Festival ambition still burning bright for Richard Johnson

Native River and Thyme Hill two big chances next week.

Richard Johnson has already won all of the main events at the Cheltenham Festival at least once – but he is approaching this year’s meeting with as much vim and vigour as ever.

The former champion jockey has been riding at racing’s showpiece fixture since the days when he was able to claim 7lb back in 1995.

His first victory came four years later, on Anzum in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and since then he has won the Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles, the Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster and the Gold Cup twice, first with Looks Like Trouble and more recently through Native River.

It is the latter who is spearheading a select team Johnson is looking forward to next week, following a display at Sandown which warmed the hearts of many National Hunt followers.

“Anyone that likes sport and racing in general, they love seeing someone at the top of their game for five or six seasons. Sandown really gave me the confidence that he can go to the Gold Cup with a fantastic chance,” said Johnson.

“I saw Joe Tizzard (son of trainer Colin) on Wednesday and we joked we hoped it could rain until next Saturday! As long as the ground is on the slower side I think he goes with a huge chance.

“He’s beaten all the ones in England and is the best of the English for me, I wouldn’t swap him for another.

“Obviously Al Boum Photo is the one to beat and we don’t know how good Champ is, but they’ll have to put a good performance in to beat Native River.”

It seems the 43-year-old is persistently fending off questions as to whether his own career might be coming to an end – but just like Native River, there is no sign of him stopping any time soon.

“Sandown showed he’s lost none of his enthusiasm and I certainly haven’t lost any of mine,” he said on a call hosted by Great British Racing.

“I love doing this. When I started it was a dream to be a jockey, let along be any good at it. To be rocking up at my 26th Festival, most don’t do that as a spectator so I’m very lucky.

“If anything I’m more excited this year than the first. I’m very lucky, usually I’m going there with a good book of rides. It doesn’t guarantee a winner, but I’ve got half a dozen very strong rides this year, I think.

“When I was just starting out my first ride was 50-1, Strong Beau in the Kim Muir (1995) for David Nicholson when realistically if he got round it was a bonus.”

The shortest priced of Johnson’s mounts next week will be the Philip Hobbs-trained Thyme Hill, who will meat former winner Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle for a third time this season – with the score currently level.

Thyme Hill (left) seemed to have the measure of Paisley Park only for him to fly close home
Thyme Hill (left) seemed to have the measure of Paisley Park only for him to fly close home (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“I think the slightly better ground might just help us and he’s only had six runs over hurdles, so I’d hope he is still improving. It’s far from a two-horse race, though Paisley Park is the obvious one to beat,” said Johnson.

“When you get beaten like at Ascot you always think what you could have done it differently, but at the same time I was really pleased as he travelled sweetly and jumped well. For a horse without much experience he’s really matured this year and that is what gives me confidence going to Cheltenham that we can get a different result.

“He’s got the right profile and I still think there is more to come. The ground might be a bit more in our favour and going to Cheltenham horses like Thyme Hill are the ones you want to be on. I can see him winning the Stayers’ Hurdle.”

The Hobbs-trained Zanza in the Grand Annual and a fine spare picked up on Aye Right in the Ultima Handicap Chase due to the suspension of Callum Bewley supplement Johnson’s hand nicely.

Sporting John is another Grade One-winner he can look forward to, but whether he takes on Envoi Allen in the Marsh or Monkfish in the Brown Advisory has still to be decided. Either way he will come up against a rival who has so far looked the real deal.

“I think it will depend on what the ground is like as to where he ends up, but unfortunately neither race is an easy option. We have to take on either Envoi Allen or Monkfish who are both hot favourites,” said Johnson.

“Whichever race he runs in I’d like to think he’ll be in the mix. We always hear this or that can’t be beaten at Cheltenham, but we all know differently as not all the favourites win.

“Both Envoi Allen and Monkfish have already won at Cheltenham, but they’ve still got to turn up and produce on the day. I wouldn’t put anybody off him whichever race he runs in. He’s already a Grade One winner and is very good, you should never shy away from one.”

For a man who has won it all it is difficult to pick out just one favourite when his highlight reel could run for hours – but his victory on the popular Rooster Booster in the 2003 Champion Hurdle is certainly one that springs to mind.

Rooster Booster gained a huge army of followers
Rooster Booster gained a huge army of followers (David Davies/PA)

“It’s hard to pick a favourite, but Rooster came along very early in my association with Philip, maybe only three or four years into the partnership,” he said.

“He gave 110 per cent every time. The year he won the Champion Hurdle, they went very fast early and it all just seemed to happen for him. He was still running away with me coming to the second-last, which shouldn’t happen in a Champion Hurdle.

“That day he was absolutely awesome so he figures very high in my memories.”

He added: “Looks Like Trouble is out in the stable here, he’s 29 now. He was a huge part of my career. I’d won the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999 on Anzum for the Duke (David Nicholson) which got me going, but to ride the Gold Cup winner in 2000 was a huge reason why I started getting very good horses to ride in the top tier.

“He’s special so to have him as a family pet is great. We have Menorah (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner of 2010), too. The children have ridden both of them.”

If Johnson has one regret this year it is that he will not be retaining the jockeys’ championship he lost to Brian Hughes last season having won the previous four upon the retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy.

“I’m disappointed and frustrated not to be involved. Brian is involved again and the great thing for him is he rides for loads of different trainers which coming up to the end of the season is crucial,” said Johnson.

“But the two Harrys (Skelton and Cobden) have two huge stables and unbelievable firepower behind them. It will be a very busy six weeks for them all and will probably come down to the last week.

“I don’t know how many I’ve got left in me, someone asked me this the other day and that becomes a worry when they keep asking the same question!

“I’ve never really had a weight problem luckily, unlike AP (McCoy) or Mick Fitzgerald. I’m loving what I do and when you ride for Philip Hobbs it makes things enjoyable.

“I’m thinking if Thyme Hill goes over fences next year he could be in the Gold Cup in a couple of years, so there’s always reasons to look to the future.”

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