In Britain, the 2019/20 National Hunt season was originally due to end on April 25, but concluded prematurely, on March 18, when the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced that all horse racing would be suspended until the end of April, at the earliest, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, Brian Hughes, who is based in Cleveland in North East England, rode 141 winners, 19 more than his nearest rival, Richard Johnson, to win the Jump Jockeys’ Championship for the first time. Indeed, Hughes became the first jockey other than Johnson or Sir Anthony McCoy to win the title since 1995/96 and the first northern-based jockey to do so since Jonjo O’Neill in 1979/80.
Originally from County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Hughes, 34, was Champion Conditional Jockey in 2007/08, but achieved his best seasonal tally as a fully-fledged professional in 2018/19, when he rode 146 winners. However, even in the abbreviated 2019/20 season, Hughes only fell five short of that total and, while Richard Johnson was sidelined for nearly six weeks in January and February with a broken arm, few could deny that the newly-crowned champion fully deserved his success. In fact, Hughes was already three winners ahead when Johnson sustained the injury – he was unseated from his mount, Westend Story, in a novices’ chase at Exeter on January 21 and subsequently kicked by a rival – and, with a career-best strike rate of 20%, his title win was hardly a fluke.
In 2015/16, Richard Johnson finally emerged from the shadow of perennial champion Sir Anthony McCoy – to whom he had finished runner-up on no fewer than 16 occasions – to win the National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship for the first time. Indeed, Johnson went on to win the jockeys’ title again for the next three seasons running and, in 2019/20, was only three winners behind eventual winner Brian Hughes when sustaining a broken arm following a fall at Exeter in early January, which effectively ended his hopes of a fifth jockeys’ championship.
Champion conditional jockey in 1995/96, at the age of 18, Johnson has enjoyed a long, illustrious career. However, despite winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Looks Like Trouble in 2000 and Native River in 2018, he has never won the Grand National. In fact, Johnson holds the record for the most rides in the Grand National, 21, and, less enviably, the most rides without a winner.
Johnson first rode in the infamous ‘Monday National’ in 1997, but was unseated when his mount, Celtic Abbey, blundered at The Chair, the penultimate fence on the first circuit. Since then, the closest he has come to winning the National was in 2002, when What’s Up Boys was eventually beaten a length-and-three-quarters by the rallying Bindaree, having held a three-length lead at the Elbow, halfway up the run-in. Johnson also rode the runner-up, Balthazar King, in the 2014 Grand National.
In recent years, the British Jump Jockeys’ Championship has been dominated by Richard Johnson, who was Champion Jockey in 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 and is currently 22 winners ahead of his nearest rival, Harry Skelton, with less than two weeks of the 2018/19 National Hunt season remaining. However, prior to 2015/16, Johnson had to play ‘second fiddle’ to Sir Anthony McCoy, who was Champion Jockey for 20 consecutive years between 1995/96 and 2014/15 or, in other words, every year as a full licensed professional jockey. All told, McCoy rode 4,384 winners in an extraordinary career, the likes of which National Hunt racing may see again.
However, there was a time, albeit a few years ago, when McCoy had yet to win his first Jockeys’ Championship and Richard Dunwoody was Champion Jockey three years running in1992/93, 1993/94 and 1994/95. Indeed, Dunwoody rode 1,699 winners, making him, at the time, the most successful jump jockey in history, before his career was cut short by a recurring injury at the age of 35.