Which horse was Richard Johnson’s first Cheltenham Festival winner?
At the time of his shock retirement, on April 3, 2021, Richard Johnson had ridden 3,819 winners, making him the second most prolific National Hunt jockey in history, behind only his old friend and rival, Tony McCoy. Johnson won the Jump Jockeys’ Championship four years running between 2016 and 2019, but not until McCoy – who was perennial Champion Jockey for the preceding two decades – retired at the end of the 2014/15 season.
Johnson rode his first winner of any description, Rusty Bridge, trained by his mother Susan, in the Next Generation Hunters’ Chase at Hereford on April 30, 1994, as a 16-year-old amateur. At the insistence of his mentor, the late David Nicholson, who was, at the time, based at Jackdaws Castle, Gloucestershire, he retained his amateur status until the following November, when he turned professional.
Johnson was Champion Conditional Jockey in 1995/1996 but, as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned, did not ride his first winner until 1999. Fittingly, that winner was Anzum, saddled by Nicholson, in his final season as a trainer, in the Stayers’ Hurdle on March 18, 1999. Johnson had ridden the same horse into second place in the same race two years earlier.
Johnson would go on to ride 22 Cheltenham Festival winners in total, including Looks Like Trouble and Native River in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2000 and 2018, respectively. At the time of his retirement, Johnson expressed his gratitude to Nicholson, saying, ‘Without ‘The Duke’ [Nicholson] and [his wife] Dinah Nicholson and their remarkable staff, I’d never have got that first leg up.’