'I thought being champion was the best thing you could achieve and I still do'
Lee Mottershead spends a day in Richard Johnson's company in 2011
One, two, three, four, the button mushrooms sit rejected in a neat line at the edge of Richard Johnson's plate. The second most successful jockey in the history of jump racing does not like mushrooms. Chocolate digestives, on the other hand, he does like.
And Menorah, the horse on which his Cheltenham Festival hangs, he adores. The mushrooms stay unloved and untouched as Johnson furnishes his plate with a second helping of beef stew, homemade, hearty and enriched with Guinness. To soak up the gravy there's a little more mashed potato. It's a fine idea, so I do the same, but the supplier of the meal, Johnson's wife Fiona, seems full.
Back to the kitchen she goes with her Le Creuset casserole pot, returning with a plate of biscuits. Johnson makes two cups of tea – Mrs Johnson sticks with lemonade – and returns to lead our consumption of digestives, of which he consumes far more than anyone else. Unaware that sweet treats are at the table, Paddy, an enormous Dalmatian, named after last season's Gold Cup-winning jockey, lies in his basket, emitting the occasional snore as he sleeps.
In deepest Herefordshire, this is what they call domestic bliss. "Not a problem at all," had been Johnson's response when asked if the Racing Post could spend 24 hours in his company. It was the answer you would have expected from him.
Everyone knows that Johnson – Dickie to his friends, Richard to his family – is one of the good guys, easy-going, friendly, helpful. He is, indeed, all that, but also much more. We forget how lucky we are to have him. You could set your clock by Johnson, as excellent, unflappable, powerful and brave a jockey as you will find.
At the age of 33 he has already amassed 15 Cheltenham Festival triumphs and thanks to, in chronological order, Anzum, Looks Like Trouble, Flagship Uberalles and Rooster Booster, this son of farming stock is one of the few to have landed every one of the meeting's 'big four'. Yet there has been not just quality but quantity. But for a certain someone, Johnson would have been champion jockey in 12 of the last 13 seasons.
With less than two months of this campaign left, it is a near certainty that he will finish runner-up for the 13th time. Unlucky for him. Yet he does not resent Tony McCoy, far from it. Instead, he yearns to take his championship. One day he thinks he will, but maybe not, he admits, until his nemesis has retired. He is prepared to wait. For now, the talk is not of championships but championship races. And curtains.
The Johnsons have just graced the windows of their splendid, spacious home with many pairs of new drapes, the price of which is causing the household's principal breadwinner a degree of angst, particularly as this Monday brought no opportunities to pay for them.
Having passed up the chance to ride at Plumpton, Johnson has spent a priceless afternoon with two-year-old daughter Willow, who, aided by Daddy, has created her own little work of art, accessorised with silver stars and the words: "To Mummy from Willow." On the fridge, as on so many fridges in Herefordshire, other shires and beyond, are similar infant-inspired creations, pieces of coloured card on which love is expressed in crayon.
Johnson would like to spend more days like that, but jockeys can be jockeys for only so long. The time is precious, which is why we are driving, not long after first light, to the Ludlow yard of Henry Daly. Behind the wheel of a Mercedes that has racked up more than 200,000 miles, Johnson salutes two magpies. He always has done and he always will.
Consistent in every way and an unusually sensible driver for a jockey. "Reliability is his great quality," says Daly, driving his 4x4 while holding a full cup of coffee. Not a drop is spilt. "I've forgotten how long he's been coming here," he adds. "I promise you, he's been here just about every Tuesday and Friday since 1998. He's a massive asset."
Despite the unfailing help of that asset, this has been the most miserable of winters for Daly. In the previous ten seasons he averaged 31 winners a campaign. The latest has so far yielded six, of which Johnson has ridden just two. At long last, a eureka moment arrived the previous day when Daly's vets identified the cause of the malaise – bizarrely, the same bacteria found in dodgy shellfish. Quite how it found its way to Downton Hall Stables is unclear, but the discovery is a start.
