According to one dictionary definition, a ‘nearly man’ is ‘a man who fails to achieve the success or status that he might potentially have had’. It may seem ludicrous to suggest that Richard Johnson, who retired in April, 2021 as the second most prolific National Hunt jockey in history, failed to fulfil his potential, but he would certainly have fared better had he not been a direct contemporary of Sir Anthony McCoy. In his first season riding in Britain, 1994/95, McCoy was Champion Conditional Jockey and, thereafter, was perennial Champion Jockey until his retirement in April, 2015, racking up a career total of 4,348 National Hunt winners in Britain and Ireland.
Johnson, for his part, rode just 3,818 National Hunt winners in Britain and Ireland, but was runner-up in the National Hunt Jockeys’ Championship in 16 of the 20 seasons in which McCoy won the jockeys’ title. Following the retirement of his arch rival, Johnson finally received the recognition his talent and determination deserved, becoming Champion Jockey in his own right four seasons running between 2015/16 and 2018/19. In a case of old habits dying hard, he also finished runner-up, again, behind Brian Hughes in his penultimate season, in 2019/20. Without McCoy in opposition, it’s really anyone’s guess how many times Johnson might have been Champion Jockey.
At the Cheltenham Festival, Johnson rode a total of 22 winners, winning the Stayers’ Hurdle on Anzum in 1999, Queen Mother Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles in 2002, Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster in 2003 and Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, on Looks Like Trouble in 2000 and Native River in 2018. The one race in which Johnson really was a ‘nearly man’ was the Grand National. He rode in the Aintree showpiece a record 21 times without success, finishing second on What’s Up Boys in 2002 and Balthazar King in 2014, but never better.