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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
As the young trainer prepares for the Derby at Epsom next week, he reveals that Asian targets are part of his long-term ambitions.
The hawthorn are blooming in lower Wensleydale and the mid-morning birdsong is trilling towards the azure heavens; from out of the soft white blossoms a goldfinch darts, spooked by a small troupe of journalists, photographers and corporate content creators advancing along the hedgerow up a steep incline. Behind them is the stone farm cottage that is the administrative hub of Johnston Racing; the boss nowadays is Charlie Johnston, 32 years of age and very much in the early, blossoming spring of his career.
Up ahead is a 10-furlong strip watched over by a wooden viewing hut, perched high on the south side of the green dale, tucked beneath the famous Middleham Moor gallops, and observed by basking cattle and sheep with lambs at foot. The group climbs to the viewing platform, its wooden frame demanding a lick of Ronseal.
Mark Johnston arrives, canine companion in toe, and sits within the hut, windows open, to watch. There is small talk, and casual questioning from the ‘scribes’ about what the stable’s Derby hope Dubai Mile’s routine will be in the coming week. “That’s a question for Charlie,” he says, a gentle reminder that while he remains a big presence, he is no longer the licensed boss around here, but as assistant trainer he gives an insight as to what it might be, depending on what Charlie decides.
There is a light, cool breeze coming off the moor but the sun is warming as the first batch of horses passes on the other side of a trimmed hedge and white rail; then comes the next group and all eyes fix to Ahmad Al Shaikh’s 2,000 Guineas fifth, the second horse in line, striding through six furlongs of the rising ground under his work rider Emma Bedford. The eye-catching, white-marked chestnut will be the younger Johnston’s first Derby runner since he became the sole name on the trainer’s licence at the start of this year; Johnston senior posted a British record of more than 5,000 wins but never the Derby.
“I’m not going to be singing that hymn sheet,” says Johnston the younger, smiling. “I think I’d be a bit embarrassed after he tried for 30 years if we won it in the first year without his name on the licence, because I’m sure it would have been right up there with his aims and goals.”
Emma Bedford aboard Derby contender Dubai Mile. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Dubai Mile delivered Mark Johnston his 5,000th career win as a trainer when scoring at Kempton in 2022. (Photo by Andrew Redington)
But his father’s name has been a part of the race’s narrative plenty of times (he had the runner-up Dee Ex Bee five years ago) in the years since his G1 2,000 Guineas winner Mister Baileys put on a thrilling, free-galloping, front-running exhibition at Epsom before the stamina burnt out and he faded to fourth: that was in 1994 when the Kingsley House Stables team was making its name near and far as the north of England’s rising force.
There was talk then of Mister Baileys being the first ‘northern-trained’ Derby winner since Dante in 1945; there is still talk of being the first from the north since 1945.
Back in the mid-1990s Johnston senior was not content with making his mark at home, he saw the value in campaigning across the globe at a time when racing’s internationalisation was taking root. It was a time of big excursions from Middleham to Santa Anita, across Europe from Taby to Capannelle, to Nad Al Sheba, Flemington and Sha Tin; with the likes of the champion stayer Double Trigger, Quick Ransom, Bijou D’Inde, Gothenburg, Zindabad, Yavanna’s Pace, Branston Abby, Fruits Of Love and more.
The last-named won a Dubai Sheema Classic, and competed in two Japan Cups and a Hong Kong Vase. Johnston was in fact among the first European trainers to target Sha Tin’s December international fixture when in 1993 he sent the filly Marina Park to contest the G2 Hong Kong International Bowl, the 1400m forerunner to the G1 Hong Kong Mile. Ridden by Frankie Dettori, she was second behind the Neville Begg-trained Winning Partners and Mick Kinane.
Staying star Double Trigger. (Photo by David Cheskin/Getty Images)
Bijou d'Inde defeats Ashkalani in the 1996 Saint James Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. (Photo by Allsport)
It was a different age, a time when British racing was still at a pinnacle above east Asian racing, which was just beginning to find its feet internationally.
In the current age, the Johnston team is still to be seen as a force around continental Europe – Dubai Mile won the G1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud last October – but whilst Subjectivist won the G2 Dubai Gold Cup at Meydan in 2021, the name of Mark Johnston had become a rarity in eastern and southern hemisphere majors in the later years of his tenure: his last runner at the December Hong Kong International races was back in 2008, and Attraction in 2005 was his last contender in a Champions Day feature at Sha Tin.
The fact that Charlie Johnston took the brilliant Subjectivist to Saudi Arabia for his comeback run from a long injury lay-off, and then on to Dubai, suggests that he has perhaps inherited his father’s more active earlier ambition to seek opportunities even further afield, especially given the huge prize pots on offer.
“Dad still speaks very fondly of those trips (to Asia) and the racing in the Far East is phenomenal and something we would love to aspire to be competitive with,” he tells Asian Racing Report. “In some ways (not having as many runners there) it’s maybe driven slightly because the competition over there has increased so much in the last 20 years, and you need a really top, top-class horse to go over there and be competitive. It’s firmly on our radar though.
“We’ve had Vincent Ho over here previously from Hong Kong and he’s coming back again this year. We would love to be competitive in the Far East at the big flagship international meetings, it’s just (a case of) unearthing the horses to take us there, but as soon as we find it, we’ll be there.”
Globetrotting trainer Mark Johnston. (Photo by Getty Images)
Subjectivist made the 2021 Dubai Gold Cup a one-act affair. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
This Sunday, six days out from the Derby, the G1 Tokyo Yushun, the Japanese Derby, will pit the best of Japan’s three-year-old colts against one another for generational supremacy. It is a race that continues to go from strength to strength in a jurisdiction that is perhaps the strongest in the world right now, all things considered.
But, for all that Asia offers rich prizes, Johnston takes the view that nothing beats winning the Derby at Epsom, in a hard, practical sense as well as factoring in the ‘dream’ element.
“There is no race that I can win this year that will give me greater assurances when it comes to the yearling sales in three or four months’ time; that people will be wanting to fill the barn to try and find the next one,” he says.
“It’s what you’re trying to prove every year so that people choose you to reinvest with, and to win a Derby is as good an advertisement as there is.”
And he is aiming to do it with a €20,000 yearling out of the Goffs Orby Sale. The stable has unearthed plenty of low-cost gems down the years, it is something of a trademark: the brilliant Shamardal, let us not forget, was purchased for just 50,000 guineas and was Britain’s champion two-year-old for the stable before moving to Godolphin.
Shamardal lands the 2005 Poule D'Essai Des Poulins Race at Longchamp for Godolphin. (Photo by Julian Herbert/Getty Images)
But there is nothing cheap about the Johnston set-up: the old yards in town, Kingsley House and Warwick House, and out here at tranquil Kingsley Park Farm, with its stunning view across the dale, are elite facilities.
Mark and Deirdre Johnston have built it and now their eldest son is tasked with continuing the legacy. He has some of his father’s mannerisms, the same confidence in expressing his views, forthright and clear albeit with a more cushioned delivery.
Mid-interview, he notices horses walking the ring behind him and queries what is going on. He picks up his phone, asks questions of an unseen employee on the other end, gives a measured, straight instruction and returns to where he left off with an apology and smile. But the interlude leaves no doubt that Charlie Johnston is the team boss here now.
A Derby win at this juncture in his career would help to press home the point. Beyond that, with the world ever-shrinking and the big spoils to be had outside of Europe, perhaps in the coming years Johnston Racing will again spread its wings more often to racetracks far eastward from the hedgerows of Wensleydale.
Opinion: The Derby retains its magic but the Tokyo Yushun is on the rise
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