Johnson ticks off the milestones in landmark season

By Dennis Ryan

28 Jul 2021

Johnson ticks off the milestones in landmark seasonDanielle Johnson is feeling good about life after a landmark season

“In my own mind, the most important thing is that I believe I’m living the best life possible.”
A season of milestones and personal choices have Danielle Johnson in a happy place as she faces her next challenges from the top of the jockeys’ ladder.
The first highlight of 2020-21 was joining the 1,000 wins club in February and sharing the pride with former jockey Peter Johnson as the world’s only father and daughter to both hit four figures. Then last Saturday she became the eighth New Zealand jockey to hit 150 wins in a season, sealing her first premiership.
In between piling up the wins, earlier this month Johnson confirmed her relationship with her contemporary on the trainers’ premiership, runaway champion Jamie Richards, when she moved into his home around the corner from Matamata racecourse.
New Zealand’s other major thoroughbred-centric town, Cambridge, had been Johnson’s previous base for a number of years, but the end of her personal relationship with trainer Stephen Marsh precipitated a change in circumstances. Even so, this was no bridge-burning exercise as Johnson has maintained ties with the Marsh stable at the same time as strengthening her ties with the Richards-managed Te Akau team.
“I’ve still got my own home in Cambridge but I’ve rented that out and moved in with Jamie,” Johnson told RaceForm. “So now I’m a Matamata girl, but I tell them around here that I still prefer Cambridge – maybe it’s the café culture over there!
“Stephen and I have been mates for a long time and we always will be, so I was always going to continue to ride for him. What it means now is that I’m able to ride for New Zealand’s two most successful stables as well as be available to ride for other trainers, which for me is a great position to be in.”
While some might interpret that as a hard-nosed attitude, it’s more a summation of Johnson’s professional approach to her career and most likely something inherited from her father.
“Dad has always been my harshest critic but I’m also the apple of his eye – then there’s Mum and my brother Nick,” she says with trademark candour. “When I was doing my apprenticeship with Russell Cameron and still living at home, I used to get a bollicking from Dad whenever he thought I had ridden a bad race.
“As I’ve got more experience you know yourself when you stuff up, so if a trainer says I rode bad but I think I didn’t, I’ll run it by Dad. He’s honest and will give me his opinion, although that still doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll agree with him!”
Johnson, whose mother Annabelle maintains a small racing and pre-training team, appreciates the role that trainers must play in their own competitive environment.
“Like anything, to be successful you have to be dedicated, but training is such a demanding job,” she says. “The way Jamie operates I realise he just loves it, he’s incredible the hours he puts in and I find myself having to tell him to have a sleep-in on a Sunday morning.”
Another highlight of the past season has been Johnson’s association with the Richards-trained Avantage, who she partnered in two of her four Group One wins, the Telegraph at Trentham and the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes at Te Rapa.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to ride horses like her when circumstances permit. I know I’m not always going to be on when they’ve got riders like Opie (Bosson) and Troy (Harris) to choose from, but being able to ride a lot lighter than them definitely works in my favour at times.”
Not everything went Johnson’s way during her maiden premiership season. COVID-enforced border controls meant she missed out on invitations to jockeys’ series in Japan and Saudi Arabia, while on the local scene not being able to be part of Group One victory to the classy mare Supera was a particular disappointment.
“I would have loved to have got her home for her owner Sir Peter Vela, who has been such a positive influence on me, someone who gives me very good advice when I want it. I won a number of races on Supera, but the one I really wanted was that Group One in her last race, the Zabeel Classic, and it hurt to go so close (a long neck second to Concert Hall).”
From the time Johnson finished second to Matt Cameron with 135 wins on the 2014-15 premiership, it has been an ambition to go one better. Third and fifth placings followed in the next two seasons, but Johnson’s career went on hold after she suffered multiple shoulder and collarbone fractures in a race fall in late 2018.
“It wasn’t much fun when it happened but I’ve never regretted taking that year off,” the 30-year-old says. “It was the chance that others might have when they’re 18 to see some of the world, so I finally got to do it.”
With the backing of quality stables, the input of her agent Kevin Booth and her own competitive spirit, Johnson is happy for the winners to continue and most of all add further majors to her current tally of seven Group Ones and 78 black-type races in total.
“No matter what horse it might be, Group Ones and other big races are what you most want to be winning, so that’s where much of my focus is. A premiership is something you can never predict, but I’m comfortable with that.
“I love my life here in New Zealand and rightly or wrongly I’m pretty content with things as they are. Whether that makes me an under-achiever, well that’s something others can make their minds up on.
“In my own mind, the most important thing is that I believe I’m living the best life possible.”