Richard Johnson talks big-name horse ownership ahead of Grand National

Richard Johnson. Image By Citrus Zest - Own work, Public Domain,

Speaking to BoyleSports, who offer the latest Grand National Betting, four-time Champion Jockey Richard Johnson has praised the involvement of big-name horse ownership from the world of football.

Despite being one of the most successful jumps jockeys of the 21st Century, Johnson never won the Grand National. He holds the record for the most rides without a winner, finishing as a runner-up in 2002 and 2014, and has also given his tips for the race this Saturday.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s record-breaking purchase Caldwell Potter is expected to run on Grand National Day in the Mersey Novice Hurdle, while Harry Redknapp’s horse Shake’emuparry could be running in the National itself.

What are your thoughts on this year’s race, particularly with 28 Irish runners and just six Brits?

“Compared to some previous years, it will have a very heavily Irish feeling to it. At the moment, they have a lot of very, very good horses, and you want the best horses to turn out for the Grand National.

“You don’t want to have 80% English horses if they’re not the best, you want the best horses to turn out for the spectacle. 

“It is a bit frustrating and disappointing that there’s not more English horses with a real chance, but that’s the thing about competitive sport. You want the best to turn up to try and compete for that big prize.

Who are your tips for this year?

“My only worry for Corach Rambler is, at 4/1 he is very short. Richard Scudamore has told me plenty of times that he is a horse who wants the ground not being too testing.

“I know he ran very well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but that, for me, would be a worry backing that kind of horse.He’s not an 8/1 shot, being 4/1 is very short for this kind of handicap race really.

“He’s gone up a lot in weight this year (13 pounds) and has shown in the Gold Cup that he is in very good form, and I’m sure he will run a very good race. However, the Gold Cup might have taken a little bit out of him as well- that’s always a worry when you run a race like that 

“It could just take the edge off him, the Gold Cup is a slightly harder race. Lucinda Russell’s horses do tend to come into their own in the spring and that’s a positive, but I do just feel that at 4/1 he is very short.

“In terms of seeking value, Vanillier for Gavin Cromwell has the right profile for the race and is going the right way. I think he’s been trained specifically for Aintree. 

“Out of the British horses, Kitty’s Light looks good and I’m sure this will have been the objective since he won the Scottish Grand National last year. Christian Williams’ horses are in far better form now than they were earlier this year, however, he has been given 10-6 in weight and the very soft ground could be an issue. 

“Minella Indo ran okay in the cross country race at Cheltenham in December, but I thought it was a little bit disappointing and he is slightly fancied. 

“Then, you’ve got horses like Limerick Lace, who is probably off a really good weight if she stays. Again, I would be slightly concerned if she can get the trim – she could still potentially be very well handicapped.

“However, you’re almost taking her stamina in trust from connections rather than based on what she has done on a racecourse.

“The ground is going to be a really key factor in this race. That’s going to be one thing that you are considering, whatever the weather does between now and then it’s still going to be soft ground regardless and going to be very, very testing.

“I couldn’t consider backing a horse where there are any doubts over stamina as a result.

“Tom Ellis’ Latenightpass, I thought that horse could run very well and I think he will handle the soft ground, will stay well and has got a really good racing weight for the race. As an each-way bet, I thought that would run very, very well.

“Having won over fences before, even though the fences have changed, that experience could count for a lot and make a real difference.”

Sir Alex Ferguson’s record-breaking Caldwell Potter is running on Grand National day at Aintree in the Mersey Novices Hurdle. Does he look too expensive?

“People say that it’s crazy paying that much for a jumper, but he was a Grade One performer already. Sadly, everyone knocks it when someone pays that kind of money for a horse and the same happens when we get Irish winners.

“In Britain, we need to be paying that much in order to compete with the amount of Irish winners at present – you need your Sir Alex Ferguson’s, your Ged Mason’s. We need those owners to find that class of horse to compete in the Grade Ones, we should be delighted.

“We should celebrate the fact that these figures want to be involved in our sport, football is the sport he was amazing in, but he loves his racing.

“It’s great to see those figures around the sport, it’s great to generate media interest to lift our sport and will encourage more similar figures into the world of racing.

“We should be delighted that he has bought the horse, otherwise he would have stayed in Ireland and likely been beating us.”

What do you make of Caldwell Potter’s chances?

“It’ll be interesting to see, I think Paul Nicholls will be thinking it’s a good chance to give him a run. When you change countries, it’s quite hard for horses to fit straight into a new regime.

“I think he will run really well, but I just wonder whether it will be hard for him to perform to the required level to win the race. He is a very good horse, and he has the pedigree to go with it that suggests in the future he is going to be a really good chaser.

“I’m delighted that they have got him, and he’s a horse that we will hopefully be talking about for years to come.”

What about Harry Redknapp as well, with Shakem Up’Arry?

“Harry Redknapp had an amazing Cheltenham, with a couple of horses running really well. To have characters like that, even if he was a successful football manager, he is a lovely person as well.

“You always get people enjoying his company. We are all delighted that he is involved, but also the fact that he is doing well.”

Are there any regrets about your own Grand National experiences, having never won despite considerable success away from Aintree?

“Yeah there are always regrets over races you don’t win, when you get beat you always think ‘could I have done something different?’

“At the end of the day, if you did it again, you would try and do something differently to try and get a different result. 

