Richard Johnson: Balthazar King is a superstar [H&H VIP]

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  • The Cheltenham Open was a rollercoaster weekend for me. Taking the leading jockeys’ title (with seven winners) is great, as it shows you’ve had the best meeting of anyone.

    To have three winners on the first day was incredible, but a bit of a worry that would be me done, so to have another one on Saturday and three — including the Greatwood — on Sunday was fantastic. Six of them were for trainer Philip Hobbs, who has started the season very well.

    In the cross-country Balthazar King was a bit of a superstar. I was looking forward to riding him in the cross-country race, and he didn’t disappoint. In the official ratings he was the one they had to beat, but the rain wasn’t ideal for him and there’s no such thing as a certainty.

    I was worried he might not handle the soft ground, but he has a massive heart and will to win.
    He made a couple of little jumping errors but never felt like he was going to fall — he just stuck his
    head down and came up the hill.

    The meeting has a great atmosphere — Cheltenham has built it into a mini Festival. It’s not quite the same as March, but it is a good three days. There’s a lot of building work going on, but from what you can see so far it looks good and it should improve racegoers’ experience once it’s finished.

    Can’t win every time

    I was 14th in the Paddy Power Gold Cup with Persian Snow. For us, they didn’t go fast enough because of the ground. He ran OK and jumped well, but didn’t really have much speed at the end. It was a good renewal of the race and great for Sam Twiston-Davies to cement his position in his new job [as Paul Nicholls’ number one jockey].

    The ground was very hard work — there had been a lot of rain up to the Friday and it became very sticky. By Sunday afternoon, as you could see on TV, it wasn’t looking its best. You had to go wide to find better ground, although my horses seemed to handle it better than some others.

    Two horses to note for the future were Golden Doyen, who showed a good attitude, and Champagne West, who was having his first run over fences. Winning the way he did bodes well.

    It was a bit strange not having AP McCoy sitting next to me for the three days (he’s off injured). It didn’t feel quite right without him. But I rode a winner for JP McManus so I suppose I have AP to thank for that!

    He’s feeling better now though — it won’t be long before he’s back. I’ll welcome him back as long as he doesn’t beat me too many times.

    Looking ahead

    This weekend there’s the Amlin Chase (at Ascot) and the Betfair Chase (at Haydock). We’ll probably go for the Amlin with Wishfull Thinking, as the company sponsors the yard so we’re always keen to try
    and win that.

    The weekend after it’s the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, and Fingal Bay will go to that. He’s one of the nicest horses Philip has in the yard. He loves soft ground and stays and jumps well.

    There was some discussion about Wetherby recently, where it was discovered that the distance for the Charlie Hall had been wrong for five years.

    Some parties have been very upset by this, but I’d be surprised if — for the sake of 78yd — it would have changed many of the results.

    Obviously it needs to be put right but I doubt it would have been a contributing factor. If it had been 100yd longer I’d still have won [on Menorah earlier this month].

    Next April updated safety rules are coming in for racing, and we all need to wear new standard body protectors. I’ve been wearing my new Racesafe one this week.

    There was a lot of talk about them feeling like armour and being uncomfortable, but actually it was very similar to the old one, just with a higher safety standard. It fits well, and we need to be able to move a lot.

    As a jockey it is obviously very important to be as safe as we can be. Welfare and safety improvements, whether for horse or rider, are always a positive step forward for the sport.

    This article was first published in Horse & Hound  magazine (20 November 2014)

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