Trainer Mark Johnston on snotty noses, feeling ‘cold’ and why form can be temporary

Trainer Mark Johnston on snotty noses, feeling ‘cold’ and why form can be temporary
Mark Johnston criticises plan to stage jumps racing at Chester

Mark Johnston. Photo by Vernon Grant

Mark Johnston is a straight talking trainer I admire and, most of the time, agree with when he vents his spleen on the hot topics surrounding racing at any one time.

The flat season proper is over with and Mark went a while without a winner. Indeed, I was filming my interview with bookie Geoff Banks (on the right hand side of the homepage) at the very time that Johnston had his first winner for quite some time. In his excellent stable magazine Klarion Call, Mark writes of the feedback he has had during that lean spell.

It has always fascinated me why any stable can fluctuate between having a period of almost non stop winning, only to then go through a spell when none of their string can come home first. Why should a stable of horses go through a bad spell? Unless there is an infection or virus going through the yard, which can happen to any trainer, how come a stable goes on the so called ‘cold list?’ Do the horses speak to each other at night time and decide to go on strike? Like Mr. Ed (look it up young ones), do they say: “I don’t fancy winning this month, I’ll take a rest?”

Clearly not. So why do stables go through bad periods of form and how do they address that problem? Mark Johnston takes up his own story.

He says: “A Tom Hunt e-mailed me with regard to our recent spell without a winner and claimed that, if I was a football manager, I would have been sacked long ago. Surely not? At the end of a season when we finished third (on prize-money won) in the top league and scored more goals (winners) than any other team? I don’t think that happens too often, not even in football.

“He claimed my owners deserved an explanation. I didn’t really think so. We also had a higher percentage of individual winners to runners than any other trainer in Britain this season and so I hoped that most of our owners were pretty satisfied with the year and that any who weren’t could see that, overall, we have done very well.

“I also feel that, if it was possible to explain why we had a long run of losers, that would suggest that a cause could be identified and so, something could be done about it. If that were the case, I would have been doing it, not explaining it.

“However, it has to be said that Tom was not alone in seeking some comment from me. One owner, prompted by my presence on the Racing Post’s ‘Cold Trainers’ list, told me that I should be using the ‘Beltherings’ section of our website to explain the horses’ form.

“I. as I have said, don’t think it can be explained and so didn’t think it was worth attempting to do so, but clearly there are a number of people out there who think that speculation on such matters is interesting, so here goes.

“First and foremost, when our horses win fewer races over a period of time than we would normally expect, we have to decide whether, as a group, they are running below form or not. That is easier said than done.

“What is certain though, is that, when a yard appears to be out of form, many people, whether attached to the yard or simply racing enthusiasts, look for someone or something to blame. It is a time when owners, especially if they have not personally been having a good run, might be more likely to be critical of a trainer’s approach or procedures. I am very concious of this and, whenever our yard is in a trough, or perceived to be in a trough, I impress upon our team that we must batten down the hatches and ensure we maintain our highest standards.

“Most people seem to think that poor performance is most likely to be the result of infectious disease and many in racing come to call this phenomenon ‘the virus.’ I never did believe in this and have said from the outset of my career that the chances of all horses in the yard being ‘sick’ at the same time would be slim. What’s more, as our team grew, and horses were based on three different sites, the chances of there being an infectious agent which was, presumably, spread by people and could have equal effect on Warwick House and Kingsley Park farm – a mile apart – but avoid the neighbouring yards of George Moore, Philip Kirby and Karl Burke, was inconceivable and still is.

“Many of you will have heard me say in the past that it was a major breakthrough for us when, in 1995, we were able to keep our two-year-olds in a completely separate yard from our older horses. It is accepted that, in their first year in training, a horse’s immune system is not fully ‘mature’ – it simply hasn’t encountered, or developed immunity to, many of the pathogens it will meet when mixed with a large population of horses from different backgrounds. They are like young kids at primary school with permanently snotty noses and they provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Older horses stabled next to these youngsters might find themselves continually fighting off infection and their immune system ‘working overtime’ as described above.

“This would go some way to explaining our recent situation as we certainly have more yearlings on the premises than ever before and they started to arrive at the beginning of October, just when the winners dried up. But there are no yearlings in the Kingsley House yard and there are more runners from that yard than any other.

“It brings me back to the question of whether the yard, as a whole, was out of form and how many individuals were actually running below expectations. The answer, despite a run of 112 losers, is probably, not many. In that time there were only three beaten favourites and two of those were right at the beginning of the period.

“Oregon Gift took me off the ‘Cold Trainers’ list last month and attention will now be focused elsewhere but don’t expect a sudden rush of winners. Our all weather team is very small in comparison to recent years and our team of older (three and up) horses, overall, for 2015 will be our smallest in 20 years.

“The emphasis next year will be on two-year-olds but, as usual, they will be predominantly from middle-distance families. I don’t think we will be in a position to churn out the numbers that we have become used to but I’ll keep you posted on that over the winter as we finalise our make-up team.”

So there you have it. As always a detailed and candid assessment from the canny Scotsman, Mark Johnston. Visit his website for more ‘blatherings’ – as he calls them.

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