It is a rather curious state of affairs, but the best jump jockey in the land is still without a ride for the Grand National.
Richard Johnson, who is closing in on a third straight Champion Jockey crown, has bizarrely been ignored by trainers and connections despite boasting a wealth of experience on the National course at Aintree.
The 41-year-old has twice finished runner-up in the Grand National, first on What’s Up Boys in 2002 and then latterly aboard Balthazar King in 2014. That first win eludes him despite 20 attempts at the famous showpiece, and he was no doubt eyeing 2018 as the year he finally breaks his duck.
But the phone isn’t ringing, oddly. “I’m still looking, and he’s still available,” were the words of Johnson’s agent, Dave Roberts, on Monday.
The jockey suffered a nasty tumble on Monday at Kempton when the appropriately-named Elixir De Nutz misbehaved in the paddock and threw his intended mount off. Johnson landed heavily on his head and neck, but was later reported to be laughing and joking with his fellow jockeys in the weighing room. Ironically, Elixir De Nutz would unseat his replacement rider, Tom O’Brien, shortly after as well!
All of this is of relevance because Johnson is a fantastic jockey who adds quality to whoever he rides. He’s piloted more than 100 winners than anyone else over jumps this term, and a win ratio of 20% is staggering given that he has taken to the track on 834 occasions.
So who is likely to have Johnson on board come Saturday?
Most of the Grand National’s big names already have their jockeys confirmed. The bookies favourite, Total Recall, will have either Paul Townend or David Mullins on board after Ruby Walsh was ruled out of the meeting with that stress fracture he suffered at the Cheltenham Festival.
Anibale Fly will be partnered by Barry Geraghty, while Noel Fehily takes the ride on Minella Rocco. Andrew Lynch will team up with Lord Windermere, the 2014 Gold Cup champion.
One intriguing option for Johnson could be to renew his partnership with Colin Tizzard. The trainer asked Johnson to climb aboard Native River in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and he duly did the honours in the festival mud to land a huge payday for all concerned.
Tizzard has entered The Dutchman at Aintree, an interesting sort who could prosper with an experienced jockey like Johnson on board. The eight-year-old has only raced four times since switching to the Devonshire handler, but a couple of eye-catching results – including a win in the Peter Marsh Handicap Chase and a second in the Betfair Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock Park – have piqued the interest. The Dutchman can be backed at 33/1 to triumph on Saturday.
Johnson teams up most prolifically with Philip Hobbs, with the pair sharing plenty of success together. His best hope would be Rock the Kasbah, a quality sort who a horse who hasn’t run since January after being pulled up that Peter Marsh Handicap won by The Dutchman.
Late in the Day
One of the favourites for the Grand National, Seeyouatmidnight, has been acquired by David and Patricia Thompson on the eve of the big race.
Their Cheveley Park Stud has previous for last-minute purchases doing the business at Aintree: they also owned the 1992 Grand National winner, Party Politics, after a very late-in-the-piece investment.
A so-so outing at Newbury in March – his first start of the campaign – has done little to dampen expectation in a horse which has previously beaten Blaklion, Bristol de Mai and numerous other top flight stayers.