Brian Hughes

The top jockey on his sea­son hopes

Horse & Hound - - Contents -

‘I wanted to be a Flat jockey, but I was just too tall and not good enough — that was the

sim­ple truth’

BRIAN HUGHES

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

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