Champion Hughes ready to go for title yet again

Richard Hughes and his son Harvey
Richard Hughes and his son Harvey
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BETTER late than never. Two years after being denied an inaugural Flat title on the final day of the season, Richard Hughes has no intention of relinquishing the jockeys’ championship that he lifted at Doncaster.

Even though he is unnaturally tall for a Flat rider at 5ft 10ins, Hughes says it is “a privilege” to be champion – and that the prestige of the title justify the sacrifices like the extensive travelling on near starvation rations.

It was perhaps fitting that the silverware should be presented by Paul Hanagan – the defending champion and the man who denied Hughes by two victories in 2010 following a titanic tussle that drained both men.

At least Hughes, who was accompanied by his young son Harvey onto the winner’s podium, could enjoy the occasion before being showered in Champagne – his 172 winners left him 41 clear of runner-up Silvestre de Sousa, with William Buick a creditable third.

“It’s a great feeling, much better than being runner-up, especially two years ago,” said an overwhelmed Hughes, who was also joined by his wife, Lizzie, as well his parents Dessie and Eileen.

“I’d have walked here if I’d had to. You only get out of this game what you put in – I don’t think I have been lucky, I think I have earned it. I worked really hard in September and it paid off. I didn’t want to be going here, there and everywhere in October.”

A reliable stream of winners from his father-in-law Richard Hannon consistently boosted Hughes on the way to the top with the likes of multiple winners Libranno, Havana Gold and Toronado amongst others contributing to his impressive final tally.

Hughes even managed to transcend to the back pages of the papers when famously winning seven out of eight races at Windsor last month at odds in excess of 10,000-1.

The first to come close to matching Frankie Dettori’s feat of seven from seven back in 1996, Hughes’s super septet came as Hannon’s horses ran into a rich vein of form.

“I had 100 winners for Richard alone, which shows how good a trainer he is,” said Hughes, who still yearns for a still elusive first victory in an English Classic.

“If I had to single out one day it would have to be at Windsor when I had those seven winners. I had the title tied up by then,

“I’ll have a small bit of a break and a holiday.

“I won’t hand it (the title) over too easy, it’s a privilege to be champion and I’ll go again.”

There are no guarantees – the champion is the son of Irish racing legend Dessie Hughes who rode the 1970s hurdling legend Monksfield before training the dual Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace.

Hughes senior said he was determined to be at Doncaster because “it may never happen again” while Jack Berry, the retired trainer and Injured Jockeys Fund supremo, says the champion’s achievement is even more remarkable because the 39-year-old is four pounds too heavy for his own good.

Presentation day at Doncaster saw North Yorkshire’s Amy Ryan become the first female jockey to become champion jockey – while the Cock o’ the North cap, presented by the Yorkshire Post and Racing For Change to the region’s winning-most rider, went to Middleham-based Joe Fanning who, according to top trainer Mark Johnston, remains “a model of consistency”. Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation became champion owner for an eighth time after a final day double saw ‘the boys in blue’ pip Frankel’s owner Prince Khalid Abdullah on the line.

The victories came courtesy of Mar Mar, a very impressive maiden winner under William Buick, and Muharrib who defied top weight under Mickael Barzalona, who remains inspired by his St Leger win aboard Encke.

Yet it was weighing-room veteran Franny Norton who ended the Flat turf season on a high with a 230-1 double.

The popular Liverpool-born jockey has endured the highs and lows in 2012, being hit with a lengthy ban for failing a racecourse breathalyser test, which was subsequently reduced on appeal, and winning the valuable sales race at Doncaster on The Gold Cheongsam – a win that he dedicated to the Hillsborough justice campaigners.

He only picked up the winning ride on Art Scholar (20-1) for Newark trainer Michael Appleby in the feature Betfred November Handicap after Darryll Holland was unwell.

“I knew nothing about the horse. It all unfolded nicely for me. When I asked him to go he did it well. It’s been a good year. I got a lengthy ban, we got over that and it’s ended with a bang,” said Norton who then landed the finale on Tartiflette (10-1) for Ed McMahon. “I’m going a take a bit of time off and then get stuck in again.”

Just like Richard Hughes.

Road to Aintree begins in earnest for Cappa Bleu

GRAND National fourth Cappa Bleu starts back on the road to Aintree in the Weatherbys Hamilton Insurance Graduation Chase at Carlisle on Monday.

Although now a 10-year-old, the 2009 Foxhunter Chase winner has had just nine starts under Rules and only seven outings over larger obstacles.

He ran a tremendous race to pick up minor honours in the National in April and trainer Evan Williams is already looking forward to a return trip to Merseyside next spring after swerving Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase 10 days ago.

“He seems very well at home and it’s time to get him back on the racecourse now,” said the Vale of Glamorgan handler. “The National is the only race I’m thinking of with him.”

Meanwhile the highly-promising Al Ferof will run in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Trainer Paul Nicholls has given the seven-year-old grey the go-ahead after a satisfying workout yesterday morning.

“He has got plenty of weight (11st 8lb) but he probably deserves it and he goes well when fresh,” said the champion trainer who will give the remarkable staying hurdler Big Buck’s a racecourse gallop at Exeter on Wednesday.

News of Al Ferof’s assignment came 24 hours after David Pipe confirmed that his grey, the potentially precocious Grands Crus (11st 6lb), will also line-up in the Paddy Power Gold Cup rather than Haydock’s prestigious Betfair Chase on November 24.

“In theory a handicap is a better starting point than a level weights one and he’ll be better over two and a half miles first time back as he’ll be fresh and keen,” said Pipe.

“He looks to have a favourite’s chance while if he’d gone for the other race (Betfair Chase) he’d have been third or fourth in the betting.

“I’m taking the view that the bookies rarely get it wrong.”

Prior to go chasing, Grands Crus twice finished second to the mighty Big Buck’s over hurdles, at Cheltenham and at Aintree. He won the Feltham Novices’ Chase in style at Christmas but was only fourth when favourite for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March.

Meanwhile Pipe’s yard was buoyed by The Package’s victory in the Badger Ales trophy at Wincanton on Saturday – Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup on December 1, and then the Grand National, are targets.

The Elite Hurdle went to the Nicholls-trained Zarkandar who will reappear in the Bula at Cheltenham next month.

However the RSA Chase at the National Hunt Festival in March is a distinct possibility for Houblon Des Obeaux who was an eyecatching winner of the totepool Rising Stars Novices’ Chase for trainer Venetia Williams and in-form jockey Aidan Coleman

“He jumped for fun and will do even better over a longer trip. If he carries on along this path he could be an RSA Chase type,” said the in-form jockey.

Trainer Donald McCain is considering races at Haydock and Bangor for Overturn following his scintillating chasing debut at Sandown on Saturday.

Last season’s Champion Hurdle runner-up has already bagged a number of major prizes on the Flat and over hurdles and looks like making the grade over larger obstacles after navigating the notoriously tough Sandown fences with ease.