Johnson steps up his pursuit of McCoy

Jump Jockeys' Championship: Last season's runner-up succeeding in his battle to keep the outstanding champion in his sights

On the roads around Plumpton racecourse, there are still puddles six inches deep, as Sussex slowly recovers from the drenching of the last seven days. The car park is a quagmire, the track itself little better, and the jockeys getting dressed in the weighing room yesterday knew that every race would be a battle, cold, dirty and exhausting.

On the roads around Plumpton racecourse, there are still puddles six inches deep, as Sussex slowly recovers from the drenching of the last seven days. The car park is a quagmire, the track itself little better, and the jockeys getting dressed in the weighing room yesterday knew that every race would be a battle, cold, dirty and exhausting.

For one man, though, the meeting was a precious opportunity. Richard Johnson has a talent and a client-list which most riders would kill for, yet in another sense he has one of the most thankless jobs in sport. He is the second-best - or, more precisely, the second-most successful - jockey in National Hunt racing. He has already ridden almost 80 winners in a jumps season which has barely started, but like a golfer teeing up alongside Tiger Woods, Johnson knows that for as long as Tony McCoy is in the weighing room, finishing second may be all he can hope to do.

Woods won this year's US Open by 15 shots, and last season McCoy did something similar in the jump jockeys' championship. Johnson, who finished second, rode 143 winners, which 15 years ago would have been enough to win the title with more than 50 to spare.

McCoy, though, was an astonishing 102 winners clear of his nearest rival. Gap is too small a word. A crevasse, perhaps? A canyon?

So far this season, however, Johnson has made a passable job of throwing up a bridge. Before racing yesterday, and after a summer season which he and McCoy have dominated utterly, he trailed the champion by less than 10, with 77 winners to McCoy's 86. Better still, McCoy was starting a two-day suspension, while Johnson had four promising bookings.

It was the sort of chance which will come only rarely in a winter when every winner will be priceless if Johnson's challenge is not to be dead by Christmas.

"I take pleasure from every single one,'' he said before his first ride yesterday. "I'd love to win the seller here today, and I'd be as happy riding a winner here as if I went to Kempton Park on Saturday and rode one there.''

And within the hour, he had his winner, dug from the Plumpton mud with the doggedness which has made him a hero to racegoers from the Grade One tracks to the gaffs.

Riding Tiger Grass in a 25-furlong handicap hurdle around three draining circuits, Johnson was pushing and urging with almost a mile still to run, and when Sadler's Secret went clear between the final two flights, he looked the certain winner.

At the last hurdle, Tiger Grass was still four lengths adrift, but with Johnson demanding one last effort, he somehow managed to find them. His jockey returned with face and silks smothered in mud, but one winner closer to his driving ambition.

"It's the thing I want to do most of all,'' Johnson said. "For me, it would be much better than riding a Grand National winner, and it's the big thing that's out there now, to become the champion. Obviously Mr Pipe [McCoy's main employer] has an unbelievable amount of horses and runners throughout the whole 12 months, and riding for him is a massive help, but I think Tony would probably have been champion jockey in the last two seasons even if he wasn't.

"Who knows, Mr Pipe might get a virus in the yard and Tony might have a lean time. If I keep riding consistently then hopefully my turn will come.''

Johnson's principal employer this year will be Phillip Hobbs, who sent out 120 winners last season. "I could not fault Richard in any way,'' Hobbs said yesterday. "He doesn't make mistakes and wins the odd race he shouldn't, which is the difference between a good jockey and a champion.

"He's a fine horseman and a fine jockey, he's very good tactically, and when he gets off he can tell us everything we need to know. And what's also important, particularly in jumps racing, is that when the owners are in the paddock beforehand, they meet somebody they like.''

Hobbs is right. Johnson keeps the gimlet-eyed focus for the track, and otherwise hands out smiles like handbills. It is a good humour he will need throughout the winter's long, and possibly unequal, struggle.

There is much to look forward to, including Looks Like Trouble, the horse who carried him to a Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March, but he will run four times at most. Many of Martin Pipe's string, by contrast, will get well into double figures.

"Realistically, I hope I can get near Tony this year,'' Johnson says. "If I can keep the margin down to less than 50 then it's a big step from last year. I've now got quantity and quality, which is a massive boost, and to be fair, I don't think I work half as hard as some of the lads that don't get to ride the good horses, and struggle with their weight.

"If you're riding a horse that you know, in the morning, basically has a very slim chance, and you're doing that 28 days a month, and you might get one ride a month that you think realistically can win a race, it must be a lot harder to get yourself motivated.

"There's very rarely a day goes by that I don't ride a horse with a realistic chance, and I'm learning all the time. If I can keep riding consistently, then hopefully my turn will come.''

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