As it so often does, for jump jockeys above all, the news that Richard Johnson had decided to hang up his boots came out of the blue. Some riders wake up one morning and realise they cannot face the physical demands for even one more afternoon. In Johnson’s case, it arrived after the second-most successful jump jockey of all time had partnered six losers at Newton Abbot on Saturday – five days before the start of the Grand National meeting at Aintree and a week before the National itself, one of the few big races in Britain to elude him over 28 seasons in the saddle.
Brother Tedd, who finished third of six runners, was the final ride both of Johnson’s career and a final campaign, shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, which saw him fail to reach three figures for winners for the first time in a quarter of a century. He was Britain’s champion jockey four times but would surely have racked up a dozen titles or more had he not spent two decades riding against Tony McCoy, the only rider apart from Johnson to have ridden 3,000 winners.
McCoy, of course, eventually reached 4,000 wins, but while Johnson retires just over 150 winners short of that milestone, he partnered twice as many winners as Barry Geraghty, who is fourth on the all-time list and retired in 2020 with 1,920 victories in Britain and Ireland. Johnson is also more than 1,000 winners in front of Ruby Walsh (2,767), the third-most successful National Hunt rider, who retired two years ago.
Johnson also rode a total of 23 winners at the Cheltenham Festival, with his first victory at the sport’s showpiece meeting arriving on Anzum in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999.
He rode Looks Like Trouble to win the Gold Cup a year later, and added another success in chasing’s blue riband event on Native River in 2018 after a memorable duel with Might Bite and Nico de Boinville. Having won the Champion Chase in 2002 on Flagship Uberalles, he completed his set of the four biggest races at the Festival when the hugely popular grey Rooster Booster landed the Champion Hurdle in 2003.
In a statement released shortly after his final race, Johnson said he had been “extraordinarily lucky to have ridden so many wonderful horses, and for so many incredible trainers and owners”.
He continued: “It was particularly important to me to finish on one for Philip and Sarah Hobbs who, like Henry Daly, have supported me for over 20 years. I’ll never be able to articulate what their loyalty has meant to me.
“There are so many people to thank who have been part of my journey. Without ‘the Duke’ and Dinah Nicholson and their remarkable staff, I’d never have got that first leg up. Noel Chance, Peter Bowen and Milton Bradley, thank you for putting your trust in me when I was starting out. Those were the days that shaped my career, with so many people who remain lifelong friends.
“The truth is there are simply too many people to thank on an individual basis, but you know who you are and what you mean to me.”
Johnson’s statement concluded: “To all horse racing fans who we have missed so much this year on our racecourses, thank you for every cheer, every shout of encouragement, it’s given me enormous strength over the years. I am so very grateful to you all.”
McCoy was quick to pay tribute to his former weighing-room rival. “Sometimes those who challenge us the most teach us the best,” he said on Twitter. “You did both to me for over 20 years – I will be forever grateful to you, thanks buddy. When you go home tonight, look in the mirror you’ll see what a champion looks like. Enjoy your retirement.”