A FORTNIGHT ago our Chepstow Racecourse ambassador, jockey Richard Johnson, was crowned champion jockey for the fourth time.

He has been champion every year since the greatest jockey of all time, 20-time champion Tony McCoy, hung up his boots.

Of a similar vintage to Johnson, the legendary Irish jockey Ruby Walsh surprisingly announced his retirement at the age of 39 at the Punchestown Festival meeting this month. It seems very much like the end of an era. However, Johnson (now 41) shows no signs of wanting to slow down, and he is targeting another championship next year.

His eldest daughter has made the first steps into racing too - his 10-year-old daughter Willow, the eldest of his three children, has now ridden in a couple of pony races.

Pony racing is a great way into the sport, and for those keen enough it can lead on to point to point riding or an apprenticeship at a yard. It’s a more gentle introduction than going straight into riding in a 3 mile point to point, and it’s a great way for a rider honing his or her skills and keeping them interested in the sport through their early teens.

We’re seeing the benefit now, with lots of the leading British jockeys having come through the pony racing and point to pointing ranks. There is less of a monopoly of leading Irish apprentices.

Many, if not most, of our best jockeys come from racing families. Of the Welsh riders I mention regularly, the Bowen brothers, jockey sons of trainer Peter Bowen. Connor Brace comes from a successful point to point family. Looking at the top flat riders, Ryan Moore is the son of trainer Gary Moore, Frankie Dettori's dad was top Italian jockey Gianfranco. The 2000 Guineas last week was won by Donnacha O'Brien for his dad Aidan O'Brien.

Amongst the leading lady riders Bryony Frost is the daughter of jockey turned trainer Jimmy Frost. Megan Nicholls is the daughter of Paul Nicholls. Lizzie Kelly is the step daughter of trainer Nick Williams. Growing up around a racing family has its advantages if racing is your chosen career.

Having horses is an expensive business, particularly if you don't have land and expertise like these racing families.This shouldn't put off aspiring jockeys from non racing families, however. The British Racing School takes in youngsters from all walks of life. They offer a 14-week programme teaching everything from yard work to riding a horse at speed.

After the course they guarantee graduates a full time paid job in a racing yard where they can continue their training. For the most talented riders this can lead to a jockey apprenticeship. There is currently also a bursary available to cover some of the costs if the candidate comes from a low income household. Find out more on the British Racing School website www.brs.org.uk.

Other jockeys like two-time flat champion Paul Hanagan, Oisin Murphy and Luke Morris have all followed this route to the top.

We're not far from our Madness racenights at Ffos Las on Saturday, 25th May and at Chepstow on Saturday, 8th June. Tickets to see the legendary band are still available at both venues. Please see our websites for details.