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IN the second of a two-part Turf Talk with Middleham trainer Mark Johnston, the master of Kingsley House reveals how he fits into the Godolphin plan.
IT was high praise indeed. On a night of triumph for Sheikh Mohammed, who had just watched two of his horses post a one-two finish in the jewel-laden Dubai World Cup, the Crown Prince took time out to mention a man from Middleham.
“Mark Johnston did a good job with these horses,” he said of the Kingsley House trainer’s efforts with winner Monterosso and second placed Capponi. “He brought them up very well”.
Johnston may lead a deluge of winners from his North Yorkshire base, but he also plays an important part of the Godolphin set-up – even if he is modest enough not to take any credit for his ‘achievements’.
A substantial chunk of his yard are owned by the Maktoum family – the rulers of Dubai – and while the best may start life with Johnston, those of Classic ability soon find themselves in Newmarket at Godolphin.
Some of the best horses the handler has trained, including the hugely talented Shamardal, have taken this path and Johnston is more than aware of how he fits in to the grand scheme of things.
There has been a subtle shift in recent years.
Johnston has found he is seeing more older horses at his yard, with Godolphin making sure they haven’t let anything that could prove very talented slip the net.
What’s more, he is comfortable with his role, and refuses to hog the limelight. When Monterosso enjoyed his special night in Dubai in March, Johnston refused to bask in any reflected glory from the victory.
“I was very conscious that it was not our place to go and start taking any credit for it,” he explained. “Sheikh Mohammed’s horses have been trained at Godolphin for well over a year. It is their training performance, not ours.
“I was most grateful for the comments Sheikh Mohammed made but I wasn’t going to go pushing and taking any credit for it.
“It was his moment and everything he has set out to do with his horses – where he is playing a huge personal part in how the horses are trained – that is his biggest achievement to date. Who was I to play any part of it?”
So how does the system work?
“The way I see it is that if you look at us all as one Sheikh Mohammed team, you have got Godolphin one and two and, in Britain, you have got John Gosden training for Princess Haya and myself training for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed,” Johnston added.
“Then you have other things like Andre Fabre in France and trainers in Ireland. You have got pre-training at Darley in Newmarket.
“With the yearlings, Godolphin are obviously taking their pick, then some horses may go to Darley pre-training and the next batch have been allocated, probably to John Gosden and then to me. But there has been, over the last three years, quite a shift in the balance of our horses from two-year-olds to older horses.
“We are getting less yearlings than we got, particularly since 2009 when our peak was probably 70-odd for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. Last year, our first initial intake was only 17 and this year it’s up again a bit.
“We are getting horses that have been at Hamilton Hill, the pre-training yard, for a period of time while they decide on them, and we are getting some horses that have already been to Godolphin.
“They tend to have a ‘clear out’ at the end of the year and decide what’s going to Dubai, what’s remaining in Britain waiting for their return, what’s going to the sales and then the undecided horses are coming here.”
There can be huge differences between training younger and older horses. Johnston believes they bring different kinds of pressures, but reckons the set-up at Middleham, and the results, show the system works.
“The two-year-olds generally have the dreams,” he said.
“For any owner, you have more dreams with a yearling and that’s what keeps the business going – the whole Flat racing industry – the dreams of buying yearlings and you might have a superstar.
“I well recognise the worth of the system, how well it’s working, and it does make life quite easy for us. There is not a great deal of pressure with these (older) horses. Our job is to provide a safety net and make sure we don’t sell the wrong horse.
“We’ve even got that wrong sometimes. We sold Daytona a couple of years ago, who went on to win two Group 1s in America. We sold Regal Parade to Dandy Nicholls, who went on to win a Group 1.
“When you are turning over so many horses, you are still going to sell good ones at times.
“We are aiming to reduce that and give every horse a chance – something Godolphin can’t always do. One of the reasons that Sheikh Mohammed did mention me, and gave us some credit, was because he’s very happy that this system is working well.
“Monterosso and Capponi were both examples of the system working. I think he was particularly excited by this because he loves Dubawi. He’s by Dubai Millennium, his favourite horse of all-time and he lost him, and Dubawi is the chance to keep his memory going.
“Dubawis are laid-back horses. Monterosso and Fox Hunt didn’t show much at home so it’s no surprise they ended up here.
“People look at Monterosso and are shocked that this horse started on the all-weather and got beaten twice. But to us now, that’s not surprising. A lot of Dubawis start on the all-weather and get beaten.
“But it shows the system works.”
Handicapped by system
THE handicap system is flawed and encourages some people to be dishonest, trainer Mark Johnston argues.
The Middleham handler is arguing for a system based on how much prize money a horse wins rather than the subjective view of performance that currently determines how much weight is assigned to a horse.
“The whole handicap system, to my mind, is wrong,” Johnston explains.
“The number of times the handicappers say to me ‘We can’t handicap them based on how much prize money they win’. I actually think they should. There’s one great example, and I had the argument with the handicapper and got the horse dropped five pounds again, but Switzerland won a prize of about £3,500 at Wolverhampton and went up 17 pounds in the handicap.
“So you have got a horse winning a Class 5 race and his next start is going to be in a Class 1. He has no opportunity to win prize money at Class 2, 3 and 4 because they’ve just killed him. So here’s a horse that’s won three races for me in his five starts and a total of £6,500 in prize money.
“If the handicapper got him right that’s fine and go you into Class 1 and 2 and continue to win but, if he is wrong, you can have a horse who is in the top five per cent of the population who can go through the rest of his career and win nothing.
“That, to me, is nonsense. You should be able to climb through the ranks taking as many steps as you wish. If you’ve won a Class 5, you should be able to run in a Class 4.
“I’ve said, for as long as I have been a trainer, that it is totally illogical to have a flawed system and then spend fortunes on integrity to try to stop people cheating when the system encourages them to cheat.”