Sunday Supplement: Remembering David Johnson

Sunday Supplement

Sunday Supplement

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford 

I missed the Coral Eclipse yesterday. Normally I would have been cheering on Declaration of War and Mars from the grandstand boxes, but instead I was recovering on the sofa at home from a small operation designed to remove a BCC (basal cell carcinoma) from just below my right eye.

My wife spotted the fairly small addition to my facial profile rather quicker than I had the original one which caused a much more serious operation a year or so earlier. But still the “C” word remains in the consciousness.

How ironic then that 44 years to the Saturday of my first wedding and Henry Cecil’s first Group 1 training success with Wolver Hollow, was it that the news came through of major owner David Johnson’s death from cancer.

It had been a shock to see him over the last year without hair as he fought the assault from the disease. He was almost an exact contemporary and came from the same side of London as myself. He’d done brilliantly in his financial business and had already had a top two-year-old, Mister Majestic with his good pal Terry Beresford, when I first came into contact with him.

I’d got myself way over the top with buying and gambling on horses with money I simply didn’t have. At first I bought ten and gradually, largely through some very helpful funding from Terry Ramsden, managed to pay for them. Sort of.

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One Arc day I was standing outside Longchamp after the sixth race waiting for a taxi to the airport when I spotted Steve Cauthen with his then fiancée Amy, who became his wife. I asked him if he was staying over, to which he replied that he was.

That was unfortunate as one of the Stafford ten was due to make his debut in a claimer at Wolverhampton the next afternoon. Rod Simpson had booked an inexperienced apprentice who duly managed to find every blocked passage possible. In those days (1985) there were no pictures in the shops, but so obvious was it that the Simpson horse should have won, there was a series of claims. Rod, by luck or judgment, knew how much he needed to bid (it was a different system in those days) and at least we got the horse back.

Now it is with no pride that I admit to having had the joint biggest bet of my life on the horse, who started 10-1. No doubt with Cauthen on, it might have been 4’s, but it would have won. Years later when I told Cauthen the story he said: “Why didn’t you tell me, I’d have been over like a shot!”

So with a massive bill to settle, there was only one possible course of action, and Rod knew of a guy who he’d been trying to get into the yard and who I’d met before. So Terry Beresford and his friend David Johnson got me out of a hole. The story would be even better had the horse ever won a race, but memory, which makes the horse’s name uncertain, says that not even his new trainer Jenny Pitman could manage that.

That was of course before the days of David’s literally hundreds of winners from the Martin Pipe stable and the enduring memory of the 1980’s and 90’s was in the main hall at Sandown racecourse where David, Martin and sometimes David’s wife Shirley would watch on the big screen on the white wall as yet another Johnson winner would come unfailing up the final hill.

It took resources out of the ordinary to become champion jumps owner, which David achieved three times, and a wonderful trainer to boot. There is no question that David Johnson’s support made it possible for the Pipe stable to be strong enough for the big re-branding entailed when David Pipe took over and won a Grand National for Johnson with Comply or Die.

I last saw David Johnson at Billericay, down the road from his home, when he kindly joined the panel on a Charity Cheltenham preview event on March 3, arranged by my friends Kevin and Steve Howard. David came along with his great mate and long-time associate Barry Dennis, and their joint efforts and in David’s case insights into the Pipe and Paul Nicholls yards, were very helpful as well as entertaining.

At the end of that very enjoyable Sunday afternoon, again, perhaps ironically, staged in the benefit of a local family whose mother had died horribly young from a heart defect, he slipped away quietly. Always unassuming, David knew how to win with dignity and lose with graciousness.

Winning and losing with equanimity doesn’t come quickly in racing. When you go to the track expecting an easy win and as with Fair Trade last Sunday at Salisbury, see him trail home an unwilling distance behind, the hardest thing is to accept it.

Graham Lee, booked for the ride on this brilliantly-planned coup, six weeks earlier, simply said: “He didn’t stay”. I reckon he didn’t want to know and that’s it for the Flat. Market Rasen or Newton Abbot next weekend beckon before Alan King makes the switch to fences for him.

Thursday was always going to be fraught and having got from Manton to Haydock in good time, I settled down to watch Freeport win at Yarmouth. Trouble is he didn’t, finishing fourth and looking like it’s got to be back to the mile.

With almost 300 miles already on the clock from a 4 a.m. start, the responsibility fell on Kieren Fallon and Great Hall to retrieve the fortunes in the £25,000 added mile and six handicap at Haydock. After looking to be a potential also-ran, the Halling colt raced past the field, stopped for a getting-to-know-you session with the runner-up before stretching his head out to win by a going-away length.

A look at the replay showed he’d not helped a fair number of his opponents with that unscheduled move to the left and thankfully it was Fallon and a strong left arm that dragged him away in time. The Melrose at York and then hopefully a tilt at the St Leger will make the second half of the summer very exciting for Raymond Tooth and the rest of us. Certainly Brian Meehan’s handling of this still-immature colt has been so assured, and there’s no question that this trainer will be getting ahead of himself.

As to the imminent future, newcomer Grass Green (Dubawi out of an unraced half-sister to Indian Ink), is down for a Windsor debut on Monday. William Haggas (who also has another newcomer in the field) has booked Ryan Moore, but I can’t tell you any more than that.

Later in the week, Cousin Khee, who has done Raymond such sterling service already, has four Friday and Saturday options in Hughie Morrison’s quest to get him into the Ebor. Ebor and Melrose – now that wouldn’t be a bad double to go for on the last day of York’s great August meeting, would it?

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