When Richard Johnson and Native River took the stamina-sapping Welsh National at Chepstow under top weight in 2016 the partnership went down in many shrewd punters’ notebooks as potential Gold Cup winners.
Trained specifically for this season’s blue ribbon event and with soft ground a major plus they duly outstayed hot favourite Might Bite on the run-in, after a thrilling flag-to-post duel.
Richard is still on a high after that Festival success, but while Native River enjoys a well-deserved summer break the champion jockey is focusing on his role as Chepstow Racecourse’s first official ambassador.
Richard has many reasons for ‘backing’ Chepstow, which he regards very much as his local course.
It was the scene of his first ride under rules as a 16-year-old amateur – partnering winning point-to-pointer Rusty Bridge for his grandfather in a hunter chase. Since then he’s had more than 100 winners at the track, including two successes in the Welsh National (on Edmond in 1999 and more recently Native River) and three in the Finale Hurdle.
The newly-created role of racecourse ambassador sees him writing a blog for the racecourse website, talking to guests and tipping winners in the restaurant and hospitality boxes on race-days, doing interviews in the Parade Ring and taking part in VIP racing experience events.
“Chepstow is a really friendly, family course and I often see familiar faces in the restaurant on racedays. I’m not sure if I tip many winners but I enjoy talking about my life as a jockey, making people laugh at racing anecdotes and generally helping to ensure people have a great day out,” he said.
There are plans for ‘An Evening With Richard Johnson’ on June 7th, where guests will join him for dinner and hear him reflect on his illustrious career in the saddle.
Phil Bell, Chepstow’s Executive Director said, “Richard is one of the biggest names in horse racing and I’m delighted that he’s part of the team. We’re all working together to encourage more people to come and enjoy a day out enjoying our fantastic sport.”
While Richard enthusiastically promotes the social side of racing at Chepstow, it is also one of his preferred venues as a jockey.
“Chepstow is a fantastic course and very fair. That’s why a lot of the top trainers take their young horses there,” he said. “It’s a big galloping track and you have plenty of time to get yourself organized which means there are not many hard luck stories and the best horses tend to win. I’ve always loved riding there.”
Richard has fond memories of his Welsh National success on mud-loving Edmond - ‘one of my first big winners’.
He also has strong links with veteran local trainer Milton Bradley.
“Milton was great to me when I started my career. You need someone to believe in you and he gave me lots of experience.”
Richard’s successful partnership with the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River is often put down to his positive style of riding, but he’s modest about the part he plays.
“I’m really lucky to be associated with him. He’s a pleasure to ride - very straightforward and a great jumper. It makes my job very easy. I was just a passenger for most of the Gold Cup. He was travelling really well and enjoying himself. I was very hopeful at the second last that his stamina would kick in – and it did. He has a fantastic attitude. The more you ask, the more he gives. He wants to win.”
Richard already has his previous Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble – trained by his father-in-law Noel Chance – living in retirement at his farm near Leominster.
“He’s 27 now - a lovely gentle giant. My nine-year-old daughter Willow has ridden him in the school and we turn him out in the paddock with the two-year-olds.”
Should the opportunity ever arise, Richard would undoubtedly offer his new ‘best mate’ Native River a home for life too.