Racehorse trainer Howard Johnson relives terrifying £100,000 raid

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The Independent Online

A successful racehorse trainer today said he thought his wife had suffered a heart attack when masked raiders held them up at gunpoint and robbed them of more than £100,000.

Howard and Sue Johnson, both 56, were relaxing at their substantial farmhouse outside Crook, County Durham, after one of the busiest weekends in the racing calendar when the terrifying eight-minute robbery took place.

Mr Johnson, the best National Hunt trainer in Northern England, was forced to open the safe in his extended house - which has an indoor swimming pool and stands behind high stone walls - then was told not to call police or they would be shot.

Sitting on the sun terrace at White Lea House, an emotional Mr Johnson said it was fortunate that his five-year-old granddaughter Anna-May had not stayed with them, as had been planned.

After watching Royal Rosa compete in the Grand National at the weekend, followed by a further 12 of his horses racing yesterday, plus attending to ewes who were lambing, Mr Johnson was relaxing at home reading the paper last night when the masked men tried to break down a door. One was brandishing a handgun while the other had a 7in (18cm) knife.

He tried to keep the men out, without success, and he was thrown against a glass door, cutting his forearm.

He was pinned down at gunpoint while the knifeman went upstairs where Mrs Johnson was reading, and marched her downstairs.

They forced him to hand over the contents of his safe which was around £100,000 - plus a further £1,000 left over from his weekend at Aintree.

Mr Johnson said the gunman threatened him: "If you don't get the safe open in 30 seconds, I will shoot you."

The raiders fled, taking phones and car keys to prevent their victims easily raising the alarm to their hillside property, which sits off a main road down a single-track lane.

Mr Johnson said: "Sue was shaking.

"I thought she had had a heart attack."

The couple waited 20 minutes before calling the police, and armed police were on the scene within minutes.

Sniffer dogs were called out along with the police helicopter.

Detective Inspector Simon Orton said 15 detectives were working on the case, with support from uniformed officers.

He said: "This is extremely out of the ordinary.

"It is at the early stage but there are significant lines of inquiry which we are following at the moment."

He believed the robbers will have known their victim was wealthy.

"I would anticipate somebody who commits a crime of this magnitude will have done some research."

Mr Johnson, who had not slept since 6am yesterday, said getting back to work would help him recover, and praised his wife for being "tough".

"When I get a few winners that will cheer me up," he said.

He added: "My business is very tough. It's a lovely job to be in, but it's very hard training horses. It's 24/7 every day.

"I have worked hard all my life, never had a holiday, and then this happens."

The trainer said the money taken was being saved up to buy his wife a dream cottage.

"It's just as well we had the cash. If we didn't, I don't think I'd be talking to you now.

"This is the biggest fright I have ever had."

He said he kept the cash at his home because he was a "hoarder" and it dated back to his days as a heavy gambler.

Mr Johnson has trained many horses for computer millionaire Graham Wylie, who came into racing seven years ago and achieved much since.

His most high-profile horse was Inglis Drever, which won three World Hurdles at Cheltenham. The animal died in October last year.

As Mr Wylie's trainer, Mr Johnson has what many believe to be one of the best jobs in racing.

Royal Rosa unseated its rider, Wilson Renwick, at the 14th fence in the 163rd John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.

The 11-year-old horse was given a last-minute opportunity to run in the race after two horses were withdrawn.

Mr Johnson's horses have won 60 times this season, netting prize money of almost £220,000.