NORTH Yorkshire jump jockey Brian Hughes has been rewarded for a career-best season with the plum ride on Vicente in the Randox Health Grand National on Saturday week.
Vicente, the winner of last season’s Scottish National at Ayr, was purchased by three-time Grand National-winning owner Trevor Hemmings following the heartbreaking death of his 2015 Aintree hero Many Clouds after a heroic win at Cheltenham at the end of January.
Hughes, who is on the 135-winner mark for the current campaign and looking to add to the tally at Wetherby this afternoon, travelled to the Somerset stables of champion trainer Paul Nicholls to school Vicente yesterday.
Stable jockey to Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson, Hughes has ridden regularly for the octogenarian Hemmings in recent years – most notably when Tim Easterby’s Hawk High won the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014.
Yet, despite riding a century of winners in each of the past three seasons, the rider has not always received the wider recognition, and opportunities, that his horsemanship deserves – he is currently second to defending champion Richard Johnson in this year’s title race.
This high-profile booking rectifies this.
The owner’s racing manager Mick Meagher said: “Brian schooled the horse this morning, they jumped well and the plan is for him to ride in the Grand National. On his Scottish National form he would have a very good chance.
“He prefers better ground, but they’re talking about a dry week next week. All’s well at the moment.”
Hughes had originally been pencilled in to ride Irish contender Maggio for Jim Beaumount and Douglas Pryde, whose 2012 Scottish National runner-up Auroras Encore famously won the Aintree race the following year for Sue and Harvey Smith. They have now booked Conor O’Farrell.
Alan King’s Ziga Boy – the winner of the last two runnings of Doncaster’s feature Sky Bet Chase – has been confirmed for the National.
If successful, Ziga Boy would become only the fourth grey horse to win the National following The Lamb (1868 and 1871), Nicolaus Silver (1961) and Neptune Collonges (2012), who won in the colours of Vicente’s former co-owner John Hales.
Meanwhile Roger Varian’s ante-post favourite Morando will miss the Betway Lincoln, the Flat season’s traditional curtain-raiser, at Doncaster tomorrow after suffering a setback.
A maximum field of 22 will go to post, with John Ryan’s Battle Of Marathon heading the weights.
Gabrial, the winner two years ago, is part of a formidable five-strong challenge for Malton’s Richard Fahey who also runs Third Time Lucky, Heaven’s Guest, Dolphin Vista and Withernsea.
Brian Ellison is double-handed with the popular Top Notch Tonto and Dream Walker – stablemate Definitly Red is, coincidentally, a leading Grand National contender as the Malton handler attempts to become the first trainer to complete the ‘Spring Double’.
Last year’s St Leger-winning jockey George Baker is said to be making “really good progress” as he continues to recover from the injuries he sustained in a fall at St Moritz in Switzerland in February.
Airlifted to a trauma hospital in Chur where a MRI scan confirmed he had suffered some bleeding in the brain, the rider returned to Britain and was admitted to the intensive care unit of the Wellington Hospital in London.
Baker’s wife Nicola said in a statement issued by the Injured Jockeys’ Fund: “George has made really good progress in the last week and the doctors are proposing that in two to three weeks’ time he will move to another rehabilitation centre nearer to home.”