Horse Racing Insights - Richard Johnson

Speaking to Genting Casino, former Champion Jockey Richard Johnson has detailed how it is still a dream for everyone to send a horse to Cheltenham.

He has also shared his thoughts and prayers for injured jockey Graham Lee and said Oisin Murphy’s potential switch from flat racing to jump racing would be real ‘positive’ for the sport.


Are there too few Grade 1 horses in Britain? 

RJ: “If you only have one horse out on its own in a race it will be a mismatch and not good to watch. I genuinely think you can have a very good race with two horses. As long as they are very competitive, whether it is a low grade race or a Grade 1. It is just when you have a 1/5 shot going round it might be nice to see the horse but you don’t learn an awful lot. As long as you have two horses rated very similar, it is fine. 

“Jonbon came on again and he looks a genuine Champion Chase contender. We have Constitution Hill. We are looking for those special horses and looking to March and Cheltenham and which race can we beat the Irish in. The English-Irish rivalry is a great part of Cheltenham. 

“At the moment we do lack a little bit of quality and quantity on this side of the Irish Sea. But it was only 10-15 years ago it was very much the other way. I think things do come and go in cycles but there is no doubt we are a little bit behind the Irish with numbers and quality.” 

Why do you think that is? Can the balance be redressed? 

RJ: “It is definitely retrievable. Paul Nicholls is winning a lot and people forget how one sided an affair it was at one time. The Irish were trying to get their foot in the door. Willie Mullins has got bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger and Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead have followed in his slipstream. 

“Financially, when you look at the best horses that are sold in France, England or Ireland, a lot of them are getting bought by Irish owners. It is disappointing that Cheveley Park, a huge stud in England, has most of its jumpers in Ireland. They have gone with what is working.” 

How do Irish and English trainers compare? 

RJ: “It annoys me when people suggest English trainers can’t train or the Irish trainers are much better. That is simply not true. It is all about the quality of the animals. We have loads of trainers in Britain who, if they get the ammunition, are more than capable. That side of things really upsets me when you hear things being bandied around, making out we are not as good as the Irish. We are. 

“When a yard is doing really well obviously it encourages owners to keep spending money and keep buying good horses there. It is the Irish at the moment who have the upper hand but I don’t see any reason it won’t swing back the other way at some point but there’s no doubt we have work to do. 

“Willie Mullins is a level above everyone else. He seems to be able to have horses coming through. He is obviously a brilliant trainer and there’s no one better at his job. But when a horse becomes available, and Willie makes clear he’d like it, then it will go to him. 

“He has owners waiting to buy horses. As a trainer you can only buy horses if you have owners with the money.’ 

Super yards? Is it healthy having say five runners from one yard and five from another in a race? 

RJ: “I won’t say it is healthy because you do want to see really open competitive racing. At the same time 

“If there is a 14-runner handicap and Gordon and Willie have two thirds of the runners, people will get upset. But at least they are running horses. If they were only going to run one or two, you might have a five runner race and people would moan even more. 

“In Ireland, because there is slightly less racing you haven’t got as many options as over here to go somewhere else.” 

Is prize money in Britain a problem? 

RJ: “Yes, it is lower in Britain but taking away the top class horses, it is a lot easier to find races for a 0-130 horse in England. That is why you see the Irish trainers regularly coming over here whether it is to Ludlow, Taunton.  Willie brought one to Newton Abbott in the summer. I used to ride lots of winners for Gordon at Perth and Cartmel and places. They’re trying to find places for their horses too.  
“As much as the prize money is not as good here, as an owner you probably have a greater chance of winning with an average horse which most horses are. That is not a bad thing. It is just a fact of life. 

“Unfortunately, there just aren’t lots of super horses. That is what makes them so hard to find and what makes everybody want them. 

Are the prices being paid now out of control? 

RJ: “It’s interesting that even with some of the big owners with say Paul Nicholls they are having a fifth or a quarter of a horse, and they’re owners who also have lots of horses on their own. They come together to buy some of the very expensive ones. There is that side to it which makes you think, ‘Gosh, it is getting a bit out of control.’ But, at the same time, it filters back down through the point to point fields to the young horses being sold and to the breeders. Hopefully it is helping the whole racing ecosystem work.” 