“In 2002, What’s Up Boys just got collared in the last 50 yards of the race, being beaten by Bindaree, and that was a bit heart-wrenching because in my head I’d won it. I got to the elbow and thought ‘I’m going to win the Grand National.

“Then, in 2014, Balthazar King was almost the opposite, going to the last AP (McCoy) was on my outside. Pineu De Re was just in front of us and he was notorious for stopping in front, as well as being a bit lairy.

“I was looking at AP, thinking he might have a bit more left. Then, I jumped the last fence and I couldn’t get any closer to Leighton (Aspell) and Pineau De Re, so it didn’t go quite to plan!

“When you look back at it, actually, both horses ran their hearts out and on the day just weren’t quite good enough to win. You always think of what might have happened.”

Would you say that the Grand National is the one thing truly lacking from your CV?

Yes, not winning the Grand National is my biggest regret, that and King George V at Kempton. But, if you speak to a non-racing person, the Grand National is the most famous horse race.

“When I speak to a non-racing person, they ask if I have ever ridden in it and I say, well yes. But I hold the record for the most losing attempts – it would have been a lovely thing to have been able to do but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.”

How different is Grand National day for a jockey?

“It’s very different, in the morning of the race, if you turn any TV on they are talking about the Grand National. Whether it’s the sweepstake in the local office or the budgie who has picked out the last ten winners.

“It’s great, it’s a race which does get the whole nation behind it, both in positive and negative ways as well. It is that race where there’s a real atmosphere around, staying in Liverpool on the Friday night as well. 

“For the real racing purist, maybe Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle or Gold Cup may take precedence over Aintree, but for the general public, the Grand National is the one race which everyone can connect with.

“There’s a really happy atmosphere, Aintree has always felt really good. Cheltenham is a really serious meeting. Aintree has always been slightly different, it’s a month later, towards the end of the season and I think everyone is a bit more relaxed.

“Jockeys, trainers and owners all seem to be more relaxed and on slightly better form throughout the Festival.

“However, if you’re Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson this year in particular they might not be so relaxed as they are more concerned about where a win might come from!”

From a jockey’s perspective, are there any aspects of the race which you found particularly taxing or frustrating?

“I would agree with what Derek Fox said last week, it’s the build-up to the race which is particularly taxing. 

“There’s so much going on, when you get on the horse you just want to race. As soon as you get legged up, you just want to get to the start and go – you don’t really want to do the parade or you don’t want to be held at the start.

“You just want a clear run to the first fence, if you can jump the first well, then you can feel a bit more comfortable and more ready. Once you’ve cleared that, then you can relax, then you can breathe and the horse can get into its own rhythm.

“This year will be different as well, with slightly fewer runners and hopefully that will help the start. I know it’s only six fewer horses but that will hopefully really help the start of the race, so that I think as a jockey is a positive.

“You’ve got six fewer obstacles in front of you, or around you, to get in your way. If I could not be worrying about all of the horses around me, then I would have far more confidence in what my horse could do.

“If you’re thinking about – it’s the factors around you which you get more worried about. You can’t stop somebody falling in front of you, and bringing your horse down or you can’t stop a loose horse veering across you and wiping you out.

“To me, it was things which you can’t control which were the things that caused me concern when riding as a jockey in the race.”

How is the atmosphere in the weighing room on the day of the race?

“The major difference to other big races is, due to how much more media interest there is, in the Grand National, there is a really long time between the previous race and the main event. 

“You’ve got all different sorts of people, from the jokers who all they want to do is run around, pull peoples’ legs and cause chaos. Then you’ve got the professionals, those who are sitting quietly, studying the form and trying to figure out what is going to happen.

“Then, you’ve got some who are really excited with maybe their first run in the race or one of the favourites.If you’re not nervous before the Grand National, then you shouldn’t really be in the saddle.”

Who were the jockeys causing mischief before the race in your day?

“Matty Baxter was one, he caused chaos even if he wasn’t riding in the race – he’d be telling jokes and making you laugh, he couldn’t help himself.

“Nowadays, the likes of Henry Brooke – he’d be one who is always good value. Sam Twiston is another one who would be pulling peoples’ legs – you need that to break the silence and put a bit of fun into the situation.”

With the levels of interest, did you often bump into anyone famous during Grand National week?

“There were always footballers there, with Liverpool and Man United so close by – obviously, if they’re playing that day will determine if they can make it or not!

“You get a lot of people around, you might notice them when you’re walking in. There’s a really fun atmosphere around Aintree, particularly on the Saturday – they have worked really hard to build-up the three days.

“I think, when I started riding it was still a great and fun meeting but the quality wasn’t where it is today. You still had the Grand National, but the other races were just making up the numbers, nowadays the quality puts the event on a par with Cheltenham.”

What other races do you have your eye on, will it be a disappointment not to see Constitution Hill?

“With the quality of all the racing, it’s a shame that we won’t see him after he missed Cheltenham. Regardless, it’s great to see a lot of horses turning out post-Cheltenham, you’ve got proper Grade One horses turning out.

“Cheltenham doesn’t suit a lot of horses, which means that they can target Aintree instead where the course might be more in their favour. Many will miss Cheltenham if they don’t like an undulating track and Aintree is far flatter, being more suitable for certain horses.”

Feature image credit: By Citrus Zest – Own work, Public Domain.

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