Crusader of the North

CLOSE-UP Mark Johnston One of the best young trainers in Britain is aiming to claim the St Leger for Yorkshire. Sue Montgomery met him
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NAKED ambition in sport is not always associated with nice guys, but Mark Johnston, the vet-turned-racehorse trainer, is definitely from the Gary Lineker school. In a business with more backbiting than the Cabinet room at No 10, it is virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word for the man from Aberfoyle, Perthshire.

Being liked, however, does not equate with being mealy-mouthed. Johnston, 36 next month, holds his own views and his way of thinking, translated into the exploits of the horses under his care, have made him outstanding among the younger generation of trainers. And on Saturday at Doncaster he hopes to add a third Group 1 race, the St Leger, to his tally.

The opportunity to achieve success did not come easily for the gently spoken Scot. His first stable yard, acquired eight years ago, was a derelict, out-of-the-way site in Lincolnshire, where his gallops were part of an RAF target practice range. His horses had to be, literally, bomb-proof. His own progress since then has been explosive.

The Glasgow-born Johnston was first introduced to racing by his step- grandfather - whose funeral he attended last Friday - as a youngster living on an East Kilbride council estate. "We'd walk round to the bookies, and I'd wait outside while he and my dad put their bets on, and then we'd go back to the house to watch the races on telly," he said. "My father always had a thing about horses - in the Army he was a groom - and after he'd set up his own electrical wholesale business we moved out to the countryside."

Johnston's desire to make racing his career has been unswerving since his early teens, fired by visits to a local training yard. Fortuitously, his parents insisted he took a degree to have something to fall back on. His choice of a five-year veterinary course at Glasgow (interspersed whenever possible with stints in racing stables in Newmarket, Chantilly, California and Scotland) was always a means to an end, even though at the end of it he spent two years in practice. He has found that it has, ultimately, given him an invaluable insight into the animal at the centre of his passion.

"As a trainer it is definitely an advantage being a vet," he said. "It gives me a different way of thinking. On one level I can see and stop problems at an early stage. But on another I know what a horse is capable of; I can cut out all the bullshit. Vets do tend to err on the side of caution when dealing with racehorses, because if they tell the trainer to carry on and a problem gets worse they may be blamed. Being a vet myself gives me the confidence to push on and not be swayed by extraneous factors. But having said that, I do employ a full-time vet as an assistant. I'm not too proud to ask a second opinion."

The breakthrough for Johnston came when, with the help of the businessman Brian Palmer, an old friend and the owner of the first winner he trained, he made a leap of faith from the bomb-site to his present state-of-the- art base, Kingsley House on the high Yorkshire Moors at Middleham. He said: "Brian told me I was crazy trying to attract owners out on the Lincolnshire coast and came up with a proposal that we form a limited company as equal partners. I and my wife Deirdre would put in what I could afford, he and his wife would match it, and we'd borrow the rest."

So Mark Johnston Racing Ltd was born, and it brought the fledgling trainer - who had by that time sent out just six winners - face to face with the realities of running a high-risk business, especially away from the mainstream, and wealthier, racing centres in Newmarket and the south of England.

"We started upgrading right from the beginning on the principle that we wanted to provide southern facilities at northern prices," he said. We knew that no one would send us an expensive horse if it was to be trained in a wooden shack down a muddy track. It was an enormous risk, and within a year of buying it interest rates had doubled. The pressure was enormous, but maybe it was a good thing. If we didn't train winners, we went bust, it was as simple as that."

But the winners came; from 15 in the first year to 93 and counting in the present British campaign. Last year Johnston sent out the 2,000 Guineas hero Mister Baileys to become the first Middleham-trained Classic winner since Dante won the Derby in 1945. In six years his string has increased in size seven-fold - he now has upwards of 130 horses in his charge at pounds 210 each a week - and his talent has brought Sheikh Mohammed on to his list of patrons. He laughed: "It seems crazy now, but when I was trying to get a job in racing after I left vet school I wrote to hundreds of people, and no one would employ me. I've got a drawer full of rejection letters - three of them from the Sheikh's office."

Johnston tries to give his owners - the people who pay his wages - a fair deal, but is concerned that they are being short-changed by the sport itself. "It's a very expensive hobby, and anyone who can't afford it shouldn't be in it," he said. "But owners are not given enough back for putting on the show. I know that people say that they should expect to pay for their fun, that someone, say, playing golf would not expect a return. But if he was doing it professionally, and thousands of people were paying to watch, then he would. Racing should be no different, especially with the Government and bookmakers making millions out of it."

But it is the horses at the heart of it all who keep the trainer motivated. One of his trademarks is that he does not wrap his equine athletes in cotton wool. He said: "They are there to do a job, and I think they are a lot tougher and more versatile than people give them credit for being. We stuff food into them, work them hard and run them. More runners generally mean more winners, and winners are the only measure of success.

"When we came to Middleham I said I wanted to train Classic winners, and people in the business laughed openly. Now I want to prove that Mister Baileys wasn't a fluke. We won the Ascot Gold Cup, which was another Group 1 race for us, and marvellous. But I would very much like to win the St Leger, which I consider a shamefully underrated race."

Johnston's two candidates for the year's final Classic are Sheikh Mohammed's filly Jural, and Double Eclipse, owned by the businessman Ron Huggins. Both have had problems - Jural, top-class as a two-year-old, failed to fire until a few weeks ago and has had only one run this season, while Double Eclipse, runner up to his brother Double Trigger in a memorable Goodwood Cup, has had foot trouble. Getting both even this close to the post has been a considerable achievement.

Johnston said: "Brian once said to me that he couldn't make me a better trainer than I was going to be, but he could move me on 10 years. He did just that, not only by helping provide the facilities - and there's no doubt I can get more out of a horse now than six years ago - but by teaching me how to run a business. There are other goals to score - the Derby, the trainers' championship - and I do not intend to give that time away."

Life and times

Born: Glasgow, 10 October 1959. Educated: Callender High School, Glasgow Veterinary School.

First trainer's licence: Feb 1987.

Milestones: First winner - Hinari Video, Carlisle, 1987. First Group winner: Marina Park, Princess Margaret Stakes, Ascot 1992. Group 1 winners: Mister Baileys, 2,000 Guineas, Newmarket 1994. Double Trigger, Ascot Gold Cup, Ascot 1995. Best season to date - 1994 (pounds 1,024,928 prize money).

British training record: 1987: one winner. 1988: five; 1989: 15. 1990: 28; 1991: 28; 1992: 50; 1993: 60; 1994: 117.

Best horses trained: Mister Baileys (1993 Royal Lodge Stakes, Vintage Stakes, 1994 2,000 Guineas, 4th Derby); Double Trigger (1994 Italian St Leger, 1995 Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup, Sagaro Stakes); Double Eclipse (2nd 1994 Ascot Gold Cup); Jural (1994 Sweet Solera Stakes, Futurity Stakes, 2nd Ascot Fillies Mile, 2nd 1995 Furstenburg-Rennen); Millstream (1994 Curragh Stakes, Cornwallis Stakes); Branston Abby (18 races 1991-95), Quick Ransom (1992 Ebor Handicap, 1993 November Handicap); Marina Park (Curragh Stakes); Double Blue.

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