It’s Grand National week, and four-time Champion Jockey and the recently retired Richard Johnson discusses the big meeting at Aintree, which was lost last year to the coronavirus pandemic.
A Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase winning pilot, it was only the National that was the final piece of the puzzle for Johnson in what has been an astonishing career in the saddle. Second twice in the race, through Balthazar King in 2014 and What’s Up Boys in 2002, Johnson confirmed that he will not opt for another tilt at the race, following his retirement with immediate effect at Newton Abbot on Saturday.
Richard’s career started at his local track, Hereford, when he rode his first winner back in 1994 before going onto be crowned champion conditional the following campaign. Since then, he has recorded just south of 4,000 victories in the plate – currently claiming just under 80 for the 20/21 season.
The likes of Adrimel, Sporting John and Thyme Hill gave the multiple Grade One victor more top-level success since the turn of the new season back in May.
Johnson speaks to aintree.co.uk about Native River’s potential racecourse return, an update on Thyme Hill after his absence from the Cheltenham Festival and what the Grand National means to him.
We often see you post videos and images on social media of the retired legend Menorah, how has he settled in with the family on your farm in Hereford?
Menorah is in great form at home. He’s settled really well into life as a family pet rather than a racehorse, and he gives us all great fun – even the children ride him regularly!
If you had the choice to sit on any horse for this season’s renewal of the National, who would you side with?
The obvious horse that I think every jockey would want to ride is Cloth Cap. He’s done nothing wrong this year and he was very impressive in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury earlier in the season. He then looked in great form at Kelso the other day and Jonjo O’Neill’s horses are in great form too.
Native River looks set for a real fan’s favourite clash with two-time Grand National winner Tiger Roll. How has he come out of the race at Cheltenham as he returns to the track where you first rode him to victory, now partnered by Jonjo O’Neill Jr?
Native River turns up in the Bowl for a race with Tiger Roll and he has come out of the Gold Cup really well when finishing a good fourth, best of the British. Hopefully, he can go well at a track that he loves where he won his Grade One novice chase and this was the first course I rode him at, and he always performs well here so fingers crossed he goes well under Jonjo.
We sadly didn’t get to see Thyme Hill at the Festival. Is he still on course to run on Merseyside and did the Stayers’ Hurdle change your view on what role he has to play in the three-mile hurdle division?
Thyme Hill is in good form now. It was obviously disappointing to miss the Stayers’ Hurdle with him due to a small injury but he’s absolutely fine now, and fingers crossed he turns up for the three-mile race here with Tom O’Brien set to ride. I’m not sure what else runs, but I think it’ll take a good one to beat him.
Remarkably, you rode a mammoth 235 winners in the 2015/16 season. When you look back on your career, which single moment or achievement stands out most to you?
Being champion jockey was the most important part of my career. Being crowed and lifting the trophy at Sandown after the first win was what I’d always dreamed of doing.
Is there a young jockey, perhaps still a conditional, who has impressed you in the early stages of their career and is one to watch out for in the years to come?
I think Ben Jones is an up-and-coming conditional that people should watch out for. He’s very, very strong and rides very well, and is of course based with Phillip Hobbs.
On a similar topic, is there a horse that you think racegoers should watch out for next season?
I think Kalooki is a good horse of Phillip Hobbs’ who has been a decent novice chaser this year, but I’m sure he will improve again for another summer’s grass and I think he’ll be a very exciting horse for next season.
In a few words, can you sum up the uniqueness of The Grand National and why it is so popular with people both inside and outside of the sport?
The Grand National is probably the biggest race in jump racing all over the world. It’s the race that everybody knows and anyone that asks you about jump racing and National Hunt, the Grand National is the race you immediately think of.
Do you have any other interests outside of racing? What do the Johnson family do when you get a rare day off?
On a day off, we normally spend time at home as a family between ponies, quad bikes and the farm, there is always plenty to do. I hope everyone enjoys the National this year, and good luck!