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Mark Johnston has been welcoming jockeys from Asia to his North Yorkshire stables since the mid-1990s.
Mark Johnston recalls with warm amusement the day Eddy Lai failed to understand his riding instructions and unwittingly unlocked the potential of a future Group 1 winner.
It was at Sandown in July 1998 and the apprentice jockey on a working summer from Hong Kong was handed the reins to Yavana’s Pace, a six-year-old handicapper priced up at 20-1 for the 10-furlong Hong Kong Jockey Club Trophy Handicap. The gelding was racing for Johnston – its third trainer – for only the third time and had won the start before under a classic Darryl Holland hold-up ride.
“The horse had a reputation from its previous trainer that it mustn’t hit the front too soon, it had to be covered up and produced late,” Johnston tells the Report.
“Eddy’s English was very poor at the time, so he didn’t understand much of what we were telling him before the race but in the end it didn’t matter. As soon as the cutaway came early in the straight, he burst through, went clear and won. That all changed the way we raced Yavana’s Pace thereafter and to great effect.”
Yavana’s Pace evolved from that time on to being a high-class horse whose wins came from tracking the pace and kicking early, or making the running, as he did when he landed a deserved Group 1 victory at Cologne four years later at the age of 10.
Eddy Lai celebrates after winning on Oriental at Happy Valley Racecourse on December 8, 2004. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)
Lai was the second Hong Kong apprentice Johnston welcomed to his Middleham stables, a year after the path-finding Stanley Chin’s second summertime working ‘holiday’.
Since then, Vincent Ho has made his way from Sha Tin to Wensleydale to experience the famous high moor and Johnston’s efficient factory-sized but cottage-feel operation spread across three yards – Kingsley House Stables, Warwick House Stables and the purpose-built Kingsley Park – which recently extended its British record haul of wins beyond 5,000.
Chin arrived in 1996 thanks to a Ritz Club prize attached to the Hong Kong apprentice championship he had just won. The young jockey had two winners from nine rides that summer and returned a year later to notch four wins from 23 rides. Lai rode two winners from five rides and Vincent Ho’s two summers in 2018 and 2019 yielded one win from five mounts the first year and six from 22 the second.
“They approach us,” says Johnston. “We’re not going looking for them to come because there’s nothing in it particularly for us; we’re not going out to find a jockey from India or Hong Kong to race them in the UK. In the case of Hong Kong, there would be nothing to attract them to come here (beyond a short summer stint) when you look at what they can earn over there.”
This summer, Neeraj Rawal is the overseas rider benefiting from Johnston’s willingness to welcome eager and proficient off-shore talent. He has two wins from eight mounts.
“This is the first time we’ve had a jockey from India and it wouldn’t have occurred to try and look for a jockey in India to bring to Britain, with all due respect to Indian racing,” Johnston continues. “But, at the same time, I thought it was a great exercise for us; we have a number of Indian staff and it’s exciting for them to see a leading Indian jockey come in and work alongside them, and race in the UK.
“And the whole British racing industry has a large number of Indian staff, so I think it’s great for British racing to bring in an Indian jockey and give him a chance to show what he can do.”
Neeraj Rawal is undertaking a spell at Mark Johnston's stables. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
Neeraj Rawal has ridden two winners already for Charlie and Mark Johnston's stables. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
Johnston says he is not conscious – ‘maybe a little bit’ – of the perception that he will give foreign-based jockeys opportunities. But that reputation is set, aided further by the Brazilian Silvestre de Sousa’s rise from tough and talented northern England-based rider to British champion on the back of Johnston’s support.
Rawal was aware of the opportunities given at Johnston’s stable and says he thought a summer with the trainer ‘would be the right opportunity’. Chin can see why and says the Scotsman’s support was ‘a big help’ to his career; Ho says he was certainly ‘inspired’ by his time in Middleham.
