A SENSE of injustice – and impatience – is clear in the voice of Richard Hughes as he talks about his objectives for the Flat season.
“To get to 100 winners as quickly as possible, and take it from there,” says the 39-year-old whose career highlights have been five Group one triumphs on the great Canford Cliffs who was trained by his father-in-law Richard Hannon before retiring last summer after running into a certain horse called Frankel.
The likeable Irishman is still aggrieved by a 50-day suspension handed down by stewards in Mumbai for allegedly not following a trainer’s instruction that saw him miss the first month of the 2012 Flat season. He won’t be returning to India where scrutiny and suspicion abound in a gambling-mad nation.
Hughes is even more determined to make up for lost time after losing the 2010 title race on the final day of the season at Doncaster to Malton jockey Paul Hanagan who prevailed by just two winners.
“I have three objectives. To be champion. To win the Epsom Derby – and I can’t see that happening this year. And to win a race over steeplechase fences – and that won’t happen while I’m still competing at the top on the Flat,” said Hughes.
“You could make a case for saying the title race should be won on prize money, but a lot of the smaller tracks would have to raise their game to make it happen.
“I think it’s probably best as it is, from March to November. I certainly wouldn’t mind being champion jockey. If I’m in with a chance, I’d go for it again. Who wouldn’t? You’re paid to win. Plain and simple.”
Hughes, whose biography A Weight Off My Mind was instigated by his abrupt decision to quit racing last autumn at the height of the whip controversy, admires Hanagan for his determination during their epic battle.
But there are regrets on the part of Hughes – friendships with trainers, like Hanagan’s boss Richard Fahey became strained; rows with agents over riding arrangements and the final race at Wolverhampton on the season’s penultimate day when he believes that he was deliberately blocked in so his rival could snatch a crucial winner on Colour Scheme to move two clear and ease the pressure heading into the nerve-jangling finale that was to yield no winners for either man.
“I was incensed. When we were all back in the weighing room, I told the jockey in question what I thought of him, making sure that everyone else in the room could hear,” recounts Hughes whose father Dessie trained the dual Champion Hurdle winner Hardy Eustace and rode Davy Lad to victory in the 1977 Gold Cup.
“I said that I would not allow one of my friends to do that to Paul Hanagan and I expected to be treated in the same way. The other jockey insisted he was innocent but I did not believe him… what I am certain is that Paul Hanagan would have known nothing about what went on.”
Hughes says he can now reflect with “pride and pleasure” on a contest that enthralled horse racing. If he’d won two races at Doncaster to draw level on the 191-mark with Hanagan he would have made this offer: “I would have suggested to him that we both stop riding. I am positive he would have agreed.”
Hughes also believes the two-week break he took in high summer so he would not miss Glorious Goodwood – his record nine winners at the meeting included Canford Cliffs in the Sussex Stakes – cost him the title, along with a week-long whip ban on October.
That Richard Hughes was even in a position to sustain such a challenge is even more remarkable when one considers the extent to which he resorted to alcohol to soothe his hunger pains, and in the flawed knowledge that Champagne was the best means to keep his weight under control.
At 5ft 10ins, Hughes is unnaturally tall to be a jockey – never mind a top rider on the Flat who is expected to ride at eight-and-a-half stones to be competitive in the big handicaps.
For years, he was a chronic alcoholic – only his tactical brilliance in the saddle, inspired by his childhood hero Lester Piggott, masked his fragile physical, mental and emotional state away from the racecourse.
Take an Ebor meeting at York, one of the most important meetings in the racing calendar. He’s sharing a room at a luxury hotel in Harrogate with Derby-winning jockey Martin Dwyer whose sleep was rudely interrupted by the night porter at 3am.
“When Martin came down, he evidently found me lying sound asleep on a pool table while a cleaner vacuumed the carpet around me,” says Hughes who hopes his story will persuade at least one out-of-control young jockey to seek counselling and, possibly, save their career.
“Martin found it impossible to wake me and had to heave me on his shoulders and give me a fireman’s lift back to the room. To show how far gone I was, I didn’t stir for a second when Martin got his timing wrong carrying me into the lift and its doors closed hard on my head.”
To this day, Hughes cannot recall if he rode a winner the next day on Knavesmire.
“I probably did but I probably didn’t care – all I was bothered about was the next drink,” he said. This, he says, was one of several embarrassing episodes that finally persuaded him – after years of admonishments from his wife Lizzie – to seek professional guidance.
Hughes attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous about once a week and has maintained his sobriety for seven years. He accepts there is a clear link between his decision to stop drinking and the upturn in his own riding fortunes on horses as talented as Canford Cliffs and Paco Boy.
“You can only do it yourself, you have to be the one to have the self-discipline not to drink. Others can’t do it for you,” he adds. “I hope to carry on riding for another four or five years and then go into training. I want to win the Derby – it’s disappointing I’ve not won an English Classic. That surprises many. So am I, considered I was Prince Halide Abdullah’s retained rider for many years. When I was drinking, I did not get the satisfaction from riding that I do now. I hid my demons well – probably too well for my own good.
“Should I ever start to be scared? That’ll be when I call it a day, but I still feel my best riding days are ahead of me – despite everything. I owe it to myself after allowing alcohol to wreck so many seasons. And I only have myself to blame.”
A Weight Off My Mind by jockey Richard Hughes is published by Racing Post Books, price £20.