Charlie Johnston talks us through a whole host of big-race targets for his best horses as he navigates his way through his first season as the sole licence holder at Kingsley Park.
On a gloriously sunny day in Middleham, Charlie Johnston, in red baseball cap, gilet and jeans, speaks into his walkie-talkie, waiting on the gallops. Minutes later a chestnut colt with a big white blaze on his face flashes past the Kingsley Park speedometer at 28 miles per hour.
Dubai Mile is the horse, preparing for the Betfred Derby at Epsom in just over a week's time. A special horse for both father and son. He was Mark’s 5,000th winner as a trainer and Charlie’s first ever Classic runner. A horse symbolic of the changing times at the vast Middleham operation, where now the buck stops with Charlie.
“There’s definitely an added responsibility and accountability for me, particularly with the results on the track,” he says. "It’s my name that’s tied to them and I’ve got to take the rough with the smooth, the plaudits when they win and the disappointment when they lose. In that sense there’s more responsibility on my shoulders.
"Behind the scenes here I think I’ve been planning the majority of what the horses are doing on a daily basis for a number of years now, so it’s been a gradual change of power. But no dramatic change over the last winter, for sure.
“So far so good is probably an accurate appraisal of how we’ve started the season. Obviously the real big meetings are just coming into focus now so horses targeted at the Derby and the Oaks and Royal Ascot after that, we need to build on the promising start and deliver at these big meetings.”
WATCH: Charlie Johnston interview
Charlie Johnston stable tour 2023
Charlie Johnston’s Horses To Follow
BENACRE – Big Ben. He’s a horse I’ve always had a real soft spot for. Physically he’s probably the best looking horse in the yard and for him to be competitive in Listed races over seven when he’s by Australia from a stout family, he could find another leg when he steps up to a mile and a quarter later in the year.
DUBAI MILE – Hopefully he can land another Group 1 for us this year. His next target is the Derby and he goes there with lots of things in his corner. He could be tailor made for the Grand Prix de Paris and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in the St Leger by the end of the year.
KNOCKBREX – I don’t think we saw the best of him at York and the way he moved through the race I would be really disappointed if he can’t make his mark in the handicaps at the best meetings.
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We were delighted with that really [fifth in the 2000 Guineas]. I was at pains not to call it a trial, as you can’t call a Classic a trial, but for us it was that to an extent. We were going there in the knowledge that he would improve a lot for stepping up to a mile and a half and that the test in the Guineas was always going to be quite sharp for him. My feelings going into it were, if he could finish in the first six and hit the line strong, we would be delighted, and that’s exactly what he did. As a trial for Epsom it was a great run.
His form is getting stronger all the time. The Derby picture at the moment looks quite wide open, but we’ve got a horse that we’re confident will stay, he seems to handle any ground and touch wood he’s got the temperament that he’ll handle the occasion. He’s certainly not out of place on what he achieved as a two-year-old and on his Guineas run and I think at 14/1 or 16/1 that’s a slight underestimation of his chances.
We flirted with the idea of taking to him to Epsom for the gallop there, but we felt it wasn’t really necessary, certainly from a fitness or well-being point of view with the horse. We’d have been doing it to give him a day out and a look around Epsom, but he’s got a temperament that we’re not overly concerned about him handling the occasion. With a four-week gap in between and him having a fairly vigorous build-up to the Guineas, there's not a huge amount of need for a lot of fast work at home. He’ll probably do one piece this Thursday, nine days before the race, and hopefully that will put him spot-on.
— Sporting Life Racing (@SportingLife) May 23, 2023
💪 Dubai Mile looking in great shape at @Johnston_Racing this morning as he steps up his preparations for the Derby at @EpsomRacecourse
🤔 A Group 1 winner as a two-year-old and 5th in the 2000 Guineas, is he overpriced at 14/1? pic.twitter.com/9idYb6htWo
He’s come out of the Dante well. He has entries for this weekend, he could go to the Silver Bowl at Haydock and he’s also in the Zetland Gold Cup at Redcar next week. We’re a little bit between trips with him, we’re not sure what his ideal trip for the year ahead is going to be, whether it’s a mile or a mile and a quarter. Looking towards Royal Ascot he’ll have races like the Britannia and the Hampton Court in mind. He outran his odds in the Dante, he was a 100/1 no-hoper but he travelled well into the race and ran well.
