‘I was born in Australia as my Dad was despatched there for work. We only lived there for a few years, but I think it instilled a deep love of the outdoors and being in nature that’s never left me,’ explains Kate Johnson, adding, ‘We moved around a bit when we came back to the UK but I was basically brought up in the Midlands.’ She expresses her luck at being brought up in the countryside, which meant she had her own pony and a ‘succession of gorgeous Labradors’.
Kate speaks of her beloved, closely knit family. ‘It’s just me, my lovely mum and my wonderful older brother. We lost my dear dad to covid in 2020.’
Despite loving the countryside, Kate lives in west London with her ‘brilliant’ boyfriend, Ed. She has an appreciation for both bucolic scenery and cityscapes, having lived in cities throughout her adult life. ‘I had a few wild years in New York, so I’m definitely a city type, though a part of me always wonders if we should move to a tiny cottage by the sea and live off the land. I’m yearning for my own dog.’
Already an author, travel writer and journalist, Kate Johnson has beautiful interviews and colourful features published in national newspapers and magazines, including The Times and Horse & Hound. She had an idea and ran with it – encouraging former Champion Trainer Nicky Henderson to open up about the most influential horses throughout his racing life.
Via exclusive interviews with Nicky, Kate has written about far more than those twelve horses, she’s penned chapters overflowing with magic, courage, loss, hope and true love.
Do you ride? I’m very horsey. I’m not from a horsey family, but horses have a way of seeking you out. Actually, in the book, the jockey Steve Smith-Eccles says the same thing. He’s a million miles above me, of course, but he was brought up in a small mining town, with no link to horses at all. One day, as a very small boy, he walked past his dad watching the racing on a black and white TV. He looked at the screen, said, ‘Dad, I think I’ll be jockey’, and kept walking. He went to win three consecutive Champion Hurdles for Nicky on See You Then, among others.
Anyway, my aunt taught me to ride when I was six. She called everyone ‘old sport’, rode in a bowler hat, and had actual flamingos in her garden. She was, I see now, an expert horsewoman, and she found my first pony, Simon. He was tiny - I rode in a felt saddle - and he’d lie down and roll whenever we stopped but he was very kind, and I still think of him.
I hunted, and competed (badly) in shows and one day events, but I lost my nerve in my late teens, and gave up riding for decades, though I never lost my love of horses.
I took up riding again about ten years ago, to take part in a charity race and rode out at Richard Phillips’ yard in the Cotswolds. From my first canter up the gallops, something was lit. I was awful in the race - Richard will happily confirm this - but I fell so madly in love with the horse, Stop the Show, that I took him on when he retired and he’s still going strong, aged twenty-two.
Kate after her Cheltenham charity race on Stop The Show and groom Gulab
Are you a big racing fan? I’m a huge racing fan and the more I go, the more I love it. I got into it watching my beloved Stop the Show racing, with intense pride and light nausea; I saw most of it through my fingers. I had another big leap forward when I learned how to read a race-card.
I’m cautious by nature, and I don’t bet in any meaningful or intelligent way. Often, I’ll ask Ed, if I bet £5 each way on this horse, what will I get back, and he says with great patience, 76p.
Do you go racing? We always go to Sandown for the Tingle Creek, and the first day of Cheltenham Festival, though someone’s got to sort out the travel — the bus from the train station crawls through town slower than walking pace and last year we sat in stationary traffic for 90 minutes trying to leave the car park. Still, nothing will put me off and I can’t wait for this year. I really enjoy the parade of retired racehorses too; I loved seeing Native River last year. We go to Newbury, and once we went to Lingfield and stood right by the stalls. The BANG when the gates opened and the horses jumped out was electrifying.
What do you love about racing? It’s all about the horses for me; I love seeing them up close, gleaming, dancing round the parade ring, taking it all in, going sideways down the horse walk, cantering to the start with pricked years, just everything about them. Their physical presence is spellbinding. I defy anyone to stand on the rails as the horses gallop past, and not feel insanely excited by the beat of galloping shoes.
Favourite racehorses: There’s something lovable about all of them - I adored the insouciance of Mad Moose, sauntering back past his adoring fans when he’d refused to race - but one of my favourites will always be Sprinter Sacre. His charisma and glamour were off the charts and he knew it; he had a profound effect on people, just to see him. I loved his 2012-3 season, in the book his jockey Barry Geraghty talks about his phenomenal athleticism, making three lengths in the air, jumping himself from fifth to first in a flash. His 2016 comeback Champion Chase at the Festival was spectacular. By then he was ridden by Nico de Boinville and he told me in the book that his final instructions from Nicky were ‘do not disappoint this horse’. I feel that race represented everything that sport can be; the magic, courage, triumph, the otherness, an impossible dream coming true, and somehow taking thousands of us along with them.