The Johnston way is about hard work. Just as his horses must do it tough, each time they go up the steep gallops on Middleham Moor, so an overseas jockey must prove themselves to earn the rewards of their efforts, riding four lots each morning then back to the stables. But that all helps them quickly become part of the Johnston Racing team.
“He really trusts his jockeys,” says Ho.
“Of course, his horses and his team did a really good job to get them fit and put them in the right race, but with that I could trust my feelings. With the success that came, I had a lot more confidence in trusting myself. That helped me find out that riding with a direct feeling in the race is usually the right decision, rather than riding strictly to set instructions.
He (Johnston) really trusts his jockeys.
“After that first summer at Mr Johnston’s, that’s when I came back to Hong Kong and made the most significant improvement.”
Ho returned home after his 2019 summer in North Yorkshire to gain greater fame in partnership with Hong Kong’s current champion, Golden Sixty, while Lai rode for a further 20 years in Hong Kong.
Mark Johnston has prepared more winners than any other British trainer. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Vincent Ho has formed a near unbeatable partnership with Golden Sixty. (Photo by HKJC)
Chin has clear memories of his spells in Middleham: sage advice from Johnston’s stable mainstay Bobby Elliott; riding out with Jason Weaver; his first British winner, Desert Frolic at Carlisle for Maktoum Al Maktoum.
“I was the first Hong Kong jockey to win in Maktoum colours since Tony Cruz,” he says. “It was a big help to my reputation and also to my experience.”
It was a big help to my reputation and also to my experience.
Chin, though, took a regretful path thereafter. The current Macau-based trainer served a three and a half-year prison sentence for his part in a Hong Kong race fixing scheme. But after his release in 2002, Aidan O’Brien gave him a career lifeline with a job as a work rider at Ballydoyle and then Johnston reached out with a generous offer.
“His horses were about to leave for the Dubai carnival,” Chin recalls. “He said, ‘Come and ride for us, these are the horses you’ll be riding in Dubai, it’ll be a new experience for you.’ I got my licence in Britain and it was a big support for a Chinese jockey to ride in Dubai, it was a very good experience.”
Johnston’s team included Scott’s View: Chin won two handicaps on him and then ran third in the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic. When he returned to England, he was entrusted to ride the stable’s soon-to-be champion two-year-old, Shamardal, in his regular morning exercise.
Johnston says each Hong Kong rider was already ‘very good’ when they arrived at his yard, and has high praise for the apprentice school there: Chin was ‘fantastic as an apprentice’, Ho was ‘already very polished’ and Lai ‘was very good as well’. His challenge was finding rides so that each could make the most of their time in Britain. He faces the same challenge with Rawal.
“Getting him started was difficult; we had to do it on our own horses. It’s hard to sell the idea of having an Indian jockey, however successful he’s been, to owners,” he says.
“He’s mostly on horses owned by partnerships I control but we’ve had a number of owners who’ve said they’d be happy for him to ride their horses, so hopefully he’ll get a chance of a few more rides before he goes.”
Stanley Chin and Scott's View land The Magnolia Stakes in 2004 for Mark Johnston. (Photo by Julian Herbert/Getty Images)
As Rawal moves towards his return to Mumbai, he is unequivocal that ‘Mr Johnston was the right go-to person.’
Johnston will wish him well and no doubt welcome him back again. But he has the immediate business of a busy autumn schedule and the roster of jockeys he uses year-round – Rawal is just one of 19 riders he utilised on his 63 runners in the last 10 days of August – and, with close-on 200 horses as well, that leaves scant time to keep tabs on any riders on distant shores.
“I’m probably guilty of being so busy here that I’m not getting out and seeing what’s going on in other stables, in other countries,” he admits. “I don’t have time to follow international racing but it’s great to build bridges because you never know what the future is going to bring.”
Whatever is in store, the future will probably include a continuation of the Johnston summer camp, giving opportunities to a talented overseas rider or two.
Neeraj Rawal blazing a trail for Indian jockeys
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