The man, who runs cattle alongside horses on his farm at Crook, in the wild hills of Co Durham, has suffered from tinnitus since being attacked and injured by a stroppy steer and has had to cope with two grudge arson attacks on his property in the past 18 months.
So, all in all, yesterday's rather impressive victory was a welcome change of fortune, particularly as it ended a run of 23 losers for Johnson. "Direct Route did a beautiful piece of work at Carlisle last week," he said, "but I didn't say much about it because in this game you get your lights kicked in if you're too cocky."
The instructions to Norman Williamson beforehand were to wait, wait and wait again. The jockey followed them to perfection; it was patently apparent, as Direct Route loomed alongside the pace-setting Edredon Bleu at the second last fence, with his ears pricked and the reins looped, that Williamson had ample reserves at his disposal.
But it was not until the last that he asked for them and the response was immediate. "I had a great run round on the inner, he landed running over the last and that was that," said the Irishman, on the big-race winner for the second successive Saturday, after Teeton Mill in the Hennessy.
The great Tingle Creek himself, after whom the Grade One race was retitled after he won it for the third time 20 years ago, would have been proud of the way that Direct Route, rejected by three of the country's top jump handlers as a youngster because of his physical shortcomings, tackled the tricky Sandown fences.
The two-mile title is now up for grabs, following the death of One Man and the retirement of Martha's Son and Viking Flagship. Another of the old guard, Klairon Davis, came home in the ruck yesterday and, of the young pretenders, Mandys Mantino and Hill Society, third and fourth yesterday, were, like Edredon Bleu, beaten on merit. There was an excuse for Direct Route's recent Exeter conqueror Lake Kariba, however, who never really got into contention after making a nonsense of the first.
Plans for Direct Route, who yesterday earned pounds 27,000 for the men who took a chance on him, Chris Heron and Michael Thomson, include the Castleford Chase at one of his local tracks, Wetherby, over the New Year, before his build-up to Cheltenham. "He is a stuffy sort of horse who takes some getting fit," said Johnson, "and today, unlike first time out, we had him spot on his fighting weight of 483kg."
Direct Route has a liking for the Esher slopes, as a year ago he took the novice two-milers' race, the Henry VII Chase. This time round the contest marked the return to the winners' circle of Tony McCoy, who returned to action yesterday after his well-publicised 14-day ban for misuse of the whip. His mount, Dines, had enough in hand to win without his rider having to resort to the persuader to any great degree on the run-in. McCoy gave the Martin Pipe-trained six-year-old a couple of smacks to keep him about his business, but the real work towards winning had been done in the earlier stages of the race.
McCoy jumped Dines off in front and found a more than willing partner as he attacked the 13 fences in the positive, determined fashion that has brought him the last three championships.
The reception given to McCoy, who brought Dines home a length and a half clear of the equally promising Dawn Leader, left no doubt as to the racegoers' delight at having their favourite son back in the fold after his compulsory holiday, which was split between Dubai and coaching sessions on a mechanical horse at the British Racing School.
However, the jockey is aware that there is some way to go before he irons out his style problems. "I did not have to use the whip today," he said, "but when I do I am going to find it difficult to get the correct rhythm going. It is so completely different to my natural action."Reuse content