Still unaware of Daly's good news, Johnson, against the soul-lifting backdrop of Clee Hill, is guiding Pickamus over a line of three fences. "My one complaint about Richard Johnson schooling is that he always goes half a stride too fast," jokes Daly, dragging on a Silk Cut. In all other ways, he has nothing but the most glowing of praise for a rider whose talents he shares with Philip Hobbs and Tim Vaughan.
"In an ordinary race at Haydock he gave this horse the sort of ride only Richard Johnson can give," says Daly as the jockey takes Kack Handed, his fourth horse of the morning, safely across a trio of ditches.
"It was quite extraordinary," he adds, admiration and astonishment in his voice. "The horse was beat, but Richard galvanised him and won. It's just the never-give-up, never-say-die way he is. Nobody else can do it like that." Then he pauses, before adding: "Except probably AP."
That vowel and consonant follow Johnson everywhere. Even when being praised, he must share it with another. "I do feel for Richard," says Daly. "I think it's very unfortunate for him and I think it probably bothers him more than he would say.
"If you've ridden as many winners as he has and you're a naturally competitive person, which he is, it must bother you. He would like at least once to be champion and I'd like him to be champion. He deserves it."
Johnson must think so, too, but it seems an unfair subject to raise so early in the morning. More amusing topics are discussed back in Daly's office, where a cup of tea represents Johnson's first intake of the day. Soon after, we head back to his Leominster home via a Shell petrol station in Ludlow.
The driver starts filling up while the passenger heads inside to buy a cereal bar. "He had a good day on Saturday, didn't he?" says shop assistant Jackie. As well as seeing Johnson, a regular customer, through the window, Jackie was watching on television when he landed a fifth Racing Post Chase on Quinz.
"He's always very polite," she adds. "He's a happy, smiley person." It's a bill he fits perfectly, his demeanour drummed into him by mother Sue. "I don't see the point in guing with people," he explains.
"I find arguing a complete waste of time. I've never had a fight in my life and I'm not going to start now. There are certain people in the weighing room who annoy me, but I just try to stay away from them. I don't see what you achieve with a slanging match. Something quite dramatic would have to happen for me to snap."
It seems like an invitation to bring up the matter of McCoy. If Johnson is aggrieved to be asked about it, he doesn't let it show. What he does, however, is think carefully before outlining how he feels about being the perennial bridesmaid.
"It's hard to know the right words to use," he says. "Some days I do get down about it. For me, the best thing I could ever achieve in my career would be to become champion jockey. As a boy, I was never infatuated by the Gold Cup or Grand National. I thought then that being champion jockey was the best thing you could achieve and I still do. It's what I've always wanted. It has always been my biggest goal but I haven't managed to do it.
"At the same time, I don't feel upset with AP. I don't see how it's AP's fault that I haven't been champion. Years ago it probably annoyed me more but now I've realised I have to be realistic.
"The problem is there is only one person who has ridden more winners than me, and that's AP. I'm disappointed I've not been champion but I don't resent AP. To be champion you need to ride more winners than anyone else and I've never managed that."
But one day he might. McCoy is three years Johnson's elder. Patience could reap rewards. "He's 36 and I'm 33," says Johnson. "You would think, looking at our ages, that I would still be riding after he retires. To beat him once would be the perfect outcome, but if I become champion after he retires it would still be great. The big fear would be if he retires and I didn't become champion."
The statistics suggest that fear is groundless. Johnson has ridden 54 more winners than the season's third-leading rider Jason Maguire. His superiority over everyone else far exceeds McCoy's superiority over him.
His achievements are enormous and, although the walls of his house are surprisingly lacking in photographic evidence, a regular reminder of past triumphs comes from family pet Looks Like Trouble, trained to Gold Cup glory by Fiona's father Noel Chance.
