Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed

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The Independent Online

When Mark Johnston thinks about the very early days of All-Weather racing, the first image that comes to mind is the antiquated weighing room at Southwell. He chuckles at the memory, but it could be pretty depressing. And All-Weather? Well, yes, as long as you didn't include fog, strong winds, floods or the wrong kind of frost. But Johnston also remembers his enthusiasm for a development in the sport many of the traditionalists treated with disdain; a sideshow for the needy and the greedy, often played out in front of just a handful of shivering die-hards.

It was back in 1989 that the All-Weather era began in Britain, when the young Scot was a new kid in Middleham's famous old racing town, a qualified vet determined to make a success of his own fresh enterprise.

Now, 25 years on, everything is different. In that time, Johnston has become one of the most successful Flat trainers ever, the first to send out more than 200 winners in a season (in 2009), a feat he has since repeated three times. The pictures on the walls at Kingsley House are of Classic winners, champion stayers and leading juveniles. Back in '89 it was Mark, his wife Deirdre, fewer than 30 horses and under a dozen staff. Now it's 220 horses in three yards within a 270-acre complex staffed by 135.

It has been a rougher ride for All-Weather racing, but in its 25th year, the scruffy cousin is now just about accepted as part of the family as Lingfield stages its first million-pound Championship Day on Friday, the richest card of its type in Europe.

Johnston says he became less enamoured with the new branch of the sport after that initial enthusiasm – calling it "a programme of dross" – but his concern has always been the quality of racing rather than an obsession with grass.

"It's not the surface, it's the prize money. Put on better-class racing and the good horses will come. This Lingfield venture wouldn't have worked overall without big prize money. I do feel a bit duped with the qualifiers, which were at the minimum level they could be, but it's the first attempt at a good initiative."

Lingfield's card – comprising one £50k race, five £150k races, signing off with the £200k "Classic" and featuring 29 horses rated 100-plus – is a far cry from the sellers and auctions usually associated with standard sand fare. What is missing is the stamp of approval necessary for complete acceptance: terrestrial TV coverage (Friday's meeting is covered by At The Races).

Staging any meeting on Good Friday has been contentious, too. This has traditionally been one of racing's few days off and there were also some objections on religious grounds when the British Horseracing Authority gave the go-ahead to race on a "significant leisure day".

Good Friday has instead become established as the date when the stable doors of Middleham and Lambourn are thrown wide to the public for their hugely popular Open Days and if the weather stays fine, there's a good chance there will be more people at these attractions than there will be at Lingfield or Musselburgh, the other venue to take up the BHA's invitation.

Johnston himself is so torn between the two events that earlier this week he was making plans to fly back to Middleham from Newmarket early this morning to spend a couple of hours at the Open Day, before flying straight back to Lingfield.

"Deirdre thinks I'm mad and it will be very expensive, but I do think these Open Days are so important," says Johnston. "The people who come, often with young families that are the next generation of racegoers, don't just see the horses as betting shop fodder, they see much more than that. A lot of work goes into these things, staff give up their free time to help out, but it's extremely worthwhile."

Those beautiful beasts not being admired and petted in their Wensleydale home will include a Lingfield raiding party who will be providing betting shop fodder. Kingsley House – motto: "Always Trying" – has always enjoyed a loyal punter following.

Unsurprisingly, Johnston has already accumulated enough wins in the series qualifiers to wrap up the top trainers' award before the finale gets under way, but landing one of this afternoon's huge prizes is the main objective.

And he has some good chances. Marshgate Lane receives a favourable mention in the "Classic", while Johnston suspects that Lady Frances will outrun her rating in the three-year-old seven-furlong event.

But he feels his biggest shot at a big pot is in the Marathon: "We have a strong hand. Hunting Ground is proven over two miles and I can see why Joe Fanning has opted to ride him. But Blue Wave is a very good horse and I could quite easily see him winning."

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