Racing: Johnston hopes to make himself at home

Royal Ascot - Away fixture the perfect setting for an ambitious trainer whose impressive record looks set to continue
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The Independent Online

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, racegoers, their senses no doubt diminished after a glass too many of Veuve Clicquot, may just about have deluded themselves that they're somewhere they're not. If it's Royal Ascot they want - as they appreciate the equine élite, survey those promenading in chic and outlandish fashion on the turf catwalk, while whingeing about the exorbitant prices of strawberries and champers - then it's Royal Ascot they've got. Except it's not.

Not for the country's top trainers, anyway. It's the Knavesmire and, revered though that course is, its demands present a different examination for those whose primary intent is capturing prize money, not admiring glances. Which may explain why the trainer Mark Johnston, replete with pride that his adopted county hosts a major event in the sporting and social calendar, is ambivalent about this hiatus in the Ascot horseracing schedule while redevelopment work takes place at a course where his record at the Royal meeting in the past five years - 16 winners from 98 runners - is peerless.

"Ascot has always been very special," he says. "We've had a long love affair with that course since our first win at the Royal meeting when Double Trigger won the Gold Cup for us in 1995."

But that should not suggest he will select equine weaponry for this substitute battleground, 50 miles from his Middleham stables, with anything but anti-cipation in his heart. "We're throwing everything at the meeting," says Johnston, whose patrons include the Maktoum family, the Duke of Roxburghe, the owner-breeder of that prodigious filly Attraction who misses the Royal meeting, and Sir Alex Ferguson. "We've got five entries in the Ascot Stakes [Tuesday's big handicap] and, frankly, if they're all sound and well, I'll declare every one. It's huge prize money and every owner wants to win it."

From a strictly personal perspective, he would relish a successful Royal meeting to enhance his averages. That may appear a perverse observation from the Scot who who is fifth in the trainers' league by prize money won - currently £519,780 - and third by numerical winners, 38. But by the standards of a 200-strong stable which boasts more than a century of winners in each of the last 11 years, it has been a slightly disappointing prelude to the season's five-day spectacular. In particular, some of his juveniles, like berries picked before they were ripe, haven't quite performed.

"I was talking to Sir Alex yesterday, and he asked me how things were going," says Johnston. "I quoted what he'd said to me after his team were beaten in the FA Cup final. That they were playing really well, but just not finishing. That's the same with us. We're getting plenty of horses placed, but we're not getting the goals. I need to turn that around."

Johnston doesn't boast the achievements that he does by a policy of non-intervention at such moments. Hence a Fergie-like response at a recent stables team-talk. "At a staff meeting I was complaining about the performances of the two-year-olds so far, and one of my yard managers said, 'Maybe they're not a good bunch'. I nearly jumped down his throat for that. We have 100 two-year-olds and they can't 'not be a good bunch'. If you've got 100, there's got to be good ones there. We must be finding the wrong ones to run early."

It is a vast operation. Such is the sheer concentration of horses at one of the country's largest training establishments that he now stables his horses at three bases, including a 260-acre farm he recently purchased.

"When I started out [in 1987] I was naïve and didn't realise that if you want to train Classic winners you need 150-plus horses," he says. "It was Kevin Keegan, I think, who once said that the strength of a team on the pitch is dictated by the strength of those sitting on the bench.

"The same applies to us, to some extent. If you select a small team, and think you're going to go to war all season with them, you're wrong. You need reserves, a pressure from behind of others coming through."

Despite the scale of the enterprise, it remains very much a family business. His wife of 20 years, Deidre, is his assistant, and one of his two sons, Charlie, 14, is already riding work. Johnston, 45, employs no fewer than 115 staff, including six yard managers, and a full-time vet, whose facilities include an equine pool, an endoscope and an X-ray machine.

Like his football counterparts, Johnston is acutely conscious that future prosperity is all about today's results. "If you're getting plenty of winners for an owner, they're never going to leave," he says.

Unfortunately, if you train them just too well, it's the owners' horses that may depart, in the case of Maktoum bloodstock. Those which excel on the racecourse tend to be transferred to the Godolphin operation to continue their careers. Johnston experienced such a loss after Shamardal won last season's Dewhurst Stakes. "Nobody wants to lose such a grand horse, but we all know that's the name of the game," he says.

Shamardal progressed to triumph in the French Derby last Sunday, although he has generally suffered in comparison with the victor of the English version, Motivator. "If they met in the Eclipse [over 1m 2f], Shamardal would win," says Johnston. "No, that's being too bullish. Let's just say, if I entered Shamardal in the Eclipse, Motivator's presence wouldn't put me off."

For the moment, Shamardal is likely to run in Tuesday's centrepiece St James's Palace Stakes. While Johnston will view that race with more than a passing interest, his preoccupation will be the Ascot Stakes. "We must have our best chances in that and the King George V Handicap later in the week because we're throwing so many darts at the board," he says. "It'll take a good one to beat Swift Sailor over 2m 4f [of the Ascot Stakes]. If there's any give in the ground, Contact Dancer would be a serious contender.

"Cuisine has been earmarked for a long time and has a great chance in the King George V. I'm also hopeful that Bandari [the Hardwicke] and Secret History [the Ribblesdale] will come up trumps. In the Gold Cup, Winged D'Argent is a good horse, but a young horse, and he'll be an outsider. But if there's give in the ground, he'd have a serious chance."

Such a description is true of any horse representing a trainer whose motto is "Always Trying", one whose ambitions are summarised quite simply by the words: "I constantly strive for more because I want to be regarded as No 1; not just champion trainer in Britain, but in Europe. I need to be up there, top of the Premier League." Sir Alex Ferguson would understand - and remind him how tough that is.

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