As Mark Johnston made history last week, Peter Barron went deep into the Yorkshire Dales to track down a man who kick-started the Middleham trainer's record-breaking success

IT’S been a joy over the past 30 years to watch one of the north’s greatest sporting success stories unfold.

I first encountered trainer Mark Johnston in 1988 after he arrived in Middleham with the bold declaration that his aim was to train classic winners from the Wensleydale market town that had been in seemingly terminal decline as a racing base.

Many scoffed at such fairytale ambitions but, last week, in the fitting  arena of York’s Knavesmire, the Glasgow-born qualified vet broke the record for the most winners trained in UK by surpassing Richard Hannon Senior’s tally of 4,193.

Johnston richly deserves every accolade, but he’d be the first to acknowledge the part played by a small, silver-haired 77-year-old, living out of the limelight, 14 miles up the dale in the pretty village of Bainbridge.

Indeed, it can easily be argued that without Bobby Elliott, Mark Johnston’s magnificent love affair with Middleham might never have even got out of the starting stalls.

Bobby’s own colourful story began in London’s East End when he was born during The Blitz in Hackney. The son of a Daily Express printer, horses played no part in Bobby’s life until the family was evacuated to the relative safety of Hornchurch, and he became obsessed with the local riding school.

Light and small, Bobby joined the pony club at 12 and was clearly a natural, quickly learning to jump the ponies and ride them bareback. “I couldn’t stay away and I knew then that I wanted to work with horses,” he recalls over coffee in cosy Corner Cottage.

He mixed with the show jumping fraternity and a well-known rider called Alan Oliver suggested he should join a racehorse trainer called Tom Masson, who had stables at Lewes. Bobby, aged 14 and weighing just 4st 7lbs, ducked out of school, and headed to Sussex to begin his racing career.

He rode his first winner, Dante’s Inferno, at Lewes Racecourse at 17 and the winners flowed for the boy identified on race-cards as RP (Robert Peter) Elliott. Dante’s Inferno was the first of nine winners in ten days and other trainers quickly took note. He was to go on to ride around 1,200 winners world-wide, including three for The Queen.

In 1970, he took a call from Dick Hern, one of the country’s leading trainers, asking him to come over to his Berkshire stables to ride work on some two-year-olds. One in particular – a big bay – felt “special”. He was called Brigadier Gerard and he progressed to be one of history’s greatest racehorses.

Bobby went on to ride in America and Hong Kong, where he was top jockey from 1971 to 1974. He returned to England in 1981 and, with opportunities hard to come by in the south, he moved north to ride for “Squeak Fairhurst” in Middleham.

After Beverley Races one day, a fellow jockey, Mark Beecroft, asked Bobby if he fancied staying behind to ride work on a couple of horses for an unknown trainer called Mark Johnston, right.

Bobby agreed and informed the rookie trainer that one of the horses was decent and would win a race but the other was just a selling plater. 
“I think I got paid a tenner and I thought that was that,” smiles Bobby.

But Johnston was clearly impressed and a week later he asked Bobby to ride the “decent” horse in a race at Carlisle. Hinari Video, owned by the founder of the Hinari domestic appliances company, Brian Palmer, won by three lengths and Johnston had secured winner number one.

At the time, Johnston’s gallops were on the shoreline at Louth, in Lincolnshire, and training had to be meticulously planned because the beach was also used as a bombing range by the Ministry of Defence.

“I used to go down there to ride work and the shells going off used to scare me to death,” says Bobby. “But at least we knew the horses were bomb-proof!”

The experienced jockey told the novice trainer that he’d have to find a better location if he wanted to succeed and, after looking at other options, he suggested he should check out Kingsley House in Middleham.  Formerly a deanery but converted into a racing yard, it had seen better days but with financial support from Brian Palmer, Johnston and his wife Deidre took the plunge.

Kingsley House became the foundation for what has become one of the country’s leading racing operations and the catalyst for the economic resurgence of Middleham.

Johnston did, indeed, train classic winners – Mister Baileys in the 1994 Two Thousand Guineas and Attraction in the One Thousand Guineas ten years later – plus many other equine stars, including legendary stayer Double Trigger.

“Right from the start, Mark had a meticulous eye for detail and was determined to keep on building more boxes. He had the drive and vision to keep growing,” says Bobby. “What he’s achieved is quite incredible.”

After Hinari Video started the ball rolling, plenty more of Johnston’s winners were ridden by RP Elliott. Up to the age of 75, the printer’s son was still riding out on the Middleham gallops, passing on words of wisdom in his East End twang to the man destined to be Britain’s record-breaking trainer.

“It’s nice to have been part of such an amazing story and Mark deserves all the praise in the world,” says Bobby. “I must pop in to see him and say well done.”