Is this the first book you've written? Yes, I’ve been wanting to write a book about horses for ages, but I couldn’t find the right format, until this one.
Where did the idea come from? It just popped into my head and as soon as I said it out loud, I thought it was a good idea. Everybody loves a list, it’s a clear format that means you can take a deep dive into the best bits.
When I mentioned the idea to Nicky, the first thing he said, before yes or no, was, ‘it’s going to be very difficult to narrow it down to 12’. I took that as a good sign, that he was already thinking about who’s in and who’s out. He said later that he’d always refused to do a straight autobiography, but he liked this idea. And he was true to his word, it was very difficult to narrow it down - you’ll need to read the book to see how our negotiations panned out.
Why did you choose to write about Nicky Henderson? He’s the greatest. I’ve admired him for ever, and I’ve always loved how he talks about horses - this one’s a gent, that one would never dream of telling you he won the Gold Cup. You don’t need to know anything about racing to know what he’s talking about. Racing lingo can be excluding and is often quite facts-and-stats heavy, but Nicky brings it alive. Also, he has an unlimited supply of fantastic stories. He’s a public figure, so you think you know him, but he’s also a very private person with the most extraordinary, unique intuition about horses.
Did any of the horses Nicky Henderson picked surprise you? I didn’t know much about his career as an amateur jockey until we started talking so I loved hearing about his days with Happy Warrior, a horse given to him for his 21st birthday by his parents. Caracciola was a bit of a surprise, but he was the oldest horse to ever win a Flat race at Royal Ascot, aged 12, having already been over hurdles then fences then hurdles, and that in itself shows Nicky’s genius in finding the key to every single horse, to bring out the best in them, however unconventional it may appear to others.
What did you enjoy writing about Nicky Henderson the most? He’s never less than intriguing. I’ve never met a genius before, but now that I have, it was worth the wait. He just knows; he told me about waking up at 3am before the Festival one year and thinking, Bobs Worth is entered in the wrong race. He needs further. The next morning, he explained to one of the syndicate, Malcolm Kimmins, and said, I just know this is right. I just know. He did know, of course. His innate connection with horses is fascinating and his love for them is so deep it’s as essential to his being as oxygen. And because he’s such a huge name, I could talk to anyone that I wanted to, about him.
Racing attracts the most interesting characters, like John Francome, Richard Dunwoody, Mick Fitz, AP, Nico, Sam Waley-Cohen, Oliver Sherwood, Michael Buckley, it was just a complete joy. Everyone had a different take, everyone knew him very well, having been at close quarters with him, and not one of the sixty or so people that are in the book had a bad word to say about him, not a single word from any of them, which is pretty remarkable.
Are there any other people in racing that you'd like to write about? Jockeys are a source of endless fascination to me; I’m lost in admiration for them, and all they want to do is ride. Charlie Mann told me when he had to stop racing due to an injury, it was ‘worse than a death’ and in the book, AP talks about how much he misses it all, including the feeling of falling, being trampled in a twenty horse race, wondering if he’s going to live or die, and as the final horse gallops over him, thinking ‘I’m alive’. He says that is an amazing feeling and I believe him, though obviously I’m happy to take his word for it.
What did it feel like to hold your book in your hand for the first time? It felt good, if a bit odd! I just stared at the cover for a while, I love the photo as it sums up what the book’s about. It shows Nicky with Sprinter Sacre, having had a racecourse gallop at Newbury. It’s after Sprinter was pulled up with an irregular heartbeat, and before his comeback. Nicky is touching his nose with his forefinger, and it’s plain to see that something profound is passing between them. They know each other, they understand each other, they trust each other. It’s beautiful, intimate, and special.
Photo Credit: Debbie Burt
Do you have any advice to anyone who wants to write a book? Make sure you love the subject you choose, and have a great curiosity about it, as you’ll be spending a lot of time with it. Also, you can buy masses of expensive notebooks, set up an elaborate post-it note system, and do limitless years of research, but at some point, unfortunately, you just have to get on with it.
Do you have a favourite book? The Great Gatsby is the only book I’ve read more than once. I generally prefer non-fiction, though I’ll read anything the novelist William Boyd writes and Any Human Heart is his masterwork. I really love all of Raynor Winn’s books; each one is sincere, inspiring and affecting.
What are your future writing projects? I’ve got a few ideas, all about horses, but always open to more - if you have a good one, let me know. I’d love to do more books like this one, it was the most enjoyable experience I’ve had in my career.
Other interests: Just my ex-racehorse. He’s all-consuming, I really wish he’d consider moving in to my third floor London flat.
For signed copies and any enquiries: kate-johnson.co.uk or KateJohnson2@hotmail.com
*Many thanks to Old Gold Racing for the help in securing this interview. They published it first in their fabulous newsletter Racing Weekly. To sign up, go to https://mailchi.mp/2f6ba62d6182/racing-weekly-lead-capture