Richard Johnson is finally crowned champion jockey

Richard Johnson and AP McCoy
Richard Johnson (left) in close quarters with AP McCoy, who retired last year

On Saturday at Sandown, Richard Johnson lifted the trophy confirming that he is jump racing's champion jockey.

In mathematical terms it means that he has ridden more winners than any other jockey this season. In the context of horse racing, and sport in general, it is a triumph of commitment and perseverance which may never be rivalled.

Johnson has been trying to win it since the 1990s. It is his curse, and his blessing, that his career coincided with Sir Anthony (AP) McCoy. For 20 years in succession McCoy was champion. Throughout that time, almost every year, the man who finished behind him in second place was Richard Johnson.

Champion at last

I met up with Richard Johnson in Somerset at the yard of trainer Philip Hobbs - their relationship has been an important part of the jockey's career.

At 7.30 on an April morning Johnson was helping to school a group of the yard's horses, taking them over hurdles and fences on a field high above the Bristol Channel. In racing this might be termed 'work' but for Johnson, even at 38 years of age, he insists it is still pleasure.

"This is all I've ever wanted to do so it's not a job. Unfortunately I'm going to have to get a job one day when I have to stop doing it, but genuinely you love doing it. I think the 'job' is the driving round, the long days, but riding the horses is the fun bit," he said.

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Johnson ready to claim McCoy's crown

"But for me being champion jockey was the thing I've always wanted to do since I was a child growing up. So I suppose actually to reach that goal is always what I wanted to do and there's a lot of satisfaction.

"When AP McCoy retired at the end of last year I sort of thought, well I should be able to have a good chance at it. But there was a pressure. If I don't become champion jockey now maybe I'll not achieve what I wanted to. But the season's been absolutely amazing. My agent Dave Roberts works tirelessly to keep me busy and sends me round the country on a daily basis to hopefully achieve what I have."

Roberts was McCoy's agent too and in simple terms Johnson has picked up rides this year which may have previously gone to McCoy. It's helped him dominate the Jockeys' Championship.

In the history of jump racing McCoy is the only man to have ridden more than 4,000 winners. But only one other jockey has gone past 3,000 winners, and that's Johnson.

Johnson and McCoy; best of rivals?

When McCoy was riding in his first championship winning season in 1995, Johnson was in his first year as a conditional, or apprentice, jockey. For two decades they were in each other's company on almost a daily basis. The relationship was simultaneously bitter rivalry and deep appreciation.

Johnson said: "I used to tell him regularly, you'd get to Christmas, I'd say to AP, 'just go on holiday for a couple of months, give me a bit more of a chance!' With our sport you can win the Gold Cup or the Grand National one day and unfortunately half an hour later you can be sat on your bum nursing an injury. You never know what's going to happen.

"We work with each other on a daily basis so after the race you're concerned that everyone came back in one piece and you can all have another go in half an hours' time."

"I'm sure in my twenties I got very frustrated with AP, I felt however hard I tried or however great a week I had he'd always have a better one. I'm sure I got frustrated, not really with him but just that it didn't seem to matter how hard I tried. I didn't seem to be able to bridge the gap.

"But as you get older you become a little more realistic and you know you've just got to give 100% and hopefully you'll get your chance. This year it's a shame AP isn't still riding because it would be great to beat him but it doesn't take the shine off it for me, for me this is always what I've wanted to do."

There is a new trophy for this year's champion jockey. The trophy was fashioned by Asprey's jewellers but the design was selected by McCoy. Furthermore, the man who placed it in Johnson's hands was none other than McCoy himself.

"I couldn't be happier about who I'm presenting it to," said the retired champion.

"He is someone who made me achieve what I achieved for so long and I think it's thoroughly deserved for his great work and his hard work and dedication for the last 20 odd years. I think it shows perseverance can always come good in the end."

Richard Johnson's racing landmarks
First point-to-point winner: Space Mariner (Brampton Bryan) 9 April 1994
First winner under National Hunt rules: Rusty Bridge (Hereford) 30 April 1994
Champion conditional jockey: 1995-96
Jump jockeys' championship: Runner-up 16 times
100 winners in a season: 18 times

More Championships to come?

The experience of competing for so long against McCoy has shaped Johnson's approach to the sport. He feels the presence of his great rival even though he's retired.

"We were both probably greedy and wanted as many winners as each other and I think we probably pushed each other to do the best we could," added Johnson.

"I think even though he's retired, in my mind I'm still convinced I've got to give it everything every day of the week to make sure you get what you're looking for."

Even though jump racing is split into seasons it is basically never-ending. The new campaign starts the week after the old one ends and there's the Punchestown Festival in Ireland between.

Johnson anticipates a grand total of two days off. But there is, he claims, no prospect of his enthusiasm wavering. Just the opposite in fact.

"I'm lucky in the fact that I'm probably a little bit smaller than AP was, I don't struggle quite as much with my weight so that's definitely a bonus for me and I'm a few years younger. I'm loving doing what I'm doing," he said.

"This is where I've always wanted to be so I'm not going to suddenly decide to give up now. The support I've had obviously off Philip Hobbs and his owners has been fantastic. But, again, there's been lots of other trainers I ride for, there's too many trainers to even mention.

"I'm not sure if people just feel sorry for the old man, but look, going to every race meeting whether it's a Monday at Catterick or Plumpton or Cheltenham or Aintree, the support I've had from everyone in racing, but also the general public, has just been fantastic. I must admit I'm slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing. I can't get over the support and it's given me the best year of my life."

Jockeys often speak of the all-consuming nature of their sport, the excitement and engagement of racing which is irreplaceable. With that in mind I ask Johnson, with a smile, if he thinks there is a chance that McCoy might make a comeback.

He answers with humour, typically, intact.

"I hope not. He was looking quite healthy at the Grand National meeting so I'm hoping he's put too much weight on now and he'll stay where he is."

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