Racing: Johnson Houghton hoping to hit headlines

The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday brings an opportunity for Fulke Johnson Houghton to return to racing's high table. Here the trainer explains to Richard Edmondson why his career has been in decline since the days when the horses of Sheikh Mohammed and the Aga Khan graced his Oxfordshire stables.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When he counts the outstanding horses he has trained, Fulke Johnson Houghton gets up to 18. He can tell you about Ribocco and Ribero, the St Leger-winning brothers, the subsequent superstud Habitat and Ile De Bourbon, the victor in the 1978 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Yet when he calculates the number of beasts he now has in his stables, Johnson Houghton struggles to get past a similar figure. Since the turn of the decade, the Blewbury trainer's fortunes have plummeted like a penny down a wishing well, but it is not a destiny which has left him bitter. "That's just the way it goes," is his regular if hardly contemplative assessment.

Fulke Johnson Houghton seems to have been around for so long that it must soon be his time to become either a High Court judge or member of the Jockey Club. In fact, he is only 57 and the illusion is cast by the fact that he started training in 1961, aged 20.

When Dick Warden introduced Sheikh Mohammed to racing, Johnson Houghton and John Dunlop were his first trainers, but since then the Maktoums have not been enticed back to the yard that lies by the rolling downland south of Didcot's belching chimneys and power station.

The Aga Khan was also a patron of the stables (from where Zayyani, in the 1989 Greenham Stakes, was the Aga's last Johnson-Houghton-trained Group winner before his withdrawal from Britain), but Michael Stoute and Luca Cumani gradually earned the pick of those carrying the green and red livery.

Once owners get on the double-decker rolling downhill out of a yard, it is extremely difficult to get them back. Walwyn thinks his husbandry of these benefactors could have been better and considers he may have been a touch "obstinate". "I've been a bit careless with my owners," the trainer said yesterday. "I've mislaid them. I'm looking for the secret and trying to discover how I get more owners.

"I think another problem was that my name was too long for the headlines. But I can't help that because I was born with it. All I need now is a good horse to get me back. It would help me a lot."

Centre Stalls should really then be a white charger rather than the long- striding bay colt we will witness in Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a race Johnson Houghton won in 1975 and 1976 with Rose Bowl. The four- year-old is around 9-1 for the focus of the weekend meeting and will not be damned by his trainer's words between now and then.

"I think he's got a very good chance," Johnson Houghton said. "We've only got a little bit to make up on Allied Forces and there are question marks about the three-year-olds. So far when they have met the older horses they haven't done so well. Entrepreneur looked a jolly good horse early on but he's hard to weigh up now, while that race at Doncaster when Revoque beat Bahhare is also difficult to weigh up."

Centre Stalls's most recent effort was a third behind Russian Revival and Hidden Meadow in a Listed event last week. "I was very pleased with him because he needed the race and seven furlongs is too sharp for him," the trainer reported. "It was just what he wanted."

Punters, however, did not want Centre Stalls yesterday. They seemed rather more interested in Allied Forces, whose jockey has a useful record at this meeting. Frankie Dettori's mount is down to 9-2 with Ladbrokes, from a starting point of 8-1 when the firm announced their prices on Monday.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES (Ascot, Saturday): Ladbrokes: 7-4 Revoque, 9-4 Entrepreneur, 9-2 Allied Forces, 5-1 Bahhare, 10-1 Centre Stalls, 16-1 Air Express, 20-1 Bijou D'Inde, 25-1 Faithful Son & Rebecca Sharp; William Hill: 9-4 Entrepreneur & Revoque, 5-1 Allied Forces, 11-2 Bahhare, 8-1 Centre Stalls, 14-1 Air Express, 16-1 Bijou D'Inde, Faithful Son & Rebecca Sharp.