The top jockey on his season hopes
‘I wanted to be a Flat jockey, but I was just too tall and not good enough — that was the
IF there is a threat, other than injury, to a fourth jockeys’ championship for Richard Johnson, it may come not from the quick-out-of-the-blocks Harry Skelton but rather Brian Hughes, a man who has had jump racing sown up in the north for some time now.
It is 39 years since Jonjo O’Neill, the last northern-based champion jump jockey, reigned at the end of the 1979-80 season and while the balance of power and big stables are now in the south-west, Brian has ridden over 140 winners in each of the past two seasons.
Being champion is not something that keeps the Northern Irishman awake at night — he has a yearling son, Rory, to do that — and while he does not dismiss it, it is not a subject he is getting hung up on.
“I was about 30 winners off Richard last season and got to within 20 of him at one stage,” he says. “His main trainer, Philip Hobbs, wasn’t firing! I’m not being defeatist, but think what he will do with the Hobbs yard flying.
“Of course, if I was in a position to give it a go in March I would, but I don’t come in every evening wondering how many winners he’s ridden. I just try to do the job as best I can and don’t look too far ahead. In this game, you’re only one fall from time off.” This season, Brian also has more back up in the shape of a more formal link up with Donald McCain, the remarkably resilient trainer who has restocked his Cheshire yard after Paul and Clare Rooney removed more than 50 horses in 2015. If Donald has a good year, he could supply Brian with nearly 75 winners.
“I’d always ridden a few horses for Donald and last year I rode 25 winners for him. This year it’s become a bit more formal; Will Kennedy is still part of the team and there are Donald’s daughters [Ella and Abbie] and his conditional jockeys, who he’ll want to use, but I’ll be riding the lion’s share and trying to maintain the other links I already have in the north.”
His first aim is 100 winners and, if he gets there, the next target will be 150 “with a few decent ones along the way”.
The 33-year-old, who lives near Stokesley in the north-east, was brought up in South Armagh. In common with that other wellknown Northern Irish jockey, AP McCoy, his father is a carpenter. He was surrounded by ponies and horses as a child; time spent at school was very much secondary to time spent out on the hunting field.
“I’d be told to go to school but I’d go hunting instead,” he recalls. “These days I only get a day at Christmas, usually with the Hurworth, although the last time I went was with the Sinnington, which is
[North Yorkshire trainer] Tim Easterby’s local hunt.”
ALTHOUGH Brian’s uncle had been a champion apprentice in the past, it was his only link with the sport and he was unsure about how to go about getting into racing. One of the few positives to come out of his schooling was an on-the-ball careers teacher, who booked him in for a course at RACE, the Irish racing school, on The Curragh.
From there he was sent to Kevin Prendergast as a Flat apprentice — though he rode out James Lambe’s point-to-pointers on a weekend and it was Lambe who gave him his first few rides.
But in three-and-a-half seasons on the Flat, he only rode 20 winners and it just was not happening for him.
“I wanted to be a Flat jockey, but I was just too tall and not good enough — that was the simple truth of it, although at the time you never quite see it like that. It wasn’t a lack of opportunity because Kevin gave me plenty.”
His agent found him a job as a conditional jockey with Howard Johnson at Crook in the north-east and he arrived on 1 October 2005.
“Howard had some very good horses at the time, such as Inglis Drever, No Refuge, Arcalis and Grey Abbey,” he recalls. “I was riding within a month and rode my first winner at the Fighting Fifth meeting at Newcastle on a three-year-old filly first time out.
“Graham Lee was stable jockey at the time and was well established. There were quite a few horses I’d claim off and if Graham was racing down in the south I’d come in for a few. Graham was a massive help. I think he thought I had a death wish schooling I was going so fast. He got me to calm down.”
Brian’s first season of 11 winners, however, was followed by just three. Although he was getting plenty of rides, there was little quality among them, so he accepted a job down south with Nigel Twiston-Davies, organised through the trainer’s then head lad, Fergal O’Brien, to start in the autumn.
In the meantime, Howard Johnson’s father-in-law persuaded John Wade and
Bob Woodhouse to use him and 10 summer winners, including a Sedgefield double, prompted him to change his mind. It may be the best decision he ever made.
“I remember ringing Fergal telling him I was going to stay in the north,” says Brian. “I dare say Nigel has no recollection of it, but it ended up that I never started.”
AN injury to Danny Cook meant he came in for the ride on Mac Aeda for the late Malcolm Jefferson at Wetherby one day. Malcolm had bred the horse himself, he had fallen first time out over fences and then jumped a bit better next time.
“When I came into the weighing room the colours were hanging up on my peg,” says Brian. “He ended up winning, I started schooling for the yard the next season and it just snowballed. In the few years I rode for Malcolm, I won 140 races for him, which is amazing for a yard of about 40 horses. I hope to keep riding for his daughter, Ruth.”
Usually when a jockey starts riding the number of winners Brian has, it is as sure as night following day that they start riding big winners. It is beginning to happen and Brian has ridden three Cheltenham Festival winners on Hawk High, Ballyalton and, last March, Mister Whitaker. He was having a great ride on Seeyouatmidnight in last season’s Grand National when the petrol ran out.
“He was the only British horse travelling with the Irish horses three out, but he’d been off and Sandy Thomson could only get one run in because of the weather. He tired to finish 11th. If he has a better run-up to the National this year he might go very close.”
The jockey and his wife, Lucy, a teacher who he met riding out for Bob Woodhouse, have another child due on 5 April — the
Friday eve of this season’s Grand National; it could be a big weekend in a big year for Brian Hughes.
Brian and Waiting Patiently fend off Cue Card in the Betfair Ascot Chase in February
Brian and Mister Whitaker win at Cheltenham