You’ve started your own syndicate. What is the thinking behind that? 

RJ: “I set up my first syndicate six months ago to try and make it slightly more affordable for people. We do 10% shares. Obviously we are not buying £1m horses, but we are spending £40-50,000 on a horse. 

“We started in the summer. I’d talked about it with Philip Hobbs when I retired but I wanted a year just to step back and see what was happening. We bought two horses last spring, syndicated them and both have run, and run well. It is something we will look to grow. 

“I really missed the competitiveness of not being a jockey. It is a very different experience organising it all. I get quite nervous when the horses run. I could definitely feel my heart going when the races were on. It’s not quite the same as going down to the last in the Gold Cup but it is still quite a thrill to be involved and see the horses run. 

“One is with Philip and one with Henry Daly who I rode for much of my career. That was where I thought I should start. We will go from there. Syndicates are the way forward to make racing affordable for people. 

“Noel Fehily and David Crosse do it. They have got horses coming out of their ears. Noel is brilliant with the horses and Crossy is the salesman. That is what I am not! I am more of a Noel than a Crossy! I can’t see myself getting as big as they are but it has been good fun. I have got a lot of enjoyment out of it.” 

Ever consider training? 

RJ” “I have gone down the breeding route which I enjoy. Luckily we farm here as well. We have the space but with training it is almost like being a jockey, it’s 24/7. I felt my wife and children had put up with that for long enough! It has been a way to stay in the sport and enjoy it. 

“I love the training of horses but there is so much else to it, owners, staff etc. I have seen a lot of trainers I know do a really good job but really struggle.   

“I didn’t think I was ready to jump into that fire.” 

Christmas racing: Kempton and Leopardstown. 

RJ: “I always looked forward to Christmas as a jockey, especially with the King George on Boxing Day. You also have the Welsh National the day after. They were the two races you looked to have rides in. 

“Everything happens very quickly at Kempton. They are always fast run races. If you can’t keep up with the pace early on, you nearly have no chance. Native River was an example of that. He finished third staying on but I was never at the races because they went so hard and that took him off his feet. 

The lovely thing about Christmas there is so much racing on, I always felt it was a nice time where you could look forward to plenty of rides and have some winners. Obviously the aim was to win the King George because the grade ones are what we all want to win. But riding winners was always the number one priority for me. It didn’t matter to me where. The King George is a very specialised race which doesn’t suit all horses. It’s a flat track and as a jockey I found it suited some horses really well. And others not. 

“That is not a bad thing because there are lots of other places. So I can see why some people might get tempted to go to Ireland for some of their races at somewhere like Leopardstown which is a real test of stamina.” 

British trainers don’t seem to send so many horses over to run in Ireland now. Why do you think? 

RJ: “The trouble is it is so competitive there now, it is not quite such an attraction! That shows how the balance is now, compared with how it was ten years ago. 

“We used to send, but they have so much quality and quantity. I used to love going to Punchestown for Philip and the Duke (David Nicholson). I remember Paul Nicholls used to send quite a few horses over to Fairyhouse and Leopardstown during the winter, probably on the say-so of Ruby who would say a particular race would suit a particular horse.” 

McCoy v Johnson was one of the great narratives for many years. Is racing missing that sort of rivalry now? 

RJ: I was very lucky to ride at the same time as AP. Yes, it was frustrating but it made me ride better and hopefully I pushed him. We lived for winners and we were both as greedy as each other. Neither of us wanted to miss Carlisle on a Monday or Fakenham on a Friday.  We were always wanting to go racing everyday, wherever that was. 

“When I started some of the top jockeys were not so keen to go to Plumpton or somewhere like that; AP changed the goalposts when he started riding the numbers he did. He pushed me on as well to follow his example. 

“Today you have Brian Hughes up north who is riding winners every week, Harry Cobden and Sean Bowen they are the main lads down south and Sam Twiston Davies. 

“A couple of years after I retired there didn’t seem to be that interest in the (jockey) championship. It is growing again now. From what I see and hear on racecourses there is a real passion to be champion again.  Sean Bowen is giving it 110 % and I know Brian Hughes is the same. 

