With a rich family history and years of development alongside world-renowned mentors, William Johnson has built the foundation of a highly successful career in the thoroughbred industry.
Racing is well and truly in Johnson’s blood. His paternal great grandfather Walter bred and raced one of Australia’s greats, while his grandmother Mary descends from the family of the legendary WS Cox.
“It didn’t take me long to realise how important racing was to my family,” Johnson said. “When we were little kids, we always had to be quiet when the races were on. It’s always been a very significant part of the lives of all of my family.
“My great grandfather bred and raced Vain, and retained him when he retired to Widden Stud. He went on to be a champion sire and champion broodmare sire.
“As a child, when I visited my grandparents’ house, I used to see the Golden Slipper sitting there on the mantelpiece. It was pretty surreal to look at it.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been watching races, mucking out boxes and looking after horses. I’ve always thought that I wanted to follow my family’s example and have racing not only as a job, but as a lifestyle.”
After some introductory work in the stables of Lindsay Park and Robert Smerdon, Johnson’s career went to a new level in 2015.
“I met David Eustace when he brought the Roger Varian-trained runner My Ambivalent over to Australia,” he recalled.
“I was really keen to travel and gain some experience working overseas. It was through David Eustace that I was introduced to Roger, and jumped at the chance to go over to England to work for him.
“I began as a pupil assistant, reporting to the assistant trainer, riding out in the mornings and going racing in the afternoon.
“When the assistant trainer moved on, I put my hand up for that position. It meant that I had more responsibilities around the fitness programs of all the horses, as well as racing plans.”
During his time in Varian’s team, the stable soared to Group 1 successes with Postponed in the Dubai Sheema Classic, Coronation Cup and Juddmonte International, and Belardo in the Lockinge Stakes.
“For a young guy fresh out of university, it was an amazing experience to go to tracks like Goodwood, Ascot, York, Haydock and the like,” Johnson said. “They’re unique places and so different to what I was used to in Australia.
“Roger is fantastic for giving young people that experience as pupil assistant. He’s a great trainer, and he became a great friend and mentor to me.
“Roger is fantastic for giving young people that experience as pupil assistant. He’s a great trainer, and he became a great friend and mentor.
“It was a privilege to have such a close-up view as he meticulously developed a group of talented and well-bred thoroughbreds for an elite group of owners.
“Being over there was just so different from Australia. Based at Newmarket, I was able to appreciate 200-plus years of history at one of racing’s iconic training centres. I quickly learnt about training on Warren Hill, the engine room of Newmarket in hand with the famous Limekins, gaining insightful feedback from the elite jockeys in action.
“Postponed’s success was a real highlight of my time with Roger. He was transferred into the stable from Luca Cumani at the end of his 3-year-old season, when Roger inherited all of the owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum’s horses.
“Luca had done a terrific job with him up to that point of his career, and then Roger guided him through a great four-year-old season.
“He won the Coronation Cup on Derby day at Epsom, then the Juddmonte International at York in faster time than Frankel.
“Before that, he won the Sheema Classic in Dubai. During the build-up to that race, I spent some time there overseeing his preparation with his riders and grooms. Roger and I took turns. Sometimes he travelled to Dubai to look after Postponed, while I went back to the UK to oversee the Newmarket string.
“That experience taught me a lot about travelling horses abroad, including taking them from the depths of winter and having them peaking at mid-march for such an important international race. That victory was a real triumph for Roger.”
In 2017 Johnson moved into a different facet of the industry, working alongside internationally respected bloodstock agent Hubie de Burgh.
“Unfortunately, my time with Roger ended when my visa expired – that’s just one of those things that happens with visas these days,” Johnson said.
“Hubie had previously approached me about the idea of joining him at De Burgh Equine, and in the end it worked out perfectly. I was able to get sponsorship for a visa from De Burgh Equine.
“Hubie said to me, ‘Now you know all about how to train horses, it’s time to learn about some of the other parts of the thoroughbred world.’
“He’s one of the great people in the industry for bringing young people through. He’s set many of them up for their careers, finding positions for them under people like Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
“The likes of Dermot Farrington and James Harron have worked with Hubie and have both gone on to be leading agents.''
“He’s also a really good listener. He listens to the young guys and is keen to hear about the ideas they may have.
“With some other bloodstock agents, they might worry about you trying to pinch their clients. But Hubie was fantastic and encouraged me to do my own thing. He always let me go out to find my own clients, as well as potential new clients for him.
“He was always open to any ideas that I may have.”
De Burgh Equine’s purchases during Johnson’s tenure include Caulfield Cup placegetter Mirage Dancer, Group winners Downdraft, Every Rose and Time To Reign, and Listed winners Jagged Edge, Amarena and Helter Skelter.
With that excellent grounding under his belt, Johnson returned to his homeland in 2019.
“Being in my late 20s, I just thought I was at the right age to come back and try to establish myself under my own name,” he said.
“Australia is home. It’s a vibrant industry here. It’s a challenge, but it’s a great place for young people who have big ideas.”
He had the best possible start when Warning won the Victoria Derby at Flemington. Johnson was involved in the selection of the son of Declaration of War at the 2018 Magic Millions Adelaide Yearling Sale, and shares in the ownership.
“Anthony allowed Sam and I to pick out a horse and put some friends together and sign the docket.
“A couple of the stable’s long-standing clients also got involved in the horse, like Bill Pearce and John O'Neill. I was lucky enough to keep a small piece for myself.
“That Derby win was the highlight of any day I’ve ever had on the track. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve always known how important Derby day was. My parents would go every year, dressed up in black and white.
“Growing up watching the carnival, I dreamed of one day winning one of those huge races. To do it so soon after coming back to Australia was amazing.
“It was also really special to share it with some good mates, including people who haven’t been involved in many horses before. It really shows how accessible the sport is in Australia. In my time in Europe, I saw that most horses were owned by a select few – people like Coolmore, the Maktoum family and other wealthy patrons of the sport. We’re lucky that it’s a different story in this part of the world.”
Johnson also selected another of this season’s leading 3-year-olds, the Ming Dynasty Quality winner Quick Thinker.
“I’m very proud to be involved with another Group winner in this 3-year-old crop, along with Warning,” he said.
“Terry Henderson from OTI Racing gave us an order, and we went to the Inglis Sydney Easter Yearling Sale and bought him for $100,000. Hubie and I identified him as a particularly nice type.”
Johnson has also arranged the purchase of Group 1-winning mares She Will Reign, Single Gaze, Amphitrite and Jemayel for clients of WJ Bloodstock.
“It’s a real privilege to be in a position now to be able to approach horses at that top level, such as Group 1 winners. To have my clientele put faith in me to do that on their behalf is very special.
“I’ll follow those mares closely, and hopefully they’ll go on to produce some quality progeny. As we saw during the spring carnival, the Japanese breed is absolutely exceptional.”