Can Johnson come of age at Aintree?

Last Updated 27 Feb 2020 | Commercial content | 18+
native River Cheltenham 2018

FILE PHOTO: Horse Racing – Cheltenham Festival – Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham, Britain – March 16, 2018 Richard Johnson on Native River celebrates after winning the 15.30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers/File Photo/Ritzau Scanpix

Richard Johnson has endured more than his fair share of Aintree heartache but could the champion jockey finally come of age in 2020?

It was 21 that was once the age at which a person was said to come of age, the long-serving jumps jockey might hope it will be the number at which his Aintree education was completed.

Patience already a virtue

Johnson has now ridden 21 times in the Randox Health Grand National, a record tally. Of course it therefore follows on that nobody has ridden as many times in the great race without winning.

Johnson, now 43, has already demonstrated his remarkable patience in his racing career.

For many years he was commonly known as the perennial runner-up behind his great friend and weighing room rival, AP McCoy.

The latter was crowned champion jockey on 20 occasions, with Johnson routinely chasing him home. They sat side-by-side as pals in the weighing room but the freak-like nature of McCoy meant that Johnson could never shift his colours from the peg of being champion.

When McCoy finally called time on his career, Johnson was there to succeed him and become a deserving champion in his own right. He has won the Jockeys’ Championship in each of four years since McCoy retired.

Hughes ready to pounce

A broken arm at Exeter last month meant Johnson’s title ambitions were seemingly fractured too.

Brian Hughes led by three at the time and has since pulled clear to the tune of 19. It could have been plenty more, but the recent weather has led to a lot of racing being postponed.

As is the wont of a jockey, Johnson is wasting no time getting back, defying the expected recovery time of a ‘normal person’.

Just over four weeks from his fall at Exeter, he’s been given the all-clear to return and is setting his sights on making Hughes work hard to become champion.

“I got the all-clear [on Monday] afternoon, from the BHA doctor Jerry Hill,” Johnson said. “Depending on what runs where, fingers crossed I’ll be back on Thursday.”

“It is nice to have actually got the green light off the people you know you have to – and to hear they are happy I’m ready to get back to it, to resume normal service.

“I’ll just be looking for that first winner back, to start with. Realistically, I know I’m still going to be up against it [to catch Hughes],” he added.

“But there is that chance. So whether you are riding a 50-1 shot or going for the championship, as long you have that chance, I like to feel I have an opportunity.”

Aintree silver lining perhaps

Reeling in Hughes, the north’s leading rider, won’t be easy. Time is against Johnson and his title rival enjoys plenty goodwill too, ensuring he’ll get the support he needs to earn that maiden title.

It would be churlish to write the champion off but, equally so, not to acknowledge he needs sustained brilliant and good fortune to pull this one off.

Come April 4th at Aintree and Johnson will bid to make it 22nd time of asking in the Randox Health Grand National.

Ten times he’s fallen, unseated or been refused in the National, while his mounts have failed to get around the 4m2f journey on five more occasions.

Twice he has finished second-best, on board What’s Up Boys in 2002 and 12 years later on the formidable Balthazar King.

If Johnson is to surrender his jockeys’ crown this season, he’ll feel the broken arm suffered at Exeter in January was a key factor.

If he’s to deal in the currency of compensation then, surely, a nap hand at Aintree in April would be the richness he deserves.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when McCoy’s labour of love in the National was finally rewarded with Don’t Push It in 2010, it would be a similar outpouring should his long-time friend and rival end the streak.

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