Eleven years on from Looks Like Trouble, Planet Of Sound ("overpriced if he gets good ground") will be Johnson's latest Gold Cup mount. That race is approached more in hope than expectation. Not so the Champion Hurdle, in which Menorah tries to emulate the achievement of Rooster Booster, still the horse with which Johnson is most closely associated.
"I definitely feel Menorah can win a Champion Hurdle," says Johnson. "Rooster was a bit of a bull in a china shop. He was a tank and the year he won the Champion he never stopped pulling. I believe this fellow has the chance to be even better and I do think he's my best chance of a festival winner. He needs to improve again to win a Champion, but I wouldn't swap him for any other horse.
"I do think he'll win, but I'm sure AP and Jason feel the same about Binocular and Peddlers Cross."
As we drive to Ffos Las, where five horses much less talented than Menorah await, we meander through village after village, our journey taking us ever deeper into Wales. Not long after noon, the phone rings. On the other end is Philip Hobbs, passing on news that Menorah has just worked encouragingly at Exeter.
The trainer then imparts brief instructions on how to ride Quiet Bob in the day's 3m chase before directing the conversation to novice chasers Captain Chris and Wishfull Thinking.
"Wishfull Thinking feels like a galloper to me," he says. "On good ground I'd run him in the RSA and Captain Chris in the Jewson. That would be the perfect scenario for me, but obviously perfect things don't always happen."
As Upper Tumble becomes Tumble and Ffos Las draws near, the mobile's dialtone is once again activated. It's not Hobbs calling to say Johnson was right about the novice chasers, but Fiona, ringing from a mother-and daughter shopping trip to Bicester, where Willow, as is the wont of two-year-olds, has covered herself in sick. Accordingly, Fiona, known to one and all as Fee, has popped into the nearest store to buy a change of clothing. Unfortunately for the family bank balance, it's the local Ralph Lauren.
"I'll need to ride a winner just to pay for it," says a shocked Johnson, still reeling from the hefty bill for curtains. To give himself the best chance of making inroads into the cost of Willow's new outfit, Johnson dons wellies to walk the course.
As we head off down the back straight, Tom O'Brien, Johnson's deputy in the Hobbs yard, runs towards us, preparing to jog a circuit of the track while kicking a rugby ball along the way. Before he can make much progress, a member of the racecourse staff calls after him. O’Brien runs back but a couple of minutes later he has regained the lost ground.
“The man told me not to hurt anyone with the ball,” says the rugby-loving rider, who carries on running, throwing and kicking while Johnson digs heels into various parts of the track, concluding that the wide outside is the place to be on the hurdles course.
The preparation pays off in the finale. Going wide on the Vaughan-trained Sertao allows the horse to race on better ground, but just as important is Johnson’s strength in the finish. Only on the line does the 6-4 favourite get his nose past the O’Brien-ridden Mike Towey. Without Johnson’s will to win the 6-4 favourite would be still a maiden. It was one of those performances that Daly had talked about in the morning.
“He looked my best chance of the day and that’s how it turned out,” Johnson says as we leave Ffos Las. It’s another day gone, another day nearer to Cheltenham, nearer to Menorah.
Johnson has good reason to look forward to the festival. As well as Captain Chris, Wishfull Thinking and Planet Of Sound, there will be Dunraven Storm in the Supreme, Architrave in the Triumph and Snap Tie in the County, one of many handicaps in which Hobbs is sure to provide live ammunition.
Yet when Johnson talks about Cheltenham, the Champion Hurdle is never far from his lips.
“When you think about having a really good Cheltenham, the fear is you are tempting fate,” he says. “I know not to build myself up too much, but I do dream about winning the races.
"What I’m mostly feeling now is excitement because Menorah is one of the most exciting horses I’ve ever had anything to do with. He’s a horse I love to bits.”
Richard Johnson. Hates mushrooms, loves Menorah. Both horse and jockey go to Cheltenham as champions in waiting.
Read more on Richard Johnson's retirement . . .
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