Charlie Johnston was always destined to take over from his record-breaking father Mark at their Middleham base. But to have a realistic Betfred Derby contender through Dubai Mile in his first year with just his name on the licence has certainly exceeded his expectations.
While Johnston senior went close at Epsom with Dee Ex Bee in 2018, finishing second to Masar, the blue riband event was one of only a handful of major races to elude him during a stellar career.
Charlie initially shared the licence with his father last season before Mark took his name off completely, sooner than many thought but done partly through paternal pride so that his son would get the credit he felt he deserved.
Now, with Dubai Mile having won a Group One over 10 furlongs at two in France and run perfectly well in the 2000 Guineas when fifth, Charlie has a real shot at putting the Johnston name on the illustrious Epsom roll of honour.
“I wouldn’t be singing from the roof if he wins having done so in my name, in fact I’d be a bit embarrassed after dad had been trying for 30 years and we won it for the first time without his name on the licence!” said Johnston.
“There’s still no greater race for a trainer to win, I think.
“There’s no race I can win this year that would give me greater assurances that when I go to the yearling sales, people will want to fill this barn again next year and try to find the next one.
“This game is a cycle and you always want people to invest in you, by winning the Derby there is no greater advertisement.”
Dubai Mile is owned by Ahmad Al Shaikh, who himself has had two of his horses finish second at huge prices in recent years – Khalifa Sat at 50-1 behind Serpentine in 2020 and Hoo Ya Mal at 150-1 to Desert Crown last year.
Johnston said: “He’s gone close twice in the Derby at huge prices, so I’m sure he’s going there with huge expectations and he’s great fun to train for.
“He flew a team from his favourite restaurant in London up here and we had a huge lunch with all the staff while watching the (Saint-Cloud) race and he gave prizes out and I don’t think the team has ever felt closer or more involved than he made them.”
Having only cost €20,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale, despite being by Roaring Lion and out of Beach Bunny, who was beaten just a short head by Dar Re Mi in the 2009 Pretty Polly, Johnston has shown he can look beyond the obvious – and feels others may have been put off by Dubai Mile’s big white face.
“We thought we’d got a bargain at £20,000. To us he’s a very good looking horse, but bizarrely a lot of people would be put off by his markings for a start. He’s got so much white about him and he must have had a fight with a fence at some point as a foal as when you take the saddle off, he’s got white marks all over his withers,” said Johnston.
“His pedigree, as is always the case, put us on to him. We’ve been fortunate to have horses for Lady O’Reilly (Beach Bunny’s owner), so would always pay close attention to her horses. Another factor was probably the fact that his stallion was sadly dead at the time, which meant he was never going to get the same support as most first-season sires and he was a weak, backward yearling.
“I’m not going to say we knew right away (he was good) as we buy 70 every year in that price bracket, but am I confident that out of 20 every year we’d find one good one? Yes, but was I confident he was the one? Probably not until he ran in the Royal Lodge, if I’m honest.
“The Royal Lodge (second to The Foxes) looked ambitious at the time, because of his price he’d been astutely placed to win two restricted novices, but I think the handicapper would have said he had no chance going into the Royal Lodge, as did the market. But it was a small field and it was a race we always like to target which led us to roll the dice.
“We’ll be taking the winner on again and a lot of water has gone under the bridge for both since the Royal Lodge. I got the impression up until York they thought he (The Foxes) was a 10-furlong horse and there was talk of the French Derby, whereas we’ve always known where we were going.
“Ahmad was always keen to go for the Guineas and, in hindsight, it was clearly the right decision because there’s been a hell of a lot more interest in him since then than before it. People take him a lot more seriously now.
“I said if he finished in the first six and hit the line strong I’d be delighted and that is exactly what he did. He’d have been fourth in another stride which would have been lovely but knowing he wants further, we couldn’t have wished for much more.”
Since the Guineas, John and Thady Gosden’s Arrest has won the Chester Vase on soft ground. His first run since being beaten a head by Dubai Mile in France and yet Dubai Mile is available at a much bigger price.
“A lot has been made of our form with Arrest and interestingly he’s about a quarter of the price we are. It’s probably not surprising given John Gosden’s Derby record and ours, but the weather forecast means it should be a good to firm Derby, whether it is or not we’ll wait and see,” said Johnston.
“I’m sure Arrest’s camp are a lot more worried about that than us. We might have won a Group One on heavy, but we’d rather it was quicker as it might inconvenience a few others.”
Of the others, he said: “I have a lot of respect for the (Jessica) Harrington horse (Sprewell), he looks overlooked in the market simply because Aidan (O’Brien) doesn’t get beaten in that (Leopardstown) trial and if you do beat him, you must have a good one.
“It’s been a bit different this spring as the two trials you’d expect Aidan to win he’s been beaten in, with the (John) Murphy horse (White Birch) winning the other (Ballysax) – and he ran a nice race at York (second to The Foxes).
“It should always be the best test of a three-year-old and all the ones who deserve to be there will be there. Does 14-1 represent our chance? It probably does, it might underestimate him a little.
“There’s no horse in this race that we know is better than ours, on ratings we’re right there with them all. He’s a Group One winner who ran a good trial over an inadequate trip in the Guineas, so in that sense I think we’ve got a rock-solid profile.
“The fact he was a €20,000 yearling and a bit more unfashionable probably explains why he’s 14-1 rather than 4-1. There’s nothing in there that scares me or we have 7lb to find with. If he improves for the trip, which we all expect he will, then he goes there with a good chance.
“I don’t feel it has added any pressure, it’s great to have a horse like this, you need them any time but to have one the first year the licence is in my name is great.”