Once the Breeders’ Cup is out of the way, the focus of the racing community can switch wholeheartedly to the Jumps season, which stepped up a gear with the first meeting at Cheltenham last weekend.
Prestbury Park’s two-day Showcase meeting also gave Great British Racing, the sport’s admirable marketing and promotional arm, the chance to remind us all that the Stobart Jump Jockeys’ Championship is up for grabs again.
Unlike its Flat equivalent, which was won for the second time in three years by Brazilian grinder Silvestre De Sousa, the Jumps championship runs for the entire length of the National Hunt campaign, from April 30 this year to April 29 2018.
And already in the box-seat is Richard ‘Dickie’ Johnson, who is gunning for his third straight title after finishing runner-up to Tony McCoy on a staggering 16 occasions.
At the time of writing, Johnson had already racked up 86 wins from 436 rides, for a 20 per cent strike rate, and a 12-win lead over Harry Skelton. A further 12 wins behind was Sam Twiston-Davies, with Aidan Coleman in fourth place on 59 and Noel Fehily making up the top five on 52.
The 40-year-old is in tip-top form too. He is perhaps best known for his trademark, fist-pumping, all-action rides from the front, but he proved at Cheltenham last Friday that finesse and judgement are also very firmly in his locker in a masterful last-fo-first effort on Tim Vaughan’s lightly-raced grey, MASTER DANCER, in the 2m5f handicap hurdle.
Johnson said: “It was obviously great to get back to Cheltenham, the home of Jumps racing. The Festival in March is what everyone is aiming for, but there’s a long winter ahead before that and the Showcase is a fantastic event to kick things off properly.
“Winning my third Stobart Jump Jockeys’ Championship is incredibly important to me, and it’s always on my mind. The only thing I can do is to stay switched on, keep winning races and keep that momentum going.
“Harry Skelton has had a fantastic summer and Sam Twiston-Davies just seems to win and win at the moment. There are a lot of jockeys who are keen to ride as much as they can, so it’s key that I do the same if I want to retain my title. It’s going to be a busy winter.”
Among Johnson’s closest challengers, the 25-year-old Twiston-Davies is sure to have a busy winter too because he is the first choice for most rides at the Paul Nicholls yard.
He said: “Dicky is a fantastic jockey. I’ve been lucky enough to be on a good few winners recently and I really enjoyed getting back to Cheltenham in front of an amazing crowd.”
Interestingly, Twiston-Davies, Skelton and Fehily all currently have superior strike rates to Johnson, but the sheer volume of rides the champion picks up through the campaign, not to mention his indomitable character and fitness, helps to make him long odds-on (ranging from 1/6 with 888 Sport to 1/20 with Paddy Power) to complete the title hat-trick.