Me by Mark Johnston
Mark Johnston (BVMS 1983) is the most successful racehorse trainer in British racing history, having produced over 5,000 winners since establishing his stables in 1987. Although becoming a trainer was a childhood aspiration, Mark’s mother insisted that he should have a career to fall back on if his racing ambitions did not work out, so he studied to become a vet before beginning to realise his dreams.
You’ve trained over 100 winners a year for each of the last 29 seasons. What factors do you think have contributed to your amazing success?
It is very difficult to say. People always ask whether the veterinary degree and education I gained at the University was a major factor and I suppose it was, but not necessarily in the way you would imagine. I think it honed a way of thinking. I wasn’t a good student but I think, from the outset, I understood the principles of ‘good science’ and objective thinking.
"I started out in the racing industry with a blank canvas, unhindered by traditional practices, and I tried a lot of new ideas. Many were ridiculous and failed but, luckily, some worked.
What role did horses play in your life when you were growing up?
My father always loved horses and horse racing. He had worked briefly as a groom in the army but he always wanted to own horses. He bought a pony for my sister while we were still living in a council estate in East Kilbride and when we moved to Aberfoyle he bought a thoroughbred filly for my eldest sister as a riding horse. That was soon followed by another. He bought the thoroughbreds for my sisters, but in reality they were for him and he was soon breeding from them. Sadly, he wasn’t very good at it – breeding from bad mares and cheap stallions – and I now joke that he taught me how not to do it.
You practised as a vet for three years after your degree – what were some of the highlights of this period?
I had three vet jobs in three and a half years as I was always moving in search of more horse work and a potential route into the racing industry. My first job, in Newtownstewart, Northern Ireland, was the most enjoyable and I still have many friends from that area. I really liked the cattle work, which was the mainstay of the practice. But it was arguably in my last job, in Braintree, Essex, that I met some clients who were to give me significant support when I started training. One was the first person to send me a horse to train and I rewarded him, just six years later, with a Classic winner.
"I wanted to work with racehorses from my early teens. Trainer was the ultimate dream and eventually we took the plunge, bought a small yard on an endowment mortgage, and started from scratch.
What do you regard as the highlight of your career?
I don’t think there was a single highlight – it is more a case of milestones that helped propel us forward – but I suppose the biggest and most significant of those was Mister Baileys winning the 2,000 Guineas [one of Britain’s five 'Classic' annual horse races] in 1994.
You marked your first race victory in an unusual, 'retro' way – tell us about it?
It was 1 July 1987 and the horse was Hinari Video at Carlisle. In those days there were no satellite racing channels and racecourses didn’t give you a video of the race. My wife Deirdre was teaching in a school in Grimsby and she had to sneak out to phone the race results line (no mobile phones either) to get the result. She even stopped at a phone box on the way home from school to call again just to check it was right. Then, when I got back from Carlisle, we put the race results on Teletext and ‘watched’ that all evening until we went to bed.
Is there a particular horse, past or present, that has a special place in your heart?
Undoubtedly Attraction, the filly we trained from 2003 to 2005 for the late Duke of Roxburgh. She was infamous for her ‘crooked’ front legs and no sales company was willing to take her as a yearling. She won five Group 1 races for us [the top tier of horse races] and she has gone on to be a great success at stud.
What were the main hurdles you had to overcome in building your business?
The main thing in the early days was, as with most small businesses, money. Building a racing stable is all about training winners, and to train winners you need as many horses as possible. Not only were we short of horses, but some of the owners in the early days were not the best payers. Deirdre would not have considered herself mathematically minded at school but she found herself doing daily cashflow calculations in order to try and get enough money in each week to pay the wages. A legacy from those days is that, even now, Deirdre personally checks every invoice we send out, every bill we get in, and that the bank account balances.
Your motto at the stables is ‘Always Trying’. Is there anything else you are always trying at, outside of horse racing?
Our aeroplane and our windsock have ‘Always Flying’ on them. I can’t say I’m really always flying but I’ve had my licence since 2011 and I now do about 250 hours a year. I’d like to be always cycling but, in reality, my cycling is pretty sporadic, as can be seen by my body shape.
Do you have any other animals in your life apart from horses?
We currently only have one dog, a Labrador cross poodle, and a Siamese cat in the house, but we need another dog or two. We have cats outside in the yards to keep the vermin down. We also have a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle that we share with some fellow Glasgow vet graduates after we met up with them at the vet school reunion ten years ago.
Where’s your favourite place in the world?
I’m very lucky that horse racing has taken me all over the world, but sometimes I only see airport, taxi, racecourse, taxi, and airport again. I’ve seen many wonderful places all over the world but still have a hankering to spend more time on the west coast of Scotland. Rain and midges are myths we put out there to keep the number of tourists down.
You have been generous with your philanthropic support to the University. What motivated to you give and what has been the result of your support?
We have made small donations to a few projects and appeals and sponsored student year groups but I suppose the main thing we have done was funding the vet school’s first dynamic endoscope [an imaging facility used to detect problems when a horse is exercising] when there was a bit of a race on with Bristol to be the first university in Britain to have one. I am passionate about Scotland, Glasgow, and the University. You have to give something back.
Do you have any professional or personal ambitions left to fulfil?
I don’t think you can ever stand still. If you take your foot off the pedal things can start to roll backward. So, with Charlie having taken over the trainer’s licence this year, the ambition is to see him continue to grow and improve the business.
Memories of Glasgow
I was a bad student. One lecturer described me as ‘doing the postal course’. I repeated first year and had resits in every year except final year. I shared a flat with a friend while we repeated first year. We stumbled our way through the next four years and then shocked the whole class when we both passed the finals at the first attempt.
Both our sons were strongly encouraged to go to Glasgow because I had loved it so much. Charlie, like me, did Veterinary Medicine at Glasgow. Angus did Business and Finance at Strathclyde and still lives in the city now. Veterinary Medicine is a particularly great school as, in my day, the classes were small (70 in each year) so we all knew each other and tended to move around as a group, socialising with other vet students. Great camaraderie.
I was a bit of a rebel (maybe am to this day) and so joined the QM Union as soon as it was opened to males. I would support any minority cause. Maybe, if I could go back again, I wouldn’t do that and would stick with the old traditional GU Union.
I love the people of Glasgow, the architecture,and especially the University. I think it’s wonderful that it is a campus within a city, blending into the city around it, not a modern prison-style one in the middle of nowhere.
This article was first published September 2023.