Franny Norton has been a fixture in the weighing room for more than 30 years and is still going strong at the age of 52. A former six-time stable lads’ boxing champion and a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC, he has ridden approaching 1,900 winners domestically, including three Pattern triumphs on staying star Sir Ron Priestley, plus plenty more when he was wintering regularly in India. The Johnston family have supplied nearly 500 of his winners and he remains an integral part of the team at Middleham, alongside his contemporary Joe Fanning. Widely acknowledged as  the king of Chester’s helter-skelter turns, he cannot wait to return there for the Boodles May Festival, while a success at Wetherby would complete the full set of British Flat racecourses.


I’ve always loved Chester because the atmosphere is amazing. I think it’s the only track in Europe where everyone can be involved. You can watch the horses all the way around, whether you are in the middle of the track or on the outside. I liken it to going to a restaurant and sitting at a round table. Everyone can be involved and so it’s much more inclusive.

There are only two ways to ride Chester. You are either riding with good gate speed, in which case you can dominate the race, or else you aim for luck. I had success there before I was involved with the Johnstons, but their horses always have good gate speed and like to race on the front end, so that gives you every chance. I prefer it when there’s no cutaway, because the cutaway gives those in behind you more chance of a clear run. When I won the Chester Cup for Mark on Making Miracles in 2019, we were drawn 16 of 16, but we were able to get to the front and then save our energy. If you are drawn on the inside and don’t get the jump it can be difficult. If you have to ride for luck, nine times out of ten it won’t work unless they’ve gone really fast.

I love a horse who wears his heart on his sleeve, and Sir Ron Priestley was a great favourite of mine. He’d have his eyes on my shoulders and he’d keep picking up and picking up. He’d actually ride the race for me, and I wouldn’t have to worry about what was going on behind me as he’d let me know. We won seven times together, including three Group races, and we were second to Logician in the St Leger. You don’t like to be beaten, but he showed a lot of heart there and it was another highlight, as I haven’t had many chances in races like that. It was a sad day when it came to an end in the Goodwood Cup, but it was great to know he was going to be okay and he’s now at stud in France.

As a lightweight I knew I’d get on something with 7-11 or 7-12 in the old days, so I’d always be in demand in races like the Ebor or the Cambridgeshire. Those days are gone of course, and so are a lot of my fellow lightweights. The game has changed dramatically, and I’ve been lucky that the Johnstons have made so much use of me as they’ve played a massive part in my career. Living in Liverpool I don’t get in there to ride work regularly, but I try to go in early in the year.

I was one of the first jockeys to get involved with the dietary research at Liverpool John Moores University. I first went there in 2009, even though I didn’t have a weight issue. I wanted to learn about the nutritional side and do things properly, because for years we were so far behind it was unbelievable. For me it’s mainly about a low carb and high protein diet, and I’m sure that’s helping to prolong my career. I still train, though not as hard as I used to, as with a wife and three kids I don’t have the time. I run for 20 or 30 minutes every morning before taking my Doberman Nova for a walk and then cracking on for the day.

I’ve boxed all my life and the stable lads’ nights were massive in my life. They were brilliant days – great fun and a great money spinner for racing charities – but times have changed. That’s partly because there are now so many girls in racing, which is no bad thing. I had such a poor season when I came out of my apprenticeship that I thought about boxing professionally. I rang a pal called John Naylor, a far better boxer who had worked in racing and done the same thing, but he told me there would be nothing for me in the pro game and so I should just get my head down and crack on. That was the best advice I’ve ever had.

I twice fell foul of the new whip rules in the first few weeks and I must admit it’s a bit of a nightmare. I know we had a bedding-in period, but when you’ve been riding for as long as me muscle memory can take over. The problem isn’t with the numbers, it’s with not giving a horse time to respond – that’s because I like to give them a little flick and then a reminder before putting the whip down again. I only gave a horse the two the other day, but they were a little bit quick and that cost me four days.

The old boys in the weighing room sit nearest the door and at 52 I’m among the oldest now. I sit next to Frankie when we are at the same meeting, and when he’s not annoying me he’s been  absolutely phenomenal for the game. Sports need their larger-than-life personalities and Frankie has taken racing to a whole new level. We’ll miss him.

It’s going to be difficult for me when I retire – I need to be working, so the plan this year is to get something up and running for the future. I’d like to play a part in racing still, maybe coaching the  kids, but as well as that I don’t think we reach out enough in terms of going into schools and identifying kids who might enjoy a future in racing. Not everyone will make a jockey, but there are so many different career paths and you don’t have to come through pony racing and that sort of background.  I never rode a horse until I got into racing, and nor did Kieren Fallon, Darryll Holland
and many others.