Mark Johnston, trainer, communicator and a man with a view on racecourse views

Mark Johnston, trainer, communicator and a man with a view on racecourse views
Mark Johnston criticises plan to stage jumps racing at Chester

Mark Johnston. Photo by Vernon Grant

I have plenty of time for the trainer Mark Johnston, writes Vernon Grant.

Though being in his presence at a function last year did somehow make me feel like a naughty schoolboy afraid to speak to the headmaster. He did absolutely nothing to make me feel like that, other than be in the same room as me.

Mark Johnston is the type of man for whom the phrase: “he does not suffer fools gladly” could have been invented.

You have to know your onions if you are to interview Mark Johnston. I confess that I chickened out of doing so that day.

I don’t like going into on camera interviews for my TV Channel unprepared.

I think it shows a lack of respect for the interviewee and, as I had no idea Mark would be attending, I had not prepared specific questions for him.

We have a mutual friend. Jim McGrath of Channel 4 Racing had told me not to be afraid of Mark. His bark is much worse than his bite, apparently.

So it was last Saturday when Jim’s C4 colleague Emma Spencer made her latest on air gaffe. She said to Mark Jonhston: “You’ve never won the Ebor, have you?”

Oh yes he has! As Mark was quick to make clear to Emma. Well done him for doing so in a charming manner and while wearing a smile.

I like Mark Johnston because he says it as he sees it. He has upset a few people who purport to run the sport of racing. Mark calls a spade a shovel and if he smells hypocrisy, or hears someone talking nonsense, he is quick to say so.

And he does so in print via the excellent publication produced by his stables. The ‘Kingsley Klarion’ is a rare beast these days. A printed magazine, in colour, which seeks to keep owners and interested parties in touch with what is happening at his successful stables. It informs and educates.

In this day and age, when an entire generation believes the only way to communicate with people is via the internet, I find it refreshing that at least one trainer is doing things the old fashioned way.

kingsley klarion by vernon The ‘Kingsley Klarion’ is a blooming good read. And I have learned plenty through reading the wide variety of illuminating articles within.

After all, at a time when communication has seemingly never been easier, it appears to me that people have forgotten the art of communicating.

No more do people reply to letters. The art of letter writing is on a life support machine, and with it, a one to one connection that fans of any sport used to feel when they received the courtesy of a written reply via the postman.

Young ones reading this may find it hard to accept but, in my youth, I did receive handwritten letters from the likes of footballers Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee, among others. And names from racing such as Lester Piggott and Willie Carson were among jockeys who replied to my requests for signed photos.

Now some of those stars may have got assistants to do the deed, or even fake a signature. But at least those at the heart of sport knew the importance of communicating with fans. I doubt 8 year old fans of Wayne Rooney or Luis Suarez know how to write a letter.

How come people in positions to advise, help or employ are so rubbish at replying to queries? All they have to do is press reply and type a few words.

It’s not as though you have to ask Miss. Jones, your secretary, to write a letter, address an envelope and post a letter.

In my experience, the majority cannot be bothered to reply via e-mail. That includes several bookmakers and almost all of those who publish sports magazines.

It has never been easier to connect with people, and yet so many in positions of power or influence cannot be bothered to do so.

At that 2012 function, at York racecourse, Mark Johnston was showing off some new horses. There I met the man he has employed to look after the bloodstock and marketing side of things, one Micheál Orlandi. He was kind enough to put me on the mailing list and I very much look forward to receiving the Kingsley Klarion, by post, each month.

The first pages I turn to are those where Mark airs his views on the hot topics in racing. I believe what he has to write deserves a wider audience.

In the latest issue he addresses racecourse finances, the employment of former footballer Michael Owen as an ‘Ambassador’ for the Qipco Champion Series and also on Goodwood racecourse.

I was particularly interested in his views on the latter, widely considered to be the most beautiful course in England and the first my late racing loving father took me to in the 1960’s. We went every August for Glorious Goodwood. With a family picnic and a pair of binoculars, we sat high on the hill. Not so much in the cheap seats as the free grass!

So, like Mark Johnston, I have a soft spot for Goodwood. And we have something else in common. We advocate watching the action in person, not on a screen.

Goodwood. Always glorious.

Goodwood. Always glorious. Photo by Clare Balding

In his latest editorial Mark Johnston says: “There are many special things about Goodwood – not least that we tend to have a lot of winners there – and, like many others, I would choose it as the track, above all others, to showcase the charms of British racing.

“It is the topography of the track that makes it so appealing and it is the twists, turns, direction changes, and altering gradients, seen in attendance at Goodwood, which set British racing apart from that throughout the world.

“I think, if I could show a potential owner from abroad just one British race, it would have to be a distance race at Goodwood. Not necessarily the Goodwood Cup itself, but any raceat more than a mile and a half so that my guest could see the whole building spectacle of a British flat race on turf. And we would, of course, have to watch it live.

“No doubt, races from Goodwood are as good as any to watch on television but reducing such spectacles to a flat screen removes much that is unique about Goodwood and British racing in general – especially if some idiot of a producer or cameraman decides to focus on the leaders and miss the action at the back of the field or to follow the winner beyond the finish and fail to show where and when all participants cross the line.

“When I am on track, I always watch races live and, in our quest to interest more people in racing and to educate them about the sport, we should encourage them to watch racing live and to enjoy the different perspectives that you get with the naked eye, through binoculars, and on television.

“After all, you can watch as many televised replays as you like but you can only watch the race, live, once.

“And courses would do well to remember that it is live racing that their on-track customers are paying for. Many will have a big flat screen at home and have no need to pay the exorbitant entry fees, which some tracks charge, to watch the racing on a screen.

“Big screens have been a great addition to our tracks and at times provide a detailed view that you cannot get by any other method, but some tracks have come to take them for granted and have neglected the view of the track which customers have from the stand.

“Even at Goodwood they are on the brink of a problem if the trees between the one and two furlong poles grow any more and obscure the view of the bend. At Newcastle, Doncaster and even my beloved Hamillton, it is already too late and large section of track are hidden from view by trees.

“In most cases, the tracks were there long before the trees and, presumably, until recently, it was considered a priority to provide a good view. It should still be, and the offending trees should be topped or removed altogether.”

Vernon writes: You see what I mean? Mark Johnston speaks his mind. There is too little of that in racing today. Way too many people sit on the fence, for fear of offending.

His suggestion that lumberjacks should be employed at Goodwood is unlikely to endear him to the tree hugging brigade.

But somehow I doubt that will cause him sleepless nights.

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