Johnson magic

Sue Montgomery talks to an 18-year-old who will be wishing on a star at Cheltenham
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The Independent Online
THERE cannot be many teenagers who have managed to put Richard Dunwoody in his place, but Richard Johnson is one of them. Despite heavy hints from the maestro's agent, the 18-year-old has retained the Cheltenham ride on Mr Mulligan. In 10 days' time Johnson will attempt to repay the faith invested in him by winning the Sun Alliance Chase on the season's richly promising novice.

The rookie jockey and the big eight-year-old chestnut gave notice of the effectiveness of their partnership in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot last month when they pulverised the season's strongest field of novice staying chasers. That shot Mr Mulligan to the head of the betting for Wednesday week's championship, but inevitable questions were raised about Johnson.

He turned professional only last November and has ridden only twice previously at jump racing's showpiece occasion. But Mr Mulligan's trainer, Noel Chance, has little doubt: "There's no way we'd take him off the horse," he said. "He knows him well, has done nothing wrong and he is certainly a star of the future. Besides, if we took him off, everyone would be wanting us to lose. We'd forfeit all the goodwill the horse has built up."

Now at the top of the conditional jockeys' table, Johnson is apprenticed to David Nicholson, and the injury to the mighty stable's No1, Adrian Maguire, on Friday means that more rides will be coming his way. Despite having multiple Sun Alliance entries, the champion trainer, realising the importance of a big winner early in a burgeoning career, is holding by his decision to let Johnson take his chance of glory with the opposition.

The youngster has the pedigree for the job. His father, Keith, a Herefordshire farmer, won a Midlands Grand National on Bridge Ash, trained by his grandfather Ivor. And at Nicholson's school, Richard Johnson is fulfilling the promise of his days in the Pony Club and on his family's point-to-pointers. Nicholson said approvingly: "He works hard at his craft, and has improved out of all recognition this season. He's got a natural rhythm with a horse, and he watches and listens, and does what he's told."

If stickability is required to get Mr Mulligan home at Cheltenham, then Johnson's your man. A year ago at Market Rasen he gave a remarkable demonstration of horsemanship when Sandybraes made a hash of the last fence and left his rider clinging upside down round his neck with both his legs on the same side of the horse.

Johnson's association with Chance, in his first season training in Britain, and Mr Mulligan's owner, Michael Worcester, was established when he won on his first ride for them in June last year, and he has since partnered the flashy horse to all but one of five successive victories.

He said: "He goes off in front and has such a high cruising speed and such a powerful stride he just gallops the others into submission. Cheltenham will be a big test for both of us, and to ride a horse like him in a race is a big responsibility. But it will be the biggest thrill of my life."

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