Johnston forges on towards new frontiers with second 200 tally
Trainer on track to break record for number of Flat winners for a season amid hype surrounding title races
Entertaining as it was to see Richard Hughes pursue Paul Hanagan to his own backyard, the most instructive numbers game at Hamilton yesterday had nothing to do with jockeys. For if the trainers' championship were settled in the same way as the one being contested by these two, then Mark Johnston's 199th and 200th winners of the campaign would have confirmed him as firmly on course for the eighth title of his career.
In fairness, Johnston had himself made prize-money his defining priority for the season, feeling that an aggregate of £2.5m would represent a job well done for his patrons in these austere times. He would, moreover, have to raise the bar into the numerical stratosphere to surpass his unprecedented achievement last year when he became the first Flat trainer to saddle 200 winners. The fact that he now looks set to do so, with relatively little fanfare, suggests a culpable failure on the Turf to comprehend and salute one of the greatest careers in its long history. New records for Johnston have perhaps become so routine that they are almost taken for granted.
No doubt his relish for heterodoxy has cost him the affection of some in the sport's establishment, while the systematic nature of his operation – an intelligent delegation of responsibility back at Middleham and a ruthless tactical emphasis on fitness on the track – may blind sentimentalists to his flair.
Funnily enough, the trainer who reached equivalent horizons over jumps could identify with all of that. And should Johnston some day eclipse even that all-comers' record of 243 winners, then Martin Pipe himself would perhaps recognise his worth, sooner than many others.
The issue is somewhat confused by the fact that the Flat trainers' championship, nowadays computed over 12 months, officially runs from the end of the turf season in early November rather than January 1. Johnston was always irritated by the previous system, which ran in parallel with the jockeys' title from March to November, and is simply grateful that due account is now taken of the reality that a racing stable functions 365 days a year.
There are sound reasons, incidentally, for persevering with the traditional span of the jockeys' title race. It is only humane to permit Hanagan and Hughes to reintroduce themselves to their wives and children during the all-weather campaign.
Anyhow, Johnston's tally for the calendar year now stands at 188, so he has over three months to beat his tally of 216 in 2010. He has until 6 November to get from 200 in the championship past 221, his final score last time. More pertinently, he must accumulate nearly £250,000 more in prize-money to meet his own target.
Whatever happens, the Scotsman merits a toast for yesterday's milestone, which could hardly have been carved in more fitting fashion. Tobernea, the colt who brought up the double- century, did so with a trademark Johnston performance. Ridden from the front by Joe Fanning, he came off the bridle three furlongs out, was headed by a rival apparently going better, but rallied to regain the lead and then held another late challenge by a head.
No less characteristic, it must be said, was the way Hughes produced a suggestive vignette of how he might fare on Hanagan's "home" circuit. It was only a claimer, admittedly, but a delighted slap down his mount's neck passing the post left no doubt that Hughes felt his journey north justified. He had restrained Fujin Dancer on the bridle until deep inside the final furlong, comically shadowing Hanagan as his rival toiled on the hot favourite, and then produced the winner to score by a neck.
Hanagan had the last laugh, winning the final race for Jeremy Noseda and so preserving a lead of 16 at the top of the table. The fact that Hughes had ridden a winner for a Yorkshire yard, and Hanagan for a Newmarket one, accurately reflects that a maiden championship for either would be warmly received throughout the game. Unmistakably, however, there would be particular satisfaction on the northern circuit, were Hanagan to become the first champion based there since Kevin Darley in 2000, and only the second since 1905. Yesterday's winner, incidentally, means that Hanagan is already level with Darley's total of 155.
When it comes to restoring pride to the North, however, one man stands alone for his epoch-making accomplishments over the past couple of decades. Johnston will admittedly find it harder to gild his career with more Group One success, now that he has pragmatically accepted a role developing Maktoum stock for Godolphin. And other trainers – such as Hanagan's boss, Richard Fahey – have followed impressively in his slipstream. But Johnston has long since transcended any sense that his deeds might be plotted by a compass. He does not head north, south, east or west, only onwards.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Edinburgh Knight (5.30 Kempton)
Supported here last month and was going well when challenging in the straight but not seeing it out. Dropped in trip now.
Point Out (5.00 Kempton)
Long absence since handicap debut in July implies reasons for disappointing then. Form of his stable suggests he will show his true colours today.
One to watch:
Bold Marc (Mrs K Burke) was backed at Pontefract last week but was unlucky, being hampered at a crucial stage.
Where the money is going:
Theola is 16-1 from 20-1 with William Hill for the Totesport Cesarewitch.
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