STARTING from scratch, with what he described as only ‘three-and-a-half paying horses’ and gallops that were part of an RAF target practice range, it was a case of sink or swim for the Glasgow-born rookie who had grown up on an East Kilbride council estate.

Fast forward to the present day and the sport has a new record breaker – its ultimate winning machine.

Johnston has overhauled the total that Richard Hannon Sr accumulated during his career and, at 58, with his stable still among the most powerful in Britain, he looks like raising the bar to giddy heights for anyone with designs on passing him.

Johnston got the racing bug early in life – his father had been a groom in the Army and owned horses – and by the age of 14 his stated ambition was to become a trainer.

His parents insisted he took a degree, to give him something to fall back on, and his choice of a five-year veterinary course at Glasgow – laced with periods in racing stables around the world - provided a safety net plus an edge when it came to observing and caring for the thoroughbreds in his care.

Johnston married his childhood sweetheart, Deidre, in 1985 and two years later began training from a humble base in

Lincolnshire. That first year with a licence yielded a single winner; Hinari Video landing a maiden for two year-olds over

five furlongs at Carlisle.

A smallish colt, Hinari Video kept on gamely after making the running and would go on to run in another 126 races. Despite being of limited ability, he would also win 11 more races.

He was the first example of a Johnston-trained horse who retained his enthusiasm throughout his career and would keep coming back for more. There have been countless subsequent examples.

The Johnstons moved to Middleham in 1988, buying Kingsley House. The yard has developed into one of the finest in the business, with facilities including three separate grass gallops; an all-weather Tapeta gallop; an equine swimming pool; five lunging rings; weighbridges and starting stalls. There are also numerous turn-out paddocks among the 270 acres of land.

A few winners soon became a flood and his first yearly century followed in 1994. Ever since, he has achieved three figure tallies every year and, since 2009, chalked up 200 or more successes on seven occasions.

His first 1,000 winners were accumulated in record time – 90 days quicker than previous holder Sir Henry Cecil – and if anything the trainer, whose motto is “Always Trying”, is hitting landmarks quicker and quicker.

For example, it took him just four-and-a-half years to move from 3,000 to 4,000 winners. That suggests, at his present rate, he might hit 6,000 in the next decade.

Deidre has been his long-time assistant and Charlie, his son, is another pillar. A small army of dedicated staff include numerous vital cogs in the wheel and several of them, such as Robynne Watton (Senior Travelling Manager), Hayley Kelly (Yard Manager), Jock Bennett (Assistant Trainer), Neil Hodgson (Box Driver) and Mark Billingham (Travelling Manager) have been with him at Middleham more than 20 years. It is a formidable operation run by a formidable man.

In a Q&A with Great British Racing, trainer, Johnston was asked in the build-up to his history-making moment what becoming the winning-most trainer ever in British racing would mean to him.

“It means a lot. I’ve always been happy to accept that the trainers’ championship is decided on prize-money, even though I think I would have been 12-times champion if it was decided on winners,” he said.

“Quality arguably matters more than quantity, too, but there is no getting away from it that all owners – big and small – are in this for winning. We know how important getting winners is.

“To us, it’s very important to win more races than anybody else and we’ve done that through unprecedented consistency.

“All yards have peaks and troughs, but we have less troughs than anybody else and we have managed to sustain these high numbers every year now for 20-odd years.”

Paying tribute to the role his wife plays in his operation, he said: “Her dream was to work with horses and going into racing with me allowed her to do that. She’s more infatuated with horses than I am – she even wants them on holiday.”

On whether he can imagine the day when he is not training, he said: “Yeah, I can, although I’m sure I’ll still be involved.”

And his attitude to training winners is perhaps best summed up by his reaction after his Dee Ex Bee had finished runner-up in this year’s Investec Derby.

“Second sucks,” he said. Clearly, his thirst for firsts is unquenchable.