Mark Johnston’s stable motto is Always Trying but it might just as easily be Always Winning. He became Britain’s winning-most trainer when the Frankie Dettori-ridden Poet’s Society won at York’s Ebor meeting in 2018. It was his 4,194th British winner, surpassing Richard Hannon Sr’s tally.
Johnston told Great British Racing: “I think it’s very, very important because it gives some recognition to the consistency that we’ve displayed over the last 25 years plus. Winners are very important, having more than anyone else is very important. But life will go on and having reached 4,194 it just means we’ll be looking for winner 4,195. We’ll look for more records to break, more races to win. It’s not going to change our life but we recognise the importance.”
Johnston duly rewrote the record books in 2019, too, when Bavardages won at Kempton to give him his 236th winner of 2019, resulting in the highest number of UK Flat Racing winners trained in a calendar year. Middleham-based Johnston had overtaken Richard Hannon Sr and Richard Fahey, who had jointly-held the record of 235 wins since 2013.
On the achievement, Johnston, said: “I said the same thing last year, in this game it’s all about winning and your winners are the most important. We are not going to run horses for the sake of it, but when we run them, we want them to win. It’s been another tremendous year and to break another record is great, we are very proud.”
You would have got long odds against Johnston becoming Britain’s winning most trainer when he began in 1987.
Starting from scratch, with what he described as only ‘three and a half paying horses’ and gallops that were part of an RAF target practice range, it was a case of sink or swim for the Glasgow-born rookie who had grown up on an East Kilbride council estate.
Fast forward to the present day and the sport has a new record-breaker – its ultimate winning machine.
Johnston got the racing bug early in life – his father had been a groom in the Army and owned horses – and by the age of 14 his stated ambition was to become a trainer.
His parents insisted he took a degree, to at least give him something to fall back on, and his choice of a five-year veterinary course at Glasgow – laced with periods in racing stables around the world – provided a safety net plus, later, an edge when it came to observing and caring for the thoroughbreds in his care.
Johnston married his childhood sweetheart, Deidre, in 1985 and two years later began training from a humble base in Lincolnshire. That first year with a licence yielded a single winner; Hinari Video landing a maiden for two-year-olds over five furlongs at Carlisle.
A smallish colt, Hinari Video kept on gamely after making the running and would go on to run in another 126 races. Despite being of limited ability, he would also win 11 more races. He was the first example of a Johnston-trained horse who retained his enthusiasm throughout his career and would keep coming back for more. There have been countless subsequent examples.
The Johnstons moved to Middleham in 1988, buying Kingsley House. The yard has developed into one of the finest in the business, with facilities including three separate grass gallops; an all-weather Tapeta gallop; an equine swimming pool; five lunging rings; weighbridges and starting stalls. There are also numerous turn-out paddocks among the 270 acres of land.
A few winners soon became a flood and his first yearly century followed in 1994. Ever since, he has achieved three-figure tallies every year and, since 2009, chalked up 200 or more successes on seven occasions.
His first 1,000 winners were accumulated in record time – 90 days quicker than previous holder Sir Henry Cecil – and if anything the trainer is hitting landmarks quicker and quicker.
For example, it took him just four-and-a-half years to move from 3,000 to 4,000 winners. That suggests, at his present rate, he might hit 6,000 in the next decade.
The one surprise is that he has yet to register a QIPCO British Champions Series winner since it was launched in 2011. Heading into 2021, he’d had 16 Series runners-up without hitting the jackpot.
Johnston’s horses are renowned for their toughness and durability, plus an ability to keep galloping at the head of affairs when logic dictates they should be flagging.
He has trained many outstanding stayers, such as Double Trigger and Royal Rebel, but his champions have also included Guineas winners in Mister Baileys and Attraction, plus speedy juveniles such as Group 1 winners Awzaan, The Last Lion and Lumiere.
Three and a half paying horses? These days he has considerably more, many carrying the silks of the world’s most powerful owners.
Deidre has been his long-time assistant and Charlie, his son, is another pillar. A small army of dedicated staff include numerous vital cogs in the wheel and several of them, such as Robynne Watton (Senior Travelling Manager), Hayley Kelly (Yard Manager), Jock Bennett (Assistant Trainer), Neil Hodgson (Box Driver) and Mark Billingham (Travelling Manager) have been with him at Middleham more than 20 years.
It is a formidable operation run by a formidable man. “Second sucks” he said after his Dee Ex Bee had finished runner-up in the 2018 Investec Derby. Clearly, his thirst for firsts is unquenchable.