AP McCoy showed the true meaning of being a champion, insists Johnson
AP McCoy has cast a massive shadow over the career of Richard Johnson - but the rider set to succeed the Ulster great as champion jockey is missing his old rival.
Johnson was runner-up 16 times during McCoy's stunning run of 20 successive titles before the Moneyglass man's retirement last April at the age of 40.
And now Johnson - former partner of the Queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips - is running away with what will be his first ever title at the grand old age of 38.
But as well as being fierce rivals, McCoy and Johnson were good pals, and the latter admits to missing his old mate, despite the fact his retirement opened the door for the Englishman to realise his ambition.
"It's weird in a way but I do miss him. In some ways, because he was so amazingly good, I'm delighted he's not here but he was really fair and just a great sportsman," said Johnson.
"He wanted to be the best but he wanted to do it fairly. There was no bumping and barging or trying to be clever.
"He was especially good when we were on young horses who are keen or don't jump very well. We talk between ourselves early on in a race - and he always wanted to help. But of course with two fences to go he was terribly hard to beat."
He continued: "People say to me: 'Oh you've really tried hard this year.' Well, I've tried really hard every single year. But this season has been different. If I hadn't managed to be champion jockey I would have been, not a failure, but it would have felt like such a let-down with AP retiring. I needed to prove to myself I could do it.
"I once rode 186 winners in a season but I'm hopeful of passing 200 this time. It would be special to have my best-ever season in the year I finally become champion."
Johnson admits that being in the slipstream of a phenomenal champion like McCoy for two decades has been tough.
"It hurt for many years. I got disappointed and annoyed with myself," he confessed.
"It wasn't the fault of Dave Roberts (the agent to both McCoy and Johnson) or a trainer's fault. I just couldn't ride as many winners as AP. I was frustrated more than anything else.
"One year there were only 11 winners between us at the end.
"You're always dreaming but when I rode two winners, AP rode three. I never really felt more than hopeful rather than confident.
"At the same time I'm so glad I raced against him my whole career rather than someone I didn't get on with. It would have been much harder if I didn't like him.
"There would be at least five days a week where we'd sitting next to each other in the weighing room.
"We spent a lot of time talking the same old rubbish. He was great for me to have a bit of a moan to - and vice versa," he explained.
"We had the same mentality. Ordinary races mattered as much as if they were in the Cheltenham Festival. We wanted to win all of them."
In McCoy's final race last April, the perennial understudy actually beat him.
"I knew it would be a sad day but I was surprised by how much it affected me," Johnson recalled.
"After I won his last race I just didn't know what to say. It was great to win but my thoughts were with him," he explained.
And Johnson - who carries the tag of most rides, 19, in the Grand National without a win - is impressed by how the legendary McCoy is dealing with retirement.
"He's doing okay. AP's said to me: 'I'm just so busy I don't have time to think about missing it.' I think the worst thing you could do is sit at home and watch the racing channels - all you are doing then is thinking what horse you might have been riding," he said.
Johnson last week racked up his 3,000th winner over jumps - an incredible achievement but one that is overshadowed by a certain McCoy who has 4,348 triumphs, leaving Johnson second on the all-time list, a long way ahead of another Ulsterman, Richard Dunwoody, with 1,874.
Johnson has 176 winners this season - he is 71 clear and barring injury will be crowned champion jockey at a canter.
And AP McCoy will be the first to congratulate him.