Inspirational trainer Darryl Johnston’s treble Saturday took his winning tally to 101.

Published 11 June 2024

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For sheer guts and determination in not allowing a most dire form of adversity prevent him forging a “new life” career in horse racing, you just have to admire Rockhampton’s Darryl Johnston. A highly successful young Rockhampton jockey with well over 300 winners to his name, Darryl was left paraplegic resulting from a horrific race accident at Callaghan Park racecourse on December 29, 2007. He was just 23 at the time.

Darryl proclaimed within a month during lengthy hospitalisation and rehabilitation, his accident would not prevent him from forging a successful career as a horse trainer. Some even good intended doubted it possible. (Not myself as I had witnessed it previously). They were not idle words from Darryl. That he has subsequently done and did as just six days short of the first anniversary of that unforgettable day at Callaghan Park the previous year, Darryl Johnston trained his first winner Reraise at Mackay. Fiercely independent, this remarkable achievement Darryl accomplished when just into his second month as a trainer. 

Those memories in part came flooding back to me at Moranbah’s Treasure Park racecourse last Saturday, where I had the pleasure to broadcast Darryl’s first winning treble as a trainer which he shared with SEQ jockey Minonette Kennedy. First there was Grand de Lago which Darryl part owns winning the MEU Open Handicap (1400m). Then 80 minutes later Annie’s Top, owned by loyal Gladstone based stable clients Marg and John Togne won the $17K Oaka Construction QTIS Maiden (1000m). Although he was unaware of it at the time, for Darryl Johnston that was the most significant win of his career. In fact, it was his 100th win as a racehorse trainer. He topped that number just 30 minutes later when Togne’s Mr Tangles won the last at Moranbah, the O-Site Rental BM 60 Handicap (1000m). 

It was a 100% winning day for trainer Johnston – three runners – three winners. Sounds easy but far from it. Darryl and Natalea had been at their Callaghan Park racecourse stables hours before daybreak on Saturday preparing their team for the five-hour float trip to Treasure Park racecourse Moranbah. The long drive back to Rockhampton, perilous during daylight hours let alone at night with industrial trucks and curious kangaroos sharing the roads, was a slow grind but winners are grinners. “We got back to the stables around 10.15pm all safe and sound,” Darryl reported.

Interestingly as a jockey Darryl only ever rode the one winner at Middlemount. However, at Callaghan Park he rode 166 (Courtesy Racing and Sports.)

“I won an Amateur Cup for Lyle (Rowe) on Laurinel Impulse (2002), and he was my only winner that I ever rode in town (Brisbane – Eagle Farm 25/4/03),” Darryl said.

Saturday’s Moranbah treble was the continuation of an enviable winning run Darryl has achieved with his current team of five horses in training. In fact, in the 28 days since Mr Tangles won at Calliope on May 11, Johnston has produced seven winners from 17 starters with four placings to boot. Aspen Lad won at Home Hill on May 18 while 630km away Miss Daurian won at Emerald on the same day. A fortnight later Darryl drove towing Miss Daurian and Annie’s Top the 522km or around six hours trip to Ben Bolt Park racecourse Bowen. Miss Dauren won, and Annie’s ran fourth. Then of course that was topped by the treble at Moranbah. 

“I’ve won recently with the only five horses I have in training,” Darryl said with justifiable pride while I cautioned him in a joking manner not to skite although rest assured, I would have if I were in his shoes. 

“I usually do all the driving. It doesn’t bother me,” Darryl said. It seems not much does or restricts him in his pursuit at training racehorses. It is a joy to behold watching Darryl leading his horses around from his wheelchair. It progresses to the almost unbelievable observing him assist in the saddling process in training and on race days. He makes it look too easy and to him it is – almost natural in effect. It’s as if his wheelchair is akin to a film director’s chair except that he doesn’t shout orders or give many at all. Sure, he needs assistance but there is little he cannot perform around the horses. Just like their mentor, those thoroughbreds in his care are comfortable with the arrangement and engagement. This coming Thursday if barrier draws are suitable, Darryl will be behind the wheel heading up the Bruce Highway the 717km to Townsville’s Cluden racecourse.  

Stable star, the very speedy Aspen Lad the winner of nine races has been entered for the Open (1000m) with Miss Daurian also nommed for a race. More than likely if the pair draw well, they will head up for the eight hours drive.

Without any doubt Darryl Johnston, now 40, aided by his partner the presently  injured jockey Natalea Summers is an inspiration to young people in life. Another former Rockhampton jockey Alan “Pup” Cowie a GR 1 winning jockey who won an AJC Derby on Kinjite also suffered similar injuries the result of a racing accident. Pup went on to become a successful jockey’s manager and an excellent exponent in the wheelchair sporting fields.

Darryl is not the first paraplegic former jockey to become a horse trainer and a successful one at that. When race calling and handicapping for the Gold Coast Turf Club in 1972, I had the privilege of shall we say working with Alan Yeomans. Alan rode Sir Blink to win the 1958 Caulfield Cup. He too suffered injuries from a terrible race fall. Alan in 1967 became Australia’s first paraplegic horse trainer. He was a lovely man, and his sons Grant and Lane went on to become jockeys. Engineering skills back over a half century ago meant Alan’s wheelchair was manually generated and not powered such as Darryls. It was hard work for Alan Yeomans to get around, but I never heard him complain.  It mattered little as Alan too was an inspiration. I only wish I was at Flemington in 1986 when Alan Yeoman’s trained Zephyr Cross won the Ascot Vale Stakes. Alan passed away in 1997 but his legacy lives on through the racing likes of Darryl Johnson and Alan Cowie and I am certain there are others.

Such individuals are shining lights in not allowing a physical condition prevent them from achieving in life. Indeed, the Darryl Johnstons of the racing world are living proof of that “where there is a will there is a way.” 

Tony McMahon

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