Johnson faces what looks to be his biggest jockeys' championship title challenge in the last four seasons, with Brian Hughes now as short as 1/2 with Betfair and Paddy Power (top price Evens with bet365) to become the first Northern-based winner since Ron Barry in 1973.
Johnson and Hughes are tied on 96 winners apiece for the season, 17 clear of nearest pursuer Sam Twiston-Davies and 22 winners clear of Harry Skelton in fourth, Gavin Sheehan rounding out the top five, a full 44 winners behind the tied leaders.
British National Hunt Jockeys' Championship Standings (up to 19/12/2019)
Hughes has long been regarded as one of the finest jump jockeys in the North of England, but has never quite been able to match Johnson’s numbers, although he did finish second to him in 2016-17 and 2017-18, before finishing third last season.
Is Hughes Johnson's New McCoy?
However, a fresh impetus of winners from the revitalized Donald McCain (34 winners so far this term) has propelled the 33-year-old to the head of the title race, and Paddy Power, who slashed the price of Hughes only this morning, are now of the opinion that could be where he is staying.
Their spokesman Paul Binfield said: “Our team have been crunching the numbers and Brian Hughes is ahead of where he was at this stage last year, while Richard Johnson is behind.
“Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be enough to cut Hughes so markedly, but he also rode more winners than his rival after Christmas, so we think the cards are stacked in his favour, especially as he will get so much support from the Northern yards.
“It is tremendously exciting that we have a battle royale like this over the sticks, as for many years we were treated to the many talents of Tony McCoy versus Richard Johnson, with no one else getting anywhere near the pair, but it looks like we now have a bona fide challenger from the North, which can only be great for the sport.”
Hughes has been in scintillating form this month, firing in 12 winners from December 6 to 17, with Johnson only riding seven winners in the same period despite having had slightly more rides.
Richards Family Also Backed Barry
It would also be rather fitting for Hughes to follow in the footsteps of Ron Barry, who rose to prominence as stable jockey for Gordon Richards. Gordon's son, Nicky, took over the training operation at Castle House Stables in Greystoke, Cumbria, after the death of his father in 1998 and has long been one of Hughes’ most important patrons, providing 14 of his 96 winners this season.
Hughes, who joined the 1000 winners club this year, landed his first Grade 1 success when partnering Ruth Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently to success in the Ascot Chase last February.
He has also enjoyed three winners at the Cheltenham Festival, scoring aboard Tim Easterby’s Hawk High in the 2014 Fred Winter before landing the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase aboard Ballyalton and Mister Whitaker in 2016 and 2018 respectively.