Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson pays tribute to Middleham horse racing trainer Mark Johnston's incredible record-breaking career and why he deserves every accolade sport has to offer

AS a motto, it could hardly be more fitting. Mark Johnston’s North Yorkshire stable operates under the banner ‘Always Trying’, and despite its brevity, the phrase neatly encapsulates why the 58-year-old Scot stands on the brink of making racing history. ‘Always trying – and generally coming first’.

Johnston is not really a trainer of great racehorses. He has only won two English classics, with his most recent success coming 14 years ago when Attraction triumphed in the 1,000 Guineas, and if you were to compile a list of the 50 best Flat horses in Britain and Ireland over the last three decades, there is a good chance none of Johnston’s runners would feature.

Indeed, if you were to throw together a list of the 50 best Flat horses running in Britain and Ireland this season, Derby runner-up Dee Ex Bee might well be the only one of Johnston’s horses to make the cut.

Nevertheless, there can be absolutely no doubt that Johnston is a great racehorse trainer. His tally of winners confirms as much.

On Thursday he broke the record for the most successes recorded by a British trainer, which stood at 4,193.

That is a truly staggering number, elevating Johnston not only to the very top table of racing, but also to an elite level of British sporting success that very few people from our region have reached. He might be a proud Glaswegian, but Johnston is unquestionably a North Yorkshire sporting great.

He has removed Richard Hannon’s name from the record books, but his success bears a much greater resemblance to the achievements of the person who held the record before Hannon, National Hunt trainer Martin Pipe.

Just as Pipe transformed the jumps game with his relentless pursuit of winners, so Johnston has helped shape Flat racing by carving out a clear methodology that has enabled him to record 100 or more winners in each of the last 20 seasons. Like Pipe, if there is a secret to his success, it is the ability to blend the complex with the simple.

As a trained vet, who trained whippets before he turned his full-time attention to horses, Johnston has been well-placed to embrace the scientific and technological advances that have transformed racehorse training since he took out his first licence in 1987.

Pipe was often portrayed as a curmudgeonly old-timer, yet he was regularly at the cutting-edge of training advancement, and the same is true of Johnston. From the state-of-the-art facilities that grace his Kingsley Park stables in Middleham to a willingness to experiment with nutrition, veterinary treatment and equine training methods, Johnston has never been afraid to try something new.

He only had a handful of boxes when he moved to North Yorkshire in 1988, but over the course of three winner-laden decades, he has overseen the transformation of his yard to a state-of-the-art complex that would be the envy of just about any other trainer in the country. As racing has changed, so Johnston has changed with it.

And yet, at its core, his training philosophy remains disarmingly simple. Again, the parallels with Pipe’s approach are clear.

If his horses are physically healthy, he runs them. That hardly sounds revelatory, but in an era when trainers in both codes tend to wrap their stable stars in cotton wool and restrict them to three or four runs a season, Johnston likes to see his horses running three or four times a month at the height of the summer.

He will go anywhere, at any time, if he thinks one of his horses has a chance of winning a race, and has become extremely adept at identifying an inviting opportunity. “I can’t believe the number of people who want to give their horse a break,” he said in an interview with the Racing Post earlier this week. “They give themselves a break often enough as they get injured and suffer setbacks”. If only more trainers had a similar approach.

Johnston’s preferred racing style also avoids over-complication. He likes to see his horses running from the front, setting their own pace and dictating the run of the race. If an opponent is good enough to come past, so be it. But very few of Johnston’s horses find themselves in a position where they can beat themselves.

Again, that hardly sounds like rocket science. But in an era increasingly dominated by pacemakers, complex race tactics and an over-analysis of sectional timings and the vagaries of the draw, sometimes the simplest approach is the best. Johnston has always been extremely popular amongst punters because if you back one of his horses, you know you’re going to get a run for your money.

His ability to extract every last ounce of talent from each and every horse in his stable sets him apart from the majority of his contemporaries, but then in the rarefied environs of top-class Flat racing, he has always been something of an outsider.

So much of Flat racing is dynastical – the Hannons, the Easterbys, Joseph O’Brien stepping into the shoes of his father, Aidan – but Johnston studied veterinary science at Glasgow University and worked as a trained vet for three years prior to switching to training. His is not a success that has been handed down through the generations.

It is also triumph that has been forged against the geographical odds. When Johnston swapped Lincolnshire for North Yorkshire 30 years ago, Middleham was in chronic decline. In the late 1980s, the horse population was fewer than 150, and both Low Moor and High Moor were on the brink of closure because the training fees they brought in were insufficient to fund their upkeep.

Johnston has not transformed the market town on his own, but he has been the figurehead of a rebirth that now sees Middleham’s racing industry playing a key role in the North Yorkshire economy. His stable alone employs more than 100 people, adding more than £3m-a-year to the economic mix.

When he arrived in 1988, Middleham was an empty shell, trading on its former glories. Now it is a vibrant racing crucible, third only to Newmarket and Lambourn in terms of national profile. For all the 4,189 winners that have left his stable yard – that will always be Johnston’s greatest legacy.

The whole of North Yorkshire should be grateful for his presence.