Just 22 when he won the race aboard the Noel Chance-trained Looks Like Trouble, he has achieved a considerable amount in the intervening years, but the sheer joy, with a touch of relief and shock, was still quite evident on the 40-year-old’s face after he guided Colin Tizzard’s Native River to victory in yesterday’s renewal.
His mount is quite uncomplicated, and yet not one for an inexperienced jockey. He has stamina in abundance and likes to quite aggressively ridden, and Johnson’s class and experience shone through as he made all the running aboard the 5-1 chance.
There were some doubts about Might Bite’s appetite for the hill, some uncertainty about his stamina for the three miles and two furlongs on testing ground, but he travelled oh-so-stylishly in the hands of Nico De Boinville and posed a major threat to the winner throughout.
The two horses readily separated themselves from the remainder of the field as the race move into its final stages, but it was Might Bite who looked to be going best as they jumped the second-last.
De Boinville, knowing what his mount had tried to do after jumping the last in the 2017 RSA Chase, held on to his charge for as long as possible.
It was a brilliant ride by the Champion Chase-winning jockey, but when push came to shove his mount found a rival — and a jockey — in no mood to be denied.
Native River, third in this race in 2017 and runner-up in the four-mile chase in 2016, had stamina assured, and under a power-packed ride by Johnson he ran on powerfully up the hill to see off the favourite by four and a half lengths.
Anibale Fly proved best of the Irish, running on into third place, while Road To Respect ran his heart out in fourth. Total Recall was in the process of running a huge race until crumpling on landing at the third-last.
In a fair reflection of how the British runners had fared during the first three days of the meeting, the closest Johnson had gone to winning was a sixth-place finish in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
“It’s been a long 18 years,” said a delighted and relieved Johnson. “For me the Gold Cup is the most important race of the year. I know for some people the Grand National is the ‘people’s race’, but this is the best of the best.
“It’s everyone’s dream to own a Gold Cup horse and to ride one is brilliant. To win it now twice is fantastic. The championship has always been my main target but when you can have one or two of these along the way, they are very special.”
Of how the race went, Johnson added: “To be honest, I was a passenger. He’s a fantastic horse to ride. He loves jumping and almost waits for things in front and just does what he has to.
“I thought we had gone quite steady but sometimes when you are on a good horse it doesn’t feel that quick, and I thought I needed to move it on a gear down the back straight and the more I asked from him, the better he jumped.
“From four out onwards he just kept picking up. I could see Might Bite next to me and going to two fences out he looked to be travelling quite well, but I knew Native River is a stayer and I felt we had to try to give him as much to do as possible.
“He answered every call and at the last he was very brave. Up the run-in he just kept going. It was very testing conditions out there — I’m not sure we will see them as testing again, but he’s a warrior and it’s a pleasure to ride him.
“I don’t think Might Bite ever headed us but I could tell he was going nicely and that Nico was not wanting to commit and go on, but I think he was thinking I was going to lead him.
“Might Bite’s run a fantastic race and on a different track on a different day in different conditions the result might have been different. But today everything was in our favour.
“It is always down to the horse. If you are on the right horse and get into the right rhythm, it makes riding from the front almost easier as there is nothing to get in your way.
“Very few horses are as straightforward as he is, or as brave; I am very lucky to have got the ride and we’ve had some great days over the past couple of years. He’s only eight years old and hopefully there are many more to come.”
“It’s unreal,” exclaimed winning trainer Colin Tizzard, who was full of praise for the winning rider. “It’s the fourth day and the Irish have been winning everything — I was thinking our form is not as good as we imagined. Then Richard Johnson gives that brave horse that sort of ride and everything changes.
“When Might Bite came alongside, and might even have headed him, I thought oh, no, but then Richard was brilliant. You wouldn’t tell him what to do, because he knew what he was going to do a week ago.
“Native River wasn’t quite right after Cheltenham last year and we couldn’t get him going any earlier this season. We made a plan to give him one run at Newbury before coming here, but I was getting a bit jumpy at Christmas and thought we ought to run him then. However, we stuck to the plan and it’s paid off.
“I came here at 17 and 18 years of age, and never thought I would win the Gold Cup and I’ve just done it. If you ask me again I’ll start crying again.”
Nicky Henderson, trainer of the runner-up, was delighted with his charge: “It was a great race and he has done absolutely nothing wrong. We were taking on a horse who absolutely loves this and, unfortunately, we don’t. Might Bite has tried his socks off.”
Tony Martin, trainer of third-placed Anibale Fly, said: “It is great to see him bounce back today. It is probably as deep as Cheltenham has seen the ground for some time and we coped. He handled it well and ran a blinder. Any day you have a third in the Gold Cup, it can’t be bad.”