second.

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