“Harry Cobden is the interesting one. Paul Nicholls is so powerful and has so many horses, if he really wanted to get behind Harry and push him especially in the last couple of months in the season Harry could ride an awful lot of winners in a short time.” 

A horse you wish you had ridden? 

RJ: “Istabraq was the horse when I was just starting in racing. He was the superstar. He had speed, flair, the whole lot. He was outstanding. Aidan O’Brien got the best out of him, but he was a horse I always felt would be good fun to have a ride on. It was great watching him. He was one of those horses that wowed people.”     

Horse you’d like to ride today? 

RJ: “Every horse that runs to be honest! I had an amazing time and can’t believe that I had the career I did so I’m not at all upset that I’ve stopped. But I miss not being involved when you go racing. I can’t replace that. I’ll never not want to be out there. 

“Constitution Hill just looks wonderful. He seems to go round in second or third gear while everyone else is in top gear. I’m sounding like an old man now but it is nice to see those very good horses and appreciate them. Just to buy or breed a winner is hard work let alone find a superstar.  When one is around it might be frustrating racing against the - a bit like me and AP really ! – but it is important to enjoy it and make the most of it.” 

Affordability checks, how do you feel about that possibility? It could cost the sport a huge amount of money. 

RJ: “It seems a very backward step for the government to try and enforce strict rules. It has got to be a worry. 

“It is a backward step to try to make everyone fill out a box or a form just to have bet which they enjoy. It will have a huge impact for our sport because there are lots of other things people can bet on such as football. 

“It doesn’t seem fair to penalise racing. Racing is facing a lot of threats.  It is a sport involving animals and so there’s lots of pressures from lots of angles. We are under real pressure from animal welfare.” 

Cheltenham? Is there too much focus on it? 

RJ: “It is up to trainers to manage their owners’ expectations. Certain horses won’t be suited by Cheltenham. 

“For me as a breeder and former jockey it is the dream to be there and be involved. It is great to have it to look forward to. For everyone involved you need things to aspire to. For a jockey to be a champion and to ride a Gold Cup winner were the two things I always dreamt of achieving. You need goals to dream about and try and fulfil. 

“Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of the summer for the Flat and Cheltenham is the same for National Hunt. 

“We would be wrong to try and dampen it down. We should be highlighting all the great things in our sport. It is up to trainers to dampen their owners’ expectations.” 

Oisin Murphy was due to ride over the jumps recently. What do you make of that? 

RJ: “He does lots of show jumping and hunting. There are plenty of Flat jockeys who have ridden over the jumps. Richard Hughes rode quite a few  winners. It is nice to see. It is a positive for jump racing if we can tempt one of Flat’s best to be involved in jump racing. It is a really good thing. Sometimes people on the Flat think jump racing is not as important as the Flat. It is great that the two can mix.” 

Graham Lee? Switched the other way. He’s had a terrible accident. 

RJ: “Graham is a very good friend and from speaking to everyone up there who see him most days it sounds awful. We are all just praying and hoping. 

“Recovery can be very slow sometimes. When you look back at people like Josh Moore or JT McNamara who fell at Bangor a few years ago. It looked awful to start with. You have to be as positive as we can and hope that he improves. It was such a freak accident. He has won a Grand National, ridden 1,000 winners over jumps and then he falls coming out of the stalls when a horse stumbles. It doesn’t seem right. 

“There is always a risk in life. Graham was doing what he loves doing and what he was brilliant at. We can only look forward and hopefully he has as successful a recovery as he can. And whatever we can do for him as a sport, we will. Whatever happens it is going to be a long road for him. We can only be there for him and his family.” 

How important is it to have the Royal Family involved in both the Flat and National Hunt? 

RJ: “It is really important. The late Queen was an iconic figure all over the world. It is great to see Charles and Camilla following on. It was great to see them have a winner at Royal Ascot. Princess Anne has always been very involved in the National Hunt side and Zara is very involved at Cheltenham now. 

“We have to make the most of all the positives in racing and try to explain to the rest of the world and to people not involved how much fun the sport can be and what a great sport it is. Sometimes  racing doesn’t make the most of its good points.” 




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V: 1.38.0 All rights reserved. August 2021