IF Brian Hughes wins the Crabbie’s Grand National, it will be a fitting reward for the no-nonsense North Yorkshire jockey riding a second successive century of winners.
Yet the fact that Hughes was not sure of his big race ride until earlier this week – he will partner the Rebecca Curtis-trained O’Faolains Boy – is indicative of how the National has changed out of all recognition.
As the big stables in the South and Ireland become more dominant, it has been at the expense of yards of the North where Hughes plies his trade – there is not one runner from the region in this year’s National.
It left Hughes, a clear fifth in this season’s jockey standings, scrambling for a ride.
First he was offered the Curtis-trained The Romford Pele.
Then he was booked to partner 2014 winner Pineau De Re. He even schooled Dr Richard Newland’s horse of a lifetime in Lambourn before it became clear that the veteran would not make the 40-runner cut because this year’s National field is the best in the race’s illustrious history.
He considered Alvarado, fourth in the last two renewals, before it emerged that this course specialist would not even make the line-up. Others were in the frame before the ride on O’Faolains Boy became available.
Hughes, attached to Malcolm Jefferson’s Malton yard, could not be happier.
A former winner of the Grade One RSA Chase for novices at the Cheltenham Festival, O’Faolains Boy was a more than creditable seventh to Don Cossack in last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup as he bids to become the first Welsh-trained winner of the National since Kirkland prevailed in 1905.
That O’Faolains Boy has to carry 11st 1lb – the nine-year-old is seventh in the handicap – does not perturb Hughes. He says the higher weights are allotted to the best horses for a very good reason; namely their previous form.
“I won’t be getting off him,” the rider told The Yorkshire Post.
“He won a RSA. He’s a Grade One winner and he ran a good race in the Gold Cup.
“The way the race is changing, you’re going to need a Grade One horse to have a chance. It’s not like a few years ago.
“Look at the horses that can’t get in – they have the same handicap ratings as horses which have won the National in recent years.
“I’m just glad to have a ride. When your main yard doesn’t have a National horse, you’re just hoping to pick up a spare.
“O’Faolains Boy would have every chance on his best form.”
A sixth ride in the National, it will not faze the Northern Ireland-born jockey that he has failed to complete the course on his previous five occasions.
After all, he is not in the business of rewriting history in a race where riders, however, gifted, need an element of luck over 30 fences and four and a quarter miles.
He is also more relaxed now that he has proved that his 106 winners in 2014-15 were no fluke. Now within touching distance of a new personal best, he remains buoyed by Ballyalton’s success at the Cheltenham Festival for golfer Lee Westwood’s father John.
Unlike two years ago when he did not appreciate the magnitude of his Festival win on Tim Easterby’s Hawk High, he made a point of enjoying this particular win because such successes cannot be taken for granted.
“When you have Willie Mullins and those sort of people, it is very difficult to compete with them,” said Hughes.
“I only had two horses that could land a blow, Ballyalton and Seeyouatmidnight who struggled with the ground in the RSA.
“I had 12 rides over the week and it is the third year that I’ve ridden all four days. Every year, I’m getting better rides.
“I’m pleased to have got to a century. It shows last year wasn’t a fluke, but I’ve got to keep working because you now get the big yards coming up to the midweek meetings in the North. There are no easy races.”
An agonising second in last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, Hughes once again rides the ever-popular veteran Somersby in today’s feature Betfred Melling Chase in which the Mullins-trained Vautour is hot favourite.
Yet, while today could be Somersby’s swansong, Hughes thinks the world of the Jefferson-trained Urban Hymn who lines up in tomorrow’s handicap hurdle. The gelding is likely to go novice chasing next season.
As for the National, the top 40 horses, headed by defending champion Many Clouds, were declared. In significant jockey bookings, Ruby Walsh, a two-time winner, rides Sir Des Champs while Middleham’s Henry Brooke – left without a rider after Becher Chase hero Highland Lodge was among a clutch of course specialists to be eliminated – partners the Venetia Williams-trained rank outsider Aachen.