Racing: Riders locked in folklore

Cheltenham Festival: The ground is common as Johnson and Thornton follow each other's fortunes
Click to follow
THE BEMUSEMENT in the BBC's racing unit was understandable and audible. Where, Clare Balding voiced the question of a thousand viewers, had that one come from? A narrowly fought finish in an unspectacular opening race at Haydock Park one Saturday had been rudely shattered by a flying thunderbolt launched from goodness know's where. The UFO was subsequently identified as Mouse Bird and his jockey, Richard Johnson, who, not for the first time in a precocious career, had produced his best for the cameras.

For much of the race, Mouse Bird and Johnson had been having their own private conversation. Something along the lines of: "Are we going to race today, old chap?" "Not sure, tell you in a minute." David Gandolfo, the trainer, had mused beforehand that it was a contest between two strong minds. The weighing-room proclaimed Mouse Bird the winner of that one. But to the viewer, it seemed another spectacular notch on the belt of a brilliant new talent.

In the Clerk of the Course's ante-room at Towcester last week, Johnson still laughs at his good fortune. On a spare ride, he had been deemed a genius. "He's got his own ideas about racing and if he's not enjoying himself, there's not much you can do. First half of the race he wasn't really interested, but luckily there is a long run-in at Haydock and even though we were 25 lengths behind the leaders, he could see they were stopping. He knew where the winning post was and he decided he was going to do as little as possible to win the race. A lot more luck than anything, but it was nice to get the credit, even if it's not due." The explanation is given with a humility born of supreme confidence.

Somewhere in a weighing-room that day, another young Englishman would have been muttering to himself. A phrase like "jammy git" might have crossed the lips of Robert Thornton, who identified the fresh-faced young kid as a potential rival one school holiday at David Nicholson's yard and has had no reason to revise his opinion now that his good mate and stablemate is tilting for his first jockeys' title. Johnson and Thornton - "Chocolate" in weighing-room parlance - have played an elaborate game of grandmother's footsteps in their rise to prominence.

Johnson is 21, Thornton 20, separate by a year and a week. Both left school early to pursue glory at Nicholson's stable, a school of strong guidance and hard knocks, both have been amateur and conditional champions, both learned their craft with the help of a grand old hunter-chaser called Rusty Bridge, owned by Johnson's permit-training mother. Both come from good country stock, have horses in their blood and are forcing their elders to dig deep. Neither gives much quarter nor much thought to failure. They even get in trouble together. A ding-dong from the second last at Uttoxeter last season brought both a week's suspension for misuse of the whip. "We ended up going on holiday together," Thornton recalls.

Of the two, Johnson has enjoyed the bigger of the breaks so far. Now acknowledged leading jockey to Nicholson, he has risen in the shadow of the astonishing Tony McCoy, yet has established a prodigious statistical pedigree of his own: the youngest jockey to ride 100 winners in a season, the youngest to ride a century of winners in three consecutive seasons, a feat completed last week. Being jocked off a Gold Cup winner (Mr Mulligan) and a National winner (Lord Gyllene) in the same season is a less enviable credit. Racing is still suspicious of youth and, to this day, he still does not know why the connections of Lord Gyllene, without a word of apology or explanation, chose Tony Dobbin. Still, no one is more acutely aware than Johnson that he has short-circuited the traditionally lengthy apprenticeship.

"It's a one in a million chance to do what I've done so quickly," he says. "Five or six years ago, I was sitting at school telling my careers master I wanted to be like Richard Dunwoody. Then, at the end of last season, I looked at the jockeys' table and I'm a place above him. It happened without me really knowing." Thornton knew. "I noticed him [Johnson] very early on, when we were 13 or 14. I thought `he's going to be a problem to me, this one'. But I look up to him, he's a great help." The compliments are returned. "He's very strong, the same as me," Johnson says. "Because he's been brought up around ponies, he's a great horseman."

Thornton thinks his style is less overtly energetic than Johnson's. His first ride for Nicholson was at Chepstow. The owners had enjoyed a punt, and the Duke had galloped down the paddock to remind his young charge "not to mess about if the horse had a chance". Or words to that effect. Thornton took the instructions to heart and won by 25 lengths. "The Duke, he likes you to be keen, wants you to make him notice you." So Thornton would stay up late, using the stable's Prestel service to find rides and badger trainers. Lying a bit about his experience, if necessary.

This season, his first as a full pro, a quiet pre-Christmas spell ended with a spectacular televised treble at Kempton and a renewal of rave notices. Though losing plum Festival rides on Flagship Uberalles and Call Equiname, Thornton will renew his partnership with King Lucifer and Far and Near, his two Festival winners. Johnson prays for rain to aid the chances of Escartefigue in the Gold Cup and has high hopes for Step On Eyre in the William Hill National Hunt Handicap Chase. He has yet to savour the thrill of a Festival winner, an omission in his expanding cv that Thornton is not slow to highlight. "Two-nil to me at the moment," he says.

Another little pinprick in a duel which could spread far into the next millennium and far beyond the rolling hills of Prestbury Park this week.