Following the retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy in April, 2015, Richard Johnson finally emerged from the shadow of the perennial champion jockey to claim the leading jockey title for himself in 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18. Johnson is also the fifth most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival – behind Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, McCoy and Pat Taafe – with 22 winners.
His first success at what has become known as the ‘Olympics of horse racing’ came aboard Anzum, trained by David Nicholson, in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999, but Johnson wasted little time in completing his set of the championship races that headline each of the four days. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble, trained by Noel Chance, in 2000, the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles, trained by Philip Hobbs, in 2002 and the Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster, also trained by Hobbs, in 2003.
After riding at least one winner at five successive Cheltenham Festivals, Johnson finally drew a blank in 2005. He managed just one winner in 2006 and 2007 and was, again, winnerless in 2008 and 2009, before winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Menorah and the Centenary Novices’ Chase on Copper Bleu, both trained by Philip Hobbs, in 2010.
Although finding Festival winners harder to come by in recent years, Johnson has also won the Arkle Challenge Trophy, the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, the Pertemps Network Final and the Triumph Hurdle on Hobbs-trained horses. In 2017, he also won the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle on Flying Tiger, trained by Nick Williams and, in 2018, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for the second time, on Native River, trained by Colin Tizzard. After the latter success, Johnson said, “I’m speechless. He’s been a fantastic horse for me and I was lucky to pick up the ride on him.”
Granted his lengthy association with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the fact that Ruby Walsh is, far and away, the most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival is no real surprise. Mullins has saddled 61 winners at the March showpiece meeting, Nicholls has saddled 43 and, between them, they have won the leading trainer award 11 times.
Coincidentally, Walsh has also won the leading jockey award 11 times, including five years running between 2013 and 2017. Indeed, he was favourite to do so again in 2018 but, after two early wins – which took his career total to 58 – aggravated a leg injury, sustained at Punchestown the previous November, when Al Boum Photo fell at the penultimate fence in the RSA Chase on the second day, and missed the rest of the Festival.
Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet, trained by Mullins, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 1998, as an 18-year-old amateur. Having turned professional, he had to wait a few years for his second, Blowing Wind, trained by Martin Pipe, in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in 2002 but, thereafter, has ridden at least one winner at every Cheltenham Festival.
His notable successes include the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Kauto Star in 2007 and 2009, the Champion Hurdle four times, on Hurricane Fly in 2011 and 2013, Faugheen in 2015 and Annie Power in 2016, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, on Azertyuiop in 2004 and Master Minded in 2008 and 2009, and the Stayers’ Hurdle five times, on Big Buck’s in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and Nichols Canyon in 2017. The four ‘championship’ races aside, together Walsh and Mullins have ‘farmed’ the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, winning all bar three of the eleven renewals – including six in a row between 2009 and 2014, with Quevega – since it was added to the Festival programme in 2008.