Flying thoroughbreds and private planes: take a peek round the Johnstons’ racing yard

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  • Johnston Racing is one of Britain’s leading training establishments, based at Kingsley Park in Yorkshire. Mark Johnston was the first Flat racing trainer to send out more than 200 winners in a season, and in 2018 became the winning-most trainer in British racing history, with 4,194 winners.

    At the start of 2022, Mark was joined in a training partnership by his son Charlie, who – like his dad – is a qualified vet.

    The 300-acre yard is based in the northern racing hub of Middleham. H&H spent a morning looking around the high-tech facilities set against the scenic backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales. Mark’s wife Deirdre – co-owner of the Yorkshire-based European eventing champion JL Dublin – was on hand to show us around on a typical winter’s morning at the 220-horse outfit.

    Mark Johnston racing

    Yearlings being lunged

    There are 90 yearlings learning the ropes, which are backed at the yard. They spend “a good month” in long-reins, walking all round the farm, and being lunged, so that by the time it comes to backing them, they’re quite worldly-wise.

    “They have to complete certain tasks to move on to the next stage, and all their progress is documented, so that any handler can take on the horse and know of any issues,” Deirdre explains.

    Yearlings cantering

    These yearlings are in around their seventh week in training and working on the 10-furlong gallop near the stables. At this stage they’ll do two furlongs in trot and two furlongs in canter, stepping up to three furlongs after three weeks. While it’s exciting watching this young talent, Deirdre says, “it’s too early to say which ones will be good”.

    Mark Johnston Racing

    Swimming pool and water treadmill

    The pool is in action all morning – the levels of the water can be changed so that it is either a swimming pool or a water treadmill. It can be used for therapy as well as fitness, and some horses will both swim and be ridden. For the treadmill, the water level is 2ft in winter, 3ft in summer, as it takes longer to dry off and warm up in winter.

    “It loosens up the stiffer horses and is brilliant for any young ones that have sore shins or heat in a leg,” Deirdre says.

    The Johnstons put in all the facilities themselves – when they moved to the yard over two decades ago it was a dairy farm with stone walls and pasture. In the summer the horses are turned out in separate paddocks, but always next door to others.

    Deirdre Johnston works Rose Of Kildare

    Deirdre rides out most mornings. She initially met Mark as a child in Scotland when she kept her pony in his field, and they married in 1985.

    The busy yard houses some 220 horses

    The stables are mucked out while the horses are being ridden, rather than the same lad riding and doing the stable. The horses are fed several feeds a day, including one by the night man at around 3–4am, so they don’t head up the gallops on a full stomach. All of the 125 employees wear jumpers with their names on.

    Mark Johnston racing

    One of the yard’s resident vets checks out a horse in a specialist padded box

    There are two resident vets, Becky Dinsdale and John Martin, as well as joint-trainers Mark and Charlie, both qualified vets themselves.

    The new 44x60m indoor school

    “The indoor school is my thing – I use it for lessons but we also use it for the racehorses and for Yogi Breisner RoR clinics or staff training; it’s handy when it’s frozen outside,” says Deirdre. “It took me 21 years to get an outdoor school and 36 to get an indoor! The surface is our old gallop recycled. I spent hours last year getting rid of all the stones.”

    The school also has a viewing gallery and owners’ lounge, where they can seat 50 for lunch, plus showers and loos.

    Deirdre with her veteran champion Country Hot Shot

    Deirdre took up eventing at the age of 36, and has since been placed at the Badminton grassroots championships twice, and competed at the the riding club championships in all disciplines on her 21-year-old gelding Country Hot Shot.

    “He is the one who got me started, and he taught me everything,” she says fondly. Deirdre’s horses are kept in Mark’s former aeroplane hangar, nicknamed “Terminal One”.

    While in “Terminal Two”…

    …Mark Johnston’s alternative mode of transport

    “This is the best bit of kit ever – a Cessna Caravan with turboprop engine, and Mark also has a Piper Cherokee 6,” says Deirdre. “Mark flies himself to the races a lot – it only takes an hour to fly from Yorkshire to Newmarket, which means he can see all the horses working and still get to the races. It sounds grand, but it’s a fantastic mode of transport and is a way of being able to do everything.”

    The 900m landing strip of plastic tiles under the grass is situated next to the grass gallops.

    Deirdre with her new ride, SJL King – known as Smurf.

    “He’s been doing British Dressage and qualified for the winter regionals at novice,” says Deirdre of the grey seven-year-old. “He’s by an Indoctro stallion and everywhere I go people stop me and say what a gorgeous horse he is.”

    Mark Johnston racing

    The string hack through the town of Middleham

    The small Yorkshire town of Middleham is a giant in the world of horseracing, with some 15 training yards. Racehorses have been trained in the town for over two centuries.

    Mark Johnston racing

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