Racing: Johnson has eyes on place in history

Jockey aims for second successive victory in Cheltenham Gold Cup but the championship will have to wait
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The portents for this interview are, in truth, not good. First of all, I call a friend who is on intimate terms with the world of horse racing. I ask him for the low-down on Richard Johnson. Perfectly nice young man, comes the reply, and a brilliant National Hunt jockey if not quite the real McCoy, but not too much of interest to say for himself. The one interesting thing about him, suggests my chum, is his royal girlfriend, the Queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips. Indeed, the current tabloid speculation is that they might soon marry.

The portents for this interview are, in truth, not good. First of all, I call a friend who is on intimate terms with the world of horse racing. I ask him for the low-down on Richard Johnson. Perfectly nice young man, comes the reply, and a brilliant National Hunt jockey if not quite the real McCoy, but not too much of interest to say for himself. The one interesting thing about him, suggests my chum, is his royal girlfriend, the Queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips. Indeed, the current tabloid speculation is that they might soon marry.

Then comes a call from Johnson's agent, informing me that Johnson is happy to talk about anything, except Zara. Which is fair enough, of course, even if they did pose together for a Hello! magazine spread at his new Cotswolds home.

So, access denied to the principal source of interest. Still, I am not too dispirited. Surely he will be able to offer some insight into the Cheltenham Festival and his two most promising rides, Flagship Uberalles (in today's Queen Mother Champion Chase) and Looks Like Trouble (in tomorrow's Tote Cheltenham Gold Cup). Besides, I am looking forward to meeting such a driven young man. No jockey is happy to fall off a horse, for example, but Johnson, I once read somewhere, is plunged into an introspective gloom for hours afterwards. On which subject, the interview portents then get even worse. It is Friday, 8 March, and I am to meet Johnson in the Hereford racecourse weighing-room after the first race, the 2.05.

His only ride in the meeting is in the 2.05, a promising youngster called Peachy. I arrive just in time to slap a fiver each way on Peachy, who, coming to the final fence, is cruising sweetly in second place. In fact, I am calculating my modest winnings when disaster strikes. Peachy clips the final fence and stumbles, bringing Johnson crashing to the turf. He gets to his feet immediately, furiously belts the ground with his whip, ducks under the rails, and passes within about 10ft of me on his way back to the weighing-room. He has a face like thunder. I'm not feeling all that sunny myself.

Half an hour later, Johnson manages to force a smile. For want of much privacy in the weighing-room, and with a biting wind outside, we retire to what appears to be a broom cupboard. I break the ice gently, asking: "So when are you and Zara going to tie the knot?" Actually, I don't. I ask him how he's feeling after the fall. "Still in one piece," he says, tightly. And so, moving rapidly on, to Flagship Uberalles at Cheltenham. What are his chances in the Queen Mother (no comment) Champion Chase? "He's a horse with lots of niggling problems, but if all goes well he's definitely the best horse in the race. Touch wood, he's a very straightforward horse. We'll run him just behind the leaders. He jumps well, travels well, he's won round Cheltenham before. I just hope that he gets up in the morning feeling well, rather than a bit groggy."

Johnson is still just 24, and was therefore a tender 22 when he won the 2000 Gold Cup – the last time the race was run because of last year's foot-and-mouth cancellation – on Looks Like Trouble. I invite him to recall the thrill of winning such an important race, before racing's most appreciative crowd.

"He was a spare ride, I picked him up just a week before the race. I'm lucky enough to have been at Cheltenham for the last five or six years. and it's not something you could ever get tired of. It's so massive, so special. As someone said the other day, for us it's like the Olympics. The atmosphere is incredible, there's so much to take in, from the moment you arrive on Tuesday morning.

"I don't remember too much about the race itself. I remember thinking that he wasn't travelling too well, so picking the stick up and hitting him just to get him motivated. That one slap woke him up. At the top of the hill he was third or fourth and I suddenly realised that he had every chance. He jumped that fence at the top of the hill and got straight back into his stride. Coming down the hill a lot of horses struggle, because they're tired but at the same time going quicker, but he did really well.

"Afterwards it took a while for it to sink in. Even now, every day at home, I look at the memento I've got on the TV, a goblet thing, and think: 'I have actually won a Gold Cup'.'' Bless. He might not be Peter Ustinov, but it's hard not to warm to him.

And impossible not to admire him. Indeed, if Johnson and Looks Like Trouble repeat their 2000 triumph tomorrow, the horse will become the first to retain the Gold Cup, albeit after two years rather than one, since the great L'Escargot in 1971.

