One of Britain's leading National Hunt trainers and his wife were robbed of more than £100,000 in cash after masked raiders smashed their way into their remote luxury farmhouse and ordered them to empty the safe.
Howard Johnson said he feared the two robbers, whom he described as calm and professional, would have killed them both had he not been able to hand over the vast sum of money which he was saving to buy his wife her "dream" holiday cottage.
With more than 60 winners to his name this season and prize money totalling £220,000, Mr Johnson had just returned from one of the busiest racing weekends of the year at Aintree – where one of his horses, Royal Rosa, had been running in Saturday's Grand National.
Speaking yesterday, he said he was accustomed to "hoarding" large amounts of cash at his house, a habit he developed when he was a heavy gambler. The 56-year-old described hearing a "horrendous thud" as he read the newspaper at White Lea Farm, which has an indoor pool and stands behind imposing stone walls on a hill above the former pit village of Roddymoor in Co Durham, on Sunday night.
The men burst in shortly before 10.30pm, shoving Mr Johnson against a glass door as he tried to stop them entering. He suffered a cut arm and was held at gunpoint by one of the pair while the second, brandishing a 7in knife, went upstairs where his wife, Sue, was resting. He dragged her out of bed and marched her downstairs.
Ignoring the trainer's insistence that he did not have any money on the premises, one of the balaclava-clad intruders led him to the safe, held the firearm to his head and gave him 30 seconds to open the door. At first he tried to hand over just £2,000 but the gunman told him to fetch more, shouting: "You are wealthy, you are wealthy."
Mr Johnson was forced to hand over all the cash, which he said amounted to his entire savings over the last six years. "If there was no money in that safe I think they would have finished me off," he said. Mr Johnson said his 56-year-old wife was shaking so much he feared she would have a heart attack. He said the robbers were aware he had a large amount of cash in the building. They also went upstairs and discovered a further £1,000 in cash left over from the Aintree meeting, where he had 13 runners. "I couldn't act, they would have killed us. I just kept cool. They [the robbers] never got excited and they weren't shaking, they were professionals," he said.
"They were wearing professional gear and this was a professional job – someone knew we had money here. I was down on the ground and they were screaming at me to open the safe with a gun at my head. They said they would kill us and it was terrifying."
The Johnsons' five-year-old granddaughter Anna-May had been due to stay with them that night, but they had cancelled her visit. Their ordeal was over in eight minutes, at which point the departing burglars told the couple not to ring the police for three hours or they would be killed. The thieves also took car keys and mobile phones. Mr Johnson called the police after 20 minutes.
"I have never been as frightened in my life before – and I have been kicked by bulls and horses and was nearly killed by a cow," said Mr Johnson, who trains horses for computer software millionaire Graham Wylie.
One theory is that the gang had been watching him from a car earlier in the evening. Mr Johnson recalled seeing a vehicle as he finished lambing that evening, which he thought had belonged to a "courting couple". Detectives were yesterday seeking forensic evidence.
The trainer's most famous charge was three-time Cheltenham winner Inglis Drever. He has worked with dozens of other top-rated mounts after teaming up with Mr Wylie, a Tyneside-based businessman who has invested heavily in the sport over the past seven years.
Detective Inspector Simon Orton, leading the investigation for Northumbria Police, called the incident "extremely out of the ordinary". He said: "Somebody who commits a crime of this magnitude will have done some research."Reuse content