Johnson raring to go at Hereford
Any decision taken to close a sporting venue brings with it a tinge of sadness for those it effects and served to create ever lasting memories for.
Richard Johnson: Rides at Hereford on Thursday
When the announcement was made in 2012 that Hereford racecourse was to shut its doors, it came as a shock to many in the National Hunt world, none possibly more so than reigning champion jockey Richard Johnson.
For any jockey, riding their first winner under Rules is a moment to savour and on April 30, 1994, as a then relatively-unknown 16-year-old, Johnson achieved just that at the Roman Road track, partnering 25-1 shot Rusty Bridge, trained by his grandfather Ivor Johnson, to victory in the Next Generation Hunters' Chase.
Since that success 22 years ago, Johnson has established himself as one of the finest riders in the business, chalking up more than 3,000 career winners featuring a number of Grade One successes, including victories in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.
With the track set to open its doors again on Thursday following four years in the wilderness, Johnson, who is booked for five mounts at the course, is now looking forward to racing resuming at the venue which acted as the springboard to the glory days he has since enjoyed.
"It was very sad when it closed, as it was my local track. To have my first winner there was something I will always remember," said Johnson.
"Over the last couple of years you are worried that perhaps it wasn't going to come back, but obviously you hoped it would. You get to a point, though, where you think it won't reopen, but I'm delighted it is coming back.
"It's got great memories for me and I'm very grateful for Arena Racing Company and all the team for getting it back open again."
Although the memory of his victory aboard Rusty Bridge, who will be honoured with the track restaurant named after him, is a little hazy compared to what it used to be, it is still a winner that for Johnson will always rank alongside those he has enjoyed on a more grand stage.
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"It's a bit of a blur really," said Johnson. "He is a horse that I used to push from start to finish. He wasn't very fast, but he taught me a lot. It was the best day of my life when I did it.
"I'd ridden him a couple of times already. He wasn't very fast but he always kept going and he was always usually in the shake-up. When you are 16 you are always very enthusiastic.
"It was a dream come true to have a winner at your home track.
"You never forget your first winner and as it was a family horse it makes it more poignant. Just to ride a winner was a dream.
"To achieve that was fantastic and to do it at your home course and on that day it was the best feeling in the world. One thing for sure is that picture will always be at home."
He added: "It's very kind of ARC and Rebecca Davies who is managing Hereford now to call the restaurant Rusty Bridge after him. He was a home-bred of my parents. It's nice to have him remembered there."
With runners from yards including champion trainer Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Alan King featuring among the 64 horses declared on the seven-race reopening, Johnson is confident the meeting will be the first of many more for years to come.
"I know it's had a lot of local support, but trainers from across the country have been supportive," said Johnson.
"It's been supported by trainers in the past. I know a lot of trainers were keen for it to reopen. As a small country track it is a very good track and I think people like taking their young horses there.
"You don't always want to take young horses to places like Cheltenham and Newbury all the time.
"It is sometimes nice to start them off at a smaller venue and bring them through slowly. Hereford is one of those tracks that people enjoying starting their horses at and then can aspire to bigger things in the future
"When a sporting venue closes it very rarely reopens. I think a lot of credit goes out to an awful lot of people.
"To be fair to ARC they seem to have done it in a positive way. They've put some money behind it.
"I'm sure they've not done it for just six months. They won't have done all this unless they felt confident of having it as a racecourse for years to come."
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