Horse Racing: Searching for new stars as Johnston juggernaut begins to gather pace; FOCUS ON THE FLAT.
MIDDLEHAM on a March morning. Britain's most prolific producer of winners is putting his mighty team through their paces, hoping to identify the potential of a swan among the geese, a pearl within an oyster, a star within a galaxy.
For Mark Johnston - like so many other trainers - it's a never-ending search, an insatiable, exciting, exhilarating quest to find another Attraction, another Shamardal, another Double Trigger, another Mister Baileys. Another horse to light up the skies in this rugged outpost of North Yorkshire that has played host to the racehorse since the mid-1700s.
Johnston, though, has rewritten Middleham history. Before he came along, nobody in these parts had trained such huge numbers. For the record, this year's tally stretches beyond 230. Thrillingly, at the last count 126 of them are juveniles, new faces, horses who, as the old phrase goes, "could be anything". More to the point, they could be something. Perhaps something special.
"If we don't get some serious horses out of the two-year-olds, we're doing a bad job," declares Johnston, as famous for calling a spade a shovel as he is for remarkably sending out a century or more winners in each of the last 13 years.
"What gets me excited," he says, "is seeing a horse coming up the gallops who doesn't need to try, but who, just for the hell of it, passes the others. Hopefully, we'll start seeing them in April and May."
For the moment, and with the 'finding-out' process having barely begun, it's purely first impressions that count. "Kavinsky and Opus Maximus are among the most forward," he says of these sons of Stravinsky and Titus Livius. "Capucine, a filly by Cape Cross owned by the Duke of Roxburghe, is beginning to stand out from the crowd."
So too, it seems, is Kirsten Rausing's Lady Jane Digby, a half-sister to Gateman by Oasis Dream. "Although she's tall and backward-looking, she goes very well," reveals Johnston. As for Drill Sergeant, he's been getting ahead of himself. "We've had to put the brakes on him for a bit," he says of this handsome son of Rock Of Gibraltar.
Of course, this is merely the tip of a giant juvenile iceberg. Lurking, unnamed, in the wings are a half-brother to Shamardal (by Cherokee Run), a half-sister to Attraction (by Oasis Dream), a Gone West colt out of dual Classic winner Balanchine, and a Dubai Destination filly who is a daughter of the ultra-popular and talented In The Groove. That's not all, as among the three-year-olds is an unraced filly who is no less than a sister to the late, great Dubai Millennium.
"She came here in November, is tall, narrow and weak, but she's done two nice bits of work," says Johnston. "We'll treat her with kid gloves, but I shall be very surprised if she doesn't win a race." The name is Chaquiras, and she's one of 94 horses in the ever-burgeoning Johnston establishment owned by Sheikh Mohammed, if you include the Gainsborough Stud wing of his global operation. "It's fantastic for us to have that level of support," says Johnston, who can also count Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and, for the first time, Sheikh Ahmed among his patrons.
TO SEE the Johnston battalions patrolling the Low Moor at Middleham of a morning, as I witnessed yesterday, is an awesome sight. There can be few better-organised yards in Britain; even fewer that boast a staff-list of 118.
That number includes seven yard managers, who, each season, predict their own targets. Collectively, they have come up with 168 winners for this year, and pounds 2.5 million in prize-money. The fact that Johnston did not ask them to go away and think again confirms that he feels it's achievable.
"The number of winners, though, is not the ultimate aim," he insists. "Group 1 winners is the ultimate aim. But a large number of winners guarantees that we'll be here again next year."
The search for a star goes on daily, weekly, monthly, particularly as his top five most highly rated juveniles from last year are "either not here or out of action". Kirklees, Empire Day and Marioto have gone to Godolphin, while Drumfire is sidelined with a hind fetlock problem - "the dream for him is still the St James's Palace Stakes" - and Silent Waves is undergoing treatment at Newmarket for "EPN, a rather nasty American nerve disease".
There are plenty of other unexposed starlets simmering on the Kingsley House burner. Make a note, for instance, of Colorado Rapids ("He's in the German 2,000 Guineas, but I half-wish I'd put him in our Guineas. I'm quite excited about him"); Eradicate ("An unraced Montjeu colt who goes very well"); Record Breaker ("Ran well at Ascot on his only two-year-old start and a very nice horse"); Denbera Dancer ("A brother to Rumplestiltskin, who flopped on his only run last year but who is doing some very good work"); Old Etonian ("A very nice horse who finished second on his debut at Lingfield last Saturday"); Provost ("A lot better than his only run as a two-year-old") and Five A Side ("An Epsom winner last season, but then troubled by a quarter-crack. We think an awful lot of him").
An awful lot is also thought of others such as Peppertree Lane and Nakheel, who did their first proper piece of work yesterday morning, with the former, a five-time winner last season and due to kick off in a Listed race at Nottingham next week, looking to have matured and strengthened over the winter. There's also Royal Ascot winner Linas Selection.
"His target will be the Hardwicke Stakes," says Johnston, who also has an objective for Group 2 winner Soapy Danger, just back in light work after fracturing a leg in last season's Great Voltigeur Stakes. "Trying to win a Group 1 at a mile and a half will be his target."
Targets are what Johnston is all about, as he drives himself and his team to breach further boundaries in 2007. Underestimate him at your peril is the message from Middleham, as his equine juggernaut prepares to swing into action.
Mark Johnston's string passes the ruined castle at Middleham as the yard continues its preparation for the turf season
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 28, 2007|
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