Modest Richard Johnson retires quietly
JONATHAN QUAYLE HIGGINS is our new Thursday columnist – a man who has lived and worked in racing most of his life, a respected veteran who knows the industry inside out. He prefers to write under this pseudonym. Enjoy his contributions with us!
To know when enough is enough is one of the biggest tests for the outstanding sportsman. It seems almost inevitable that the latest severe injury and one caused not by occupational wear-and-tear but a car crash with nobody else to blame will prove to be the ultimate end of Tiger Woods’ illustrious career.
Today (Thursday) is the start of the 2021 Masters and while the delayed 2020 event was contested last autumn after the normal April date succumbed to Covid19, Masters19 brought an almost surreal fifth win for Tiger in the year’s first Major golf tournament.
Woods’ tally of 15 leaves him agonisingly three short of Jack Nicklaus’ record and I’m sure the Golden Bear will have been waiting while designing magical courses around the world for the Tiger to pounce. Even a bear needs to watch his back, but now 81-year-old Jack can almost certainly and contrary to the fears of much of his later life, rest easy with his pre-eminence secure.
Nineteen months after Eldrick Tont Woods first saw the light of day in Cypress, California, another future most durable sportsman came into this world in Herefordshire, England, and also in the week of the Masters, Richard Johnson has decided to call time on his illustrious riding career as a jump jockey.
Now 43, Johnson is also second to a record-holder, his great friend and lifelong rival A P McCoy, in terms of championships and career wins.
He bows out coincidentally in another landmark occasion in his chosen sport, as the 2021 Grand National meeting, also after a Covid19 interruption last April, also starts today. Unlike McCoy he never won the race but rode in it a record 23 times, a distinction that will be hard to beat given the potential for injury in his chosen profession.
Typically the ever-modest Johnson chose a quiet spectator-free afternoon at Newton Abbot to announce his departure after almost echoing in its quarter-century time-frame Woods’ period in the public eye.
While Woods’ marital difficulties and multiple affairs were a feature of the middle part of his fame, Johnson also had a period when briefly he got nearer the world of the paparazzi than he would have liked.
For a while he had a relationship with Zara Phillips (now Tindall), Princess Anne’s daughter. The potential mother-in-law and possible spouse are both talented equestriennes and Olympic medal winners so that was an area of harmony.
Knowing Richard, though, and at a time when Meghan Markle’s position into the same family has caused such conflict, I’m sure this modest and now happily married family man with wife and three children will be retiring to his farm in his home county with as much relief as satisfaction.
A multiple amateur champion, Tiger Woods didn’t win his first professional tournament until August 1996 at the age of 20. Johnson, who rode his first winner aged 16 in the 1993/4season was also a champion early on, taking the conditional jockeys’ title with 53 wins in 1995/6.
In those early days Richard Dunwoody was the top rider, but as his powers started to decline after his final title in 1994/5, it was Adrian Maguire whom most people expected to inherit the earth. But a year earlier trainer Toby Balding arranged to bring over from Ireland a young man who had been an apprentice in Jim Bolger’s Coolcullen stable. At the time he was a colleague in that hard breeding ground for jockeys, future trainers and remarkable characters at the same time as Aidan O’Brien and Willie Mullins.
That of course was A P and after winning 74 races in his conditionals’ season – the year before Johnson – McCoy compiled an astonishing 160 victories compared to Maguire’s 130. Many expected Maguire to strike back, but instead Maguire gradually declined into being a 60-80 wins a year rider, After another decade he took up training back home in Ireland with some success before retiring a few years ago. One lovely morning in the late summer of 2019 I was on the O’Brien gallops at Ballydoyle and Adrian was happily employed as one of the work riders, 18 months short of his 50th birthday.
While the Maguire challenge petered out, Johnson flourished. His first century came in 1996-7 and until this season he had never failed to achieve at least that mark. Despite this, McCoy would never relinquish his almost manic hold on the top spot. Both superstar jockeys had the same talented agent Dave Roberts, but with McCoy always getting first dibs it took a rare personality to keep going in the way Dickie did for so long.
For 19 consecutive years Dickie finished runner-up. There was plenty of scepticism that he would ever step up to the title, losing focus in the way that Adrian Maguire had fallen short. Dave Roberts had a plan, though, and once the fully-motivated agent got Johnson off to a summer flyer, by October it was all over.
The two friends and rivals had sat next to each other in the weighing rooms of the country and now Johnson sat alone, but Roberts, who just about runs jump racing with 60 jockeys and apprentices (now down one with Johnson’s retirement) on his books got to work.
The first effect was that he moved up to number one on the Roberts ladder and got many of the spare rides that A P previously sat on. The effect was electrifying as he got to 235 winners, the first time he reached a double century in his quarter century of riding. To put that in perspective McCoy beat that score four times, but never in any of his last dozen championships.
Johnson was to get a second double, 201 in his fourth and final championship of 2018-9 but I think it’s fair to say that it almost took more to have the character and determination to brush himself down year after year and keep challenging rather than McCoy’s more straight-forward job of maintaining being the champion.
He came through that, having learned his trade as stable jockey with the late David Nicholson and for the rest of his career with Philip Hobbs, who jokingly referred to Johnson’s thrifty nature as well as showing the great affection he and his wife Sarah hold for him. Anyone who knows him will not be surprised that trainer and rider never had a cross word in 20 years.
When quite early in his career Johnson and a number of other leading jockeys were able to accept the gift of some smart suits with the exclusive Yves St Laurent label, the thriftiness was able to thrive. Of course, the jockeys’ benefactor would wine and dine them and like to know their potential winners.
My friend, the intermediary was a particular pal of Johnson’s, often meeting for a coffee, but after a while he had to call time on the information stream. As he recalls: “I know jockeys are usually poor tipsters, but Richard was the worst I’ve known all the years I’ve been racing.
“He’ll discuss his rides and say which he likes, and then pass on what he’s heard. Many’s the time he’s not fancied his horse, told us the “buzzer” and then ridden an unbelievable finish to get up and beat it on the line.
“He’s so straight, so talented and so clueless when it comes to tipping horses. More important, he’s the nicest and most loyal guy I’ve ever met in racing. No side, no pretention, just 100 per cent Richard Johnson, ” he concluded.
A lovely testimonial like many we’ve heard. I trust that he won’t be employed as a racing pundit! That’s a thought, I reckon Tiger may want to keep in mind before he sits on the presenters’ bench on a golf course. – IRC.
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