Richard Johnson Blog – Looking back at some of my best days at Cheltenham

Racing
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14 February 2019

This year marks 20 years since my first Cheltenham winner. In 1999 I rode Anzum for David Nicholson to win the Stayers Hurdle at 40/1.

Anzum had run consistently on the flat without winning. However he turned out to be a very good juvenile hurdler, winning his first six starts. He was then 3rd in the 1995 Triumph Hurdle. He achieved a lot for a horse that had a lot of time off the track through injuries. I rode him for the first time at Chepstow in February 1997 when he finished third in a handicap. A month later we finished second in the Stayers’ Hurdle at 25/1.

He didn’t run again for the best part of a couple of years, but in 1999, after a second in the Rendlesham Hurdle, he lined up for the Stayers Hurdle at 40/1 in a field which included joint favourites the Irish banker Le Coudray and crowd favourite Deano’s Beano. 

I knew my horse stayed strongly and I was young and enthusiastic so I felt like he had a chance of running well even if I didn’t imagine beating the favourites. He didn’t look like winning till late on, but he really stayed on with a furlong and a half to go, and came through to pip Le Coudray by a neck with the fantastic mare Lady Rebecca in third.

He went on to prove it wasn’t a fluke, taking the Irish Stayers’ Hurdle and then the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot the following year. He was a really good little horse. It was a great day, although I probably didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. It means something to me because it was my first Cheltenham Festival winner and what turned out to be my mentor David Nicholson’s last.

I won the 2002 Queen Mother Champion Chase on triple Tingle Creek winner Flagship Uberalles.

Flagship Uberalles started off his career on the flat for Dermot Weld despite being a half brother to the 1994 and 1995 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Viking Flagship. He was trained by various trainers during his long career, and gave several trainers and jockeys a top level winner. He maintained a high level of form throughout his career and won 14 races in a golden age of very good 2 mile chasers.

When he first came over from Ireland he was trained by Paul Nicholls and mostly ridden by Joe Tizzard. He won the Arkle at the Festival in 1999 from Tresor De Mai and followed up in the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree. The following year he won a first Tingle Creek, but he was a beaten favourite in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, finishing 3rd behind Edredon Bleu.  

After a couple of disappointing runs he was moved to Noel Chance where I first rode him, and our first race was a winning one when he took a second Tingle Creek. A year later he had another trainer in Philip Hobbs, and he won a third Tingle Creek before he gave me a first win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Flagship Uberalles wasn’t the fastest 2 mile chaser but he saw out the trip really well. The best 2 mile chasers make it easy, jumping at speed and getting into a great rhythm. On a good horse that can just gallop and jump flat out it is easy for the passenger!

Later that year I rode him in a King George (pulled up behind Best Mate). In 2003 we finished 5th in the Queen Mother behind Moscow Flyer before winning a Grade 1 at Punchestown. In 2004 we were 2nd behind Azertyuiop in the Queen Mother and he was also placed in further Tingle Creeks. It’s a rare thing to be competitive at the highest grade over several seasons and this is what puts these type of horses a level above in terms of public affection.

One Knight, my RSA Chase winner in 2003, was a very talented individual who could have gone onto greater things if it hadn’t been for injury. He was big and solid, like a bull in a china shop! He was a frontrunner who had no respect for the fences, he bulldozed his way through 3 fences to win the RSA Chase. He could keep up a relentless gallop over three miles, he just pushed everything out of the way.

Unfortunately he damaged hock in the Hennessy and never got back to his best form. It just shows how difficult it can be, even with the most talented horses to be successful at the highest level.

Incidentally One Knight was a bit of a Chepstow specialist, he won the Persian War, the Rising Stars Chase and the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow.

Detroit City took the Triumph Hurdle in 2006. The grey had been a decent flat winner for Jeremy Noseda, and he went to Philip Hobbs for a juvenile hurdle season. He never looked like a flat horse, he was big and strong, and he continued to fill out as he kept winning. 

He wasn’t your typical Triumph Hurdle winner, which are often small and quick flat horses, and he always looked like he’d progress as a jumper more than most other Triumph horses. He looked like he’d need further in time, and he outstayed them all, beating his stablemate Fair Along.

He was very good horse, and as he filled out he got better and better. Next time out he took the Aintree 4yo hurdle before returning to the flat under Jamie Spencer to win the Cesarewitch. He also won the Greatwood Hurdle under top weight and beat 2 time champion hurdler Hardy Eustace in the International Hurdle.

With such brilliant form he went off 6/4 favourite for the 2007 Champion Hurdle. He finished 6th but was never competitive, we were so disappointed as he had always done everything so easily. We couldn’t find anything wrong with him and he ran again a month later at Aintree, again running badly. The following November we took him to Ascot and he died, due to a heart valve issue which in hindsight was probably the cause of his loss of form.  It was a sad day because he was a brilliant horse which we’d seen as a potential chasing star too.

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