Dear My Friend
We were probably a little bit underwhelmed by Dear My Friend’s performance in the Dante. It was a bit of a messy race, I thought they went quite hard early, slow through the middle part of the race and then a sprint for home. He was never really in a nice rhythm, certainly not the rhythm he was in at Newcastle the time before. He is actually still in the Derby and that’s still under consideration. The hope is that physically he is built for middle distances, on pedigree you wouldn’t be as certain, but having paid the money to put him in the Derby the Middleham Park team are strongly considering rolling the dice and giving it a go.
Dance In The Grass
She ran a quite extraordinary race in the 1000 Guineas. At halfway I was verging on embarrassed as she was tailed off in stone cold last going backwards, but coming out of The Dip she went from 20th to fifth in the space of a furlong and a half, hitting the line strong. She has a pedigree that screams middle distances, she’s a Cracksman filly out of a Sir Percy mare, so we were always thinking she would go up to middle distances this year. All being well I would like to see her in the Oaks, she ran a good trial for it at Newmarket. Obviously there’s one horse at the head of the market way above everything else but behind that it looks quite open. I think she would be deserving of a place in the race that’s for sure.
Benacre is also in the Silver Bowl at Haydock on Saturday, but he may go to Cologne for the German Guineas next Monday instead. Then he’s got things like the Britannia on his horizon. He’s a horse we’ve always held in high regard and I think he’s going to continue to get better. He’s by Australia, so I think you can be fairly certain that when we start to stretch him out in trip he’ll improve further. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t make that jump from high-class handicaps into group races.
Benacre (black and white silks)
He was very impressive at Musselburgh and that got us dreaming of stakes races, we even got ambitious and entered him in the St James’s Palace, but the wheels came off a bit at Sandown last week [in the Heron Stakes]. I don’t know why he was so disappointing there, it was a hard one to fathom. There was a 14-length turnaround with the winner, Captain Winters, in the space of three or four weeks, the whole form of the race was hard to get your head around. I’m prepared to put a line through it and move on, so he could head to Germany for their 2000 Guineas as well.
He’s running in the Cocked Hat at Goodwood on Friday and it doesn’t look the strongest of renewals. After that he’s in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot over a mile and a half, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we stepped him up in trip and went for the Queen’s Vase with him. Ever since he ran at Epsom in the Blue Riband we’ve been working back from that race. He’ll definitely stay, his full-brother, Pons Aelius, is a two-mile winner, and Hadrianus is still lightly-raced and improving, so he’s at the top of the pecking order for the Queen’s Vase for us at the moment.
Another by Australia and one we expected to come into his own as a three-year-old over middle distances. That was his first try at a mile and a half [when winning at Chester], fending off another horse of ours, Demilion. He could either go straight to Ascot for the King George V Handicap, or there is a 1m6f handicap at Doncaster on Derby day that we often like to target with our good young stayers. It will be one of those two routes for him, but he’s lightly-raced and unexposed at those sort of distances and further down the line, Goodwood and Haydock, those sort of places, he’s going to be running in the better middle-distance handicaps.
He’s 7 or 8lb behind Struth on the back of that Chester run, and he actually could go back to Chester this Saturday and try and gain compensation there. Again, he’s in the mix for things like the King George V Handicap and he could stay a little further too, if needed.
It was a hard one, York, whether to be elated, disappointed or somewhere in between. If you’d stopped the race three out you would’ve said he’ll win by half the track, he looked to blow the race apart turning in, and I thought it was a matter of how far. Going into that race I would’ve had no doubts about his stamina at all, we were thinking of him as a possible Queen’s Vase horse. I’m not sure if we just went too hard, or whether he just didn’t stay a mile and a half at that level. Whatever, I think he’s a talented horse who is well up to handicaps at the very big meetings and I wouldn’t be surprised if he can make the transition into group company. Given the way he struggled with that last furlong at York, he could come back to a mile and a quarter at Ascot.
