On August 23, 2018, Mark Johnston, who is based at Kingsley House in Middleham, North Yorkshire, became the most prolific racehorse trainer in Britain. Johnston saddled his first winner, Hinari Video, at Carlisle in July, 2017, but victory for the four-year-old Poet’s Society in the Clipper Logistics Handicap at York took his career total to 4,194, thereby surpassing the previous record set by Richard Hannon Snr. Sent off at 20/1, Poet’s Society made all the running under jockey Lanfranco ‘Frankie’ Dettori and held on gamely to beat 5/1 joint favourite Kynren by a neck. Johnston, who had saddled nine runners, without success, the previous day, admitted, ‘It feels a relief to get it out of the way.’
Richard Hannon Snr, who retired in 2013, held a training licence for 43 years but, while Johnston took just 31 years to beat the previous record, it is worth noting that the number of horse racing fixtures in Britain has increased significantly – thanks, in no small part, to the advent of all-weather racing – since Hannon Snr began training in 1970. Nevertheless, the new record is the equivalent of a winner a day, every day, for eleven-and-a-half years. In 2019, Johnston enjoyed his best season ever, numerically and in monetary terms, with 250 winners and £5.74 million in prize money so, while he had admitted that thoughts of retirement are never far from his mind, he continues to set the bar still higher.
Of course, the late Donald ‘Ginger’ McCain – who died in 2011, just two days shy of his eighty-first birthday – has his name writ large in the annals of Grand National history as the trainer of the incomparable Red Rum. Nevertheless, ‘Mr. Aintree’, as McCain was affectionately known in his heyday, remained in the training ranks until 2006, when he handed over his licence to his son, Donald Jnr., and, in 2004, won a record-equalling fourth Grand National.
That emotional victory came courtesy of the twelve-year-old Amberleigh House who, according to BBC commentator Jim McGrath, came ‘absolutely flying down the outside’ under jockey Graham Lee to beat joint-favourite Clan Royal by three lengths. Two years previously, Amberleigh House had been balloted out of the Grand National, despite winning the Becher Chase, over 3 miles 3 furlongs on the National Course, the previous November. Nevertheless, despite entering the ‘veteran’ stage of his career, Amberleigh House returned to Aintree to make Ginger McCain just the second trainer, after Fred Rimell, to saddle four Grand National winners.
Nowadays, Paul Nicholls is best known as the eleven-time winner of the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship, with over 3,000 winners, including 45 Cheltenham Festival winners and a Grand National winner, to his name. It would be fair to say that Nicholls is a familiar, if rather portly, figure on British racecourses in his trademark tweed coat with a velvet collar, but he was, in his younger days, an accomplished National Hunt jockey.
In a seven-year riding career, Nicholls rode a respectable 133 winners, but was most closely associated with the late David Barons, for whom he was stable jockey between 1986 and his retirement, due to injury, in 1989. Indeed, it was for Barons that Nicholls recorded back-to-back victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup – now the Ladbrokes Trophy – at Newbury on Broadheath in 1986 and Playschool in 1987. Remarkably, Broadheath carried just 10st 5lb and Playschool just 10st 8lb.
However, in an interview long after his retirement from the saddle, Nicholls admitted that he often resorted to ‘cheating’, by constantly taking diuretic pills, known in racing circles as ‘pee pills’, to keep his weight down, or fiddling the scales when weighing out or in. He also admitted to having been close to anorexia during his career as a jockey.
The simple answer is no, Aidan O’Brien is not related to the late Michael Vincent O’Brien, but the current ‘Master of Ballydoyle’ has much in common with his predecessor. Indeed, it was Vincent O’Brien who bought Ballydoyle House, in Co. Tipperary in 1951 and, later, along with his son-in-law, John Magnier, and the late Robert Sangster, established what became known as the Coolmore syndicate, for whom Aidan O’Brien has been private trainer since 1996.
Both Aidan and Vincent O’Brien began their training careers in National Hunt racing; both have the distinction of having won the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival three years running, Aidan with Istabraq in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and Vincent with Hatton’s Grace in 1949, 1950 and 1951. Similarly, both men subsequently rose to become the dominant force in Flat racing, not just in Ireland, but in the whole of Europe and both became Champion Trainer in Britain, despite training on the other side of the Irish Sea.