Richard Johnson on course for first champion jump jockey title

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Richard Johnson and AP McCoy
Richard Johnson (left) is aiming to step out of the shadows of AP McCoy and claim racing's most coveted prize

So far, so good.

Halfway through the April-to-April jump racing season - but with the 'core' six month-period that climaxes at the festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree ahead - the most hotly anticipated storyline of the campaign seems to be shaping up neatly.

Richard Johnson, runner-up to AP McCoy in 16 of the record 20 championships he won before retirement in April, holds a lead of almost McCoy-esque proportions as he seeks an elusive first champion jockey title.

And it's no exaggeration to say that there is a universal belief within racing that, if justice is ever to be served, the 38-year-old simply must win the accolade.

It is a view held even among the fiercest of his rival jockeys.

"Obviously most of them are about 15 years younger than me," said Johnson said, a smile spreading across his face, as he spoke to BBC Sport at the first fixture of the main part of the jumps season at Cheltenham. "So they know they'll have plenty of time in the future.

Richard Johnson 2000 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Johnson riding Looks Like Trouble to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2000

"But, yes, I'm feeling massively the goodwill from them, from owners, from trainers and from the general public via social media, every day I go racing.

"I've had a great time riding - for 22 years in all - and it's nice to now hopefully get a chance to do the best I can and, if I could manage to get that title, it would mean everything to me.

Johnson, from a family in rural Herefordshire that has for generations mixed agriculture and racing in a way typical of jumping's grassroots, is by some way the second most successful jump jockey of all time.

So far, he has more than 2,900 successes to his name, including victory in the 2000 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble and the Champion Hurdle of 2003 on Rooster Booster, plus a Conditional Jockeys' title (for National Hunt apprentices), achieved under the tutelage of master-trainer David Nicholson.

How different the record books would look now if Northern Ireland-born McCoy, 41, who rode his first winner in Britain a few months after Johnson had partnered his initial success as a young amateur rider, had pursued alternative employment.

For most of us, being forced to live for such a long time in the shadow of an opponent, however towering, would lead to fury and resentment but, famously, the perennial runner-up to McCoy has never grumbled.

Was he really that philosophical? Johnson insists he was.

"OK, you're frustrated and you're always determined to try to beat him, and everything else, but at the end of the day I can only do my best," he said.

"I'd have been upset if I hadn't given every inch, but I did; unfortunately I never managed to ride as many winners as him.

"And he was a gentleman to work with, even if rather frustrating to ride against."

Richard Johnson and Philip Hobbs
Johnson and trainer Philip Hobbs after winning the Guinness Gold Cup with Planet Of Sound in April

By way of further explanation, Johnson added: "In our job, the horses are the athletes and our job is to get on the fastest ones.

"But, you never know, you're on a winner one race, and half an hour later you could easily be on the floor, literally. That's why there's no time for bad-will or hard-feeling".

Trainers Philip Hobbs, a longstanding ally, Tim Vaughan, Gordon Elliott, Charlie Longsdon and McCoy's close associate Jonjo O'Neill have given Johnson the bulk of his total so far.

Though well aware that the most important months of the campaign lie ahead, he has galloped serenely past the landmark of a century of winners and, mid-season, holds a healthy advantage in the title race over rising stars Aidan Coleman and Sam Twiston-Davies.

It does put things into perspective, however, when you see that while Johnson reached his 100 in mid-October it was in August of the 2014-15 season that McCoy broke his own record for jumping's fastest 'ton'.

As for this season, Johnson has a single aim.

"To be champion jockey is my target - it has been for 22 years since I started, and that would be lovely," he said.

"I want to ride as many winners as possible every day of the week, whether it's Monday at Ayr or Saturday at Cheltenham.

"There are plenty of miles involved, and if you were doing it to ride one 50-1 shot, as some guys do, it would be much harder, but when things are going well it is only enjoyable."

Aidan Coleman and Sam Twiston-Davies
Rising stars Aidan Coleman and Sam Twiston-Davies are Johnson's closest rivals for the champion jockey title

Final question: has he thought what it would feel like to be Richard Johnson, champion jump jockey?

"I've thought about it for a long time," said the father-of-three, who on Saturday looks to win the prestigious Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby for the second year running on Menorah.

"It's just something that I'd be proud of a long way down the line.

"If I could be mentioned in the same breath as some of the people that have been champion jockeys before it would be amazing, something for me and my children to be very proud of."

There is coverage of the Bet365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on BBC Radio 5 live, Saturday, 31 October, 15:05 GMT

Top Stories