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She was very impressive at Doncaster on Saturday night. She didn’t beat a lot and the handicapper hasn’t missed her, she went up 9lb to 88. She’s in another of these fillies mile and a half handicaps at Goodwood on Saturday, I would suspect she’ll go there and then likely the King George V Handicap at Royal Ascot. It’s not impossible she could be a Queen’s Vase filly, she’s lightly-raced and looks to be improving pretty quickly.
Ferrari Queen ran a nice race in the Lingfield Oaks Trial. She’s in a little cohort of fillies that look Listed class at the moment, her, Crackovia and Sirona. Sirona could run in the Height Of Fashion at Goodwood on Friday and Crackovia could go to Germany at the weekend for a Group 3. They’re all fillies that should be competitive over a mile and a half in stakes races this summer, maybe a mile and a quarter for Sirona, it’s a division I think we’ve got some nice horses in. Abu Royal won nicely at Ayr, he’s just moving into handicap company off a mark of 82, he’s only had the three runs and could be an improving horse and I would like to think there will be a few more we unearth as the summer goes on.
Subjectivist wins the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot
Every day is a journey with him really. He had a really serious tendon injury back in 2021 and it was a very long journey to get him back. We’ve been to Saudi and Dubai already, I thought Saudi was just the run of a horse that had been off for a long time. He was far too fresh, far too keen, and just needed that under his belt. He ran a lot better at Meydan and left us dreaming we could maybe go back to Ascot and try and regain his [Gold Cup] crown. The difficult thing is that tendons, they aren’t like bone injuries that will heel, a tendon injury is always there lurking in the background and you’re always treading on eggshells and wrapping them up in cotton wool. We’re not there until we’re there, there’s four weeks to go on Thursday, not long, but we take every day as it comes and enjoy every race we get with him.
He does a huge amount of water therapy, so first thing every morning he would swim 20 laps of the pool, then go on the walker, then go out to exercise, do two canters, then the water walker for an hour and then he would stand in bubble boots or ice boots as well. There’s a huge amount of cold therapy, water therapy, and though we have a number of horses that would use any one of those different things, he’s pretty unique in that he has the whole hog of what we can offer, and that’s his regime that will hopefully get us to where he needs to be.
He’s had a good start to the season and won really impressively at Newmarket during the Guineas meeting. It’s difficult to say a horse benefitted from having no stalls but he did seem to enjoy the flag start, he settled a lot better than he had done previously at the Craven meeting. The race didn’t really pan out for him at Newbury on Saturday, he needs a strong pace and a couple to aim at. He won’t run again now until the Hunt Cup, we’ll work back from that with him.
Again, a slightly below-par effort last weekend having won at the Guineas meeting, I’m not sure what went wrong last time at Newmarket, he didn’t travel through the race with the same fluency. At the Guineas meeting under Andrea Atzeni I thought the race was over after a furlong, he always looked in complete control, whereas last weekend he never went through the race the same. We probably won’t see him until Ascot now either, he’ll go to the Buckingham Palace Stakes and the make up of that race should suit, a stiff seven. After that I’ve always had the Golden Mile at Goodwood in mind for him. You could move him between a stiff seven on a straight track and a turning mile, so those will be his targets with perhaps a Bunbury Cup in between.
One that is very difficult not to see through rose-coloured glasses is Subjectivist’s little brother, Individualism, again owned by Dr Jim Walker. Slightly different direction for the stallion in that he’s by Too Darn Hot, so a bit more speed in there. So much so we have considered running him over six, but I think I will be patient and wait for the sevens to come around. He’s a horse with a lot of quality.
Another Too Darn Hot, she’s got the best name as a Carolina Reaper is the hottest chilli in the world so I thought that was inspired. She had a setback in the spring, she’s only starting to come into faster work now, but I like her physically, she’s a very nice filly.
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