However, both jockey and mount have suffered serious injury problems since they conquered Cheltenham together. Johnson broke his leg last October in a nasty fall at Exeter. "The horse hit the ground and went one way, and my foot was left behind," he says. Ouch. "Yes, I lay there and suddenly realised that it was not good." This Herefordshire farmer's son is not a chap given to grandiose over-statement. "It was," he adds, "quite sore". As for Looks Like Trouble, he was laid up for 14 months with tendon problems.

"But he won well in his first race back, at Wincanton. I've ridden him, and thought he felt as well as he's ever felt. Noel [Chance, his trainer, looking tomorrow for his third Gold Cup victory in five] is very happy with him. Like Flagship Uberalles, he's a straightforward horse, he's done it all before. The thing is, you have to ride them to their strengths, not to suit the race, although I might keep him a bit further back if I feel the pace is a bit too quick.

"I'll just ride him handy, and ideally sit in the first two or three. He jumps very well, he stays very well. He hasn't made the running in his last two races, but we'll be quite happy making the running if nobody else wants to. In the Gold Cup there will probably be two or three others wanting a good start, though. It won't worry him if he's second, third or fourth. He jumps well whether he's in front or behind, which is a big plus for me because it means not having to keep him in a certain position. Some horses hate being headed by another horse, while others don't like seeing the front." Just as horses have their foibles, of course, so do jockeys. Johnson – who despite his long lay-off clocked his 100th winner of the season on Saturday – admits that he sometimes has to quell his eagerness to hit the front.

"And some horses, after being at the front for 200 yards, decide they've done enough work. So I try not to get to the front too soon. But at the same time it's one of the things that got me noticed."

His similarity to McCoy has also been noticed. As with the champion jockey, Johnson's riding style is principally about strength, whereas others, such as Mick Fitzgerald, tend to finesse their way to the front. I ask him whether he agrees with this observation? "Yeah, but if an owner is paying a lot of money for a horse, and a lot to have it trained, and paying the jockey to ride it, I think they need to know that they're getting value for money. Me and Tony, no matter whether at Hereford in a selling hurdle, or at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, we give 100 per cent. I'm sure the others do as well, but the way we do it gets noticed. And I'm more worried about getting to the winning-post than looking stylish."

It's a good, if slightly waspish answer. Johnson's one overriding ambition, he adds, is to be champion jockey. But it won't happen this season, of course. Nor, probably, will it happen for as long as McCoy rides for Martin Pipe.

"It is very hard to rein back AP McCoy," he concedes. "He is riding as well as he has ever ridden, and riding for Jonjo O'Neill as well as Mr Pipe, so it is very hard to match his numbers. I'm freelance, but I'm very fortunate to ride a lot for Philip Hobbs. Richard Dunwoody retiring was a great opportunity for me to get into one of the best yards in the country. Philip Hobbs is a very, very good trainer, and I also ride for Henry Daly and Alan King, who have good horses.

"There are always trips to Folkestone on a Monday to ride three moderate horses, but that's the bread and butter. Saturday meetings and festivals are the cream, and I get to ride a lot of very nice horses too."

Does he have an all-time favourite? "I loved riding Viking Flagship, even at the end of his career. I remember at Devon and Exeter, winning on him at 10-1. That was a thrill."

Johnson speaks quickly, without much animation, yet his enthusiasm for four-legged creatures positively floods the broom cupboard. So I risk a quick question about a two-legged creature. Do he and Zara – by all accounts a fine eventer, following in the hoofsteps of her mother, the Princess Royal – ever compare notes on riding? His smile freezes. "The two disciplines are very different. It's dangerous stuff what they do as well. We don't compare notes, no." I assure him that I won't dwell on the subject. But does he take much stick in the weighing-room about the relationship? I don't imagine that jockeys are the sort of people to pass up the odd ribald comment about a royal girlfriend? Johnson smiles, and canters, with blinkers if not a sheepskin noseband, straight past the question.

"We all get on well. We're like 45 best friends really. And we need to be, because at the start of a race we have to help each other out, to keep each other in one piece. It's like being a motorist. You do your own thing, but you also need to look after other drivers, and to know that they're looking after you. Nobody wants others to fall, because it can cause you a problem.

"So if you decide to keep a horse at the back because otherwise he might not make the trip, but he's very keen, and you realise you can't hold him back, you shout 'I'm coming through' and sometimes they'll move over and let you go. The worst accidents on the flat are when horses clip heels." As it happens, these are prophetic words, for this is exactly what happened to the much-fancied Valiramix in yesterday's Smurfit Champion Hurdle.

And when Valiramix's grounded jockey, one AP McCoy, beat the turf in fury, I was strongly reminded of Johnson in front of rather fewer racegoers at Hereford last Friday. He and McCoy do indeed have much in common. Not yet as much in common as Johnson would like, but he's working on it, in fact he could hardly be working harder. His royal girlfriend, I decide as I leave the broom cupboard, is emphatically not the most interesting thing about him.