“This horse epitomises what we’re all about,” Mark Johnston said after Poet’s Society, a 20-1 shot ridden by Frankie Dettori, finally secured his place as the trainer with most wins in British racing history here on Thursday.
“It’s his sixth win this year, and his 26th run,” Johnston said. “I called him ‘old fella’ in the saddling boxes before the race, and he’s only a four-year-old.”
A Stakhanovite appetite for the unabating labour of racing has characterised both the trainer and his horses since he opened a stable in Lincolnshire in 1987, but even by Johnston’s standards Poet’s Society is a grafter. His efforts in 2018 equate to a race every nine days, and his average winning margin in his six victories has been just over half a length.
The success on Thursday was the narrowest yet, by just a neck in a driving finish, but it was the one that mattered most for Johnston, who had saddled 18 consecutive losers in Britain since drawing alongside Richard Hannon Sr at the top of the all-time list on Saturday. Poet’s Society, one of two relative outsiders he saddled in the race, finally took him to 4,194 British winners and he can now concentrate on extending his lead in the seasons ahead.
“It was getting very frustrating with all the attention on it,” Johnston said. “It wasn’t as if we had loads of odds‑on shots beaten or anything like that and we had plenty of horses running well. It was just sod’s law that it took a long time to get from four to one, and then from one to now.
“I thought today either of these two horses that ran in this race would have been ideal. If you could have written the result you would have had Joe Fanning [Johnston’s long‑serving stable jockey] on the horse but, on the other hand, if it’s Frankie, no one forgets it.”
Johnston spent two years in a veterinary practice before setting up as a trainer in 1987, an experience that he once said helped him to “cut out the bullshit” and gave him “the confidence to push on and not be swayed by extraneous factors”. He sent out just a single winner in his first season with a licence, and only five the following year, but his momentum started to build when he moved to his current base at Kingsley House stables in Middleham.
Johnston stated at an early stage of his career that his primary ambition was to train Classic winners, and the first arrived in 1994 when Mister Baileys took the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. That was the first of 13 Group One winners in Britain to date, which is arguably quite a modest haul for such a prolific trainer and three fewer than Aidan O’Brien saddled in 2017 alone.
For sheer productivity in terms of winners, however, British racing has never seen anything to match Johnston’s training operation and his position at the top of the all-time list is unlikely to be challenged for many years to come. Deirdre, his wife, has also played an indispensable role in their training operation while more recently their son Charlie has emerged as heir-apparent at Kingsley House.
“I nearly wasn’t here,” Johnston said after the decisive win at York. “Deirdre’s not here and nor is Charlie. We didn’t expect it to be this race, we had two runners today and they were both in this race and they were 20-1 and 33-1. People keep saying: ‘What does it mean?’ And I don’t think anyone is trying to belittle it in any way but sometimes you have to think: ‘Well, how important is it?’ At the same time I have got to pinch myself and say: ‘How can you get to 4,194 winners from where we started.’ It was unimaginable. It’s a relief to get it out of the way. Now we can get on with the next one and back to business as usual.”