Aintree record is reward for Hughes

WHO was the only jockey to win two races over the world-famous Grand National fences in 2010?

Most would probably suggest AP McCoy – the 15-times champion jockey who finally ended his National jinx.

But even the winning-most National Hunt rider of all time cannot surpass this year's Aintree record of Brian Hughes, one of the new generation of jockeys rapidly rising to prominence.

The winner of the John Smith's Topham Steeplechase aboard Always Waning 24 hours before McCoy's finest hour aboard Don't Push It, the 25-year-old then led from the front to land the Grand Sefton Chase on Frankie Figg last month.

It was a sight to behold – Hughes, and Frankie Figg, out in front, on their own, and jumping the fearsome fences for fun.

Hughes, who hails from County Armagh, almost made it a memorable treble – it took a brilliant piece of front-running from teenage sensation Sam Twiston-Davies on Hello Bud to repel his late thrust on Royal Rosa in the Becher Chase.

Now firmly established in the top 10 of this year's jockeys' championship, Hughes has come a long way in a short space of time.

Two years ago, he spent the Grand National build-up stood outside the Aintree weighing room, surveying the crowded paddock and dreaming of a ride in horse racing's most talked about contest. Would his day come?

And, while he pulled up Beat The Boys, his first ride in the National itself, on the second circuit as McCoy galloped into the history books, he hopes his Aintree triumphs will take his career to the next level.

Behind McCoy and his great rival Richard Johnson, he's becoming one of the 'best of the rest' – alongside the likes of his fellow Irishman Aidan Coleman and Malton-born Andrew Tinkler.

"To be honest, it doesn't have much to do with the rider," says Hughes with characteristic modesty. "I've been lucky because I've been on the right horse on both times.

"I rode Always Waning when Wilson Renwick came to grief on Frankie Figg – and then I was on Frankie when he got round Aintree for the first time in four attempts. He's a good horse; he's probably tried too hard in the past. Leading the field, it's special – every jockey's dream, I don't deny it. Though second, Royal Rosa was as just as memorable. He's a class horse, a former Grade One winner, and he might just get in the National on that form."

Both Frankie Figg and Royal Rosa are trained in County Durham by Howard Johnson, and run in the distinctive black and beige colours of leading owners Graham and Angela Wylie that were made famous by the late, great staying hurdler Inglis Drever.

Hughes – described as an 'anorak' by his friend and top jockey, Paddy Brennan, because he spends every night watching replays of his rides – initially rode for Johnson when he first moved to the UK before successfully teaming up with Richmond trainer Alan Swinbank.

Yet, with Johnson without a stable jockey since Denis O'Regan left last summer, and Swinbank a dual-purpose yard with a greater bias towards the Flat, Hughes regularly finds himself carrying the Wylies' famous silks.

He dismisses talk that he might become their stable jockey. He is one of four riders – his friends James O'Farrell, Ryan Mania and Wilson Renwick – who regularly ride out at the Johnson yard and share the rides.

It allows them to retain their links with other stables – Hughes, himself, is used regularly by trainers across Yorkshire. But, as well as Frankie Figg's success, the Johnson association also saw the talented rider win the Cleeve Hurdle on Tidal Bay, and then chase home Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander in the Betfair Chase.

The horse, made famous by his ungamely head carriage, has his quirks. Hughes accepts this. But he says his "proudest day" in 2010 was when the rejuvenated Tidal Bay won at Cheltenham. "That was brilliant. I was just glad to be part of his rejuvenation. And another two strides and we would have caught Imperial Commander," says the former champion conditional who has ridden nearly 200 winners.

Hughes is diplomatic when asked whether the Cheltenham Gold Cup could be the horse's target, as connections would have nothing to lose. "That's for the trainer and the owners," he says.

"It would be an option. Mon Mome, a former Grand National winner, was third last year and Tidal Bay, at his best, is a better horse.

"What is great is getting the opportunity to ride these grand old horses who've been about for years, and looked after so well. You can't ask for more.

"Keep my head down and work hard, that's all I do."

When it is pointed out to Hughes, as he returns home after several hours riding out, that he is already regarded as a workaholic, he laughs. "Perhaps, then, I am luckier than others."

He's not. For, when new opportunities arise, Brian Hughes will be in the mix. And it will have nothing to do with luck – just hard work and horsemanship.