BRIAN Hughes has always been a talented jockey – he was champion conditional five years ago – but he has taken his horsemanship to a new level and victory aboard Attaglance in Cheltenham’s big pre-Christmas handicap would be a fitting reward for his best ever start to a season.
Thanks to his burgeoning relationship with trainers like Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson and James Ewart, the rider is already on the 44-winner mark for the season – the same number of successes that he rode in 2012-13 – and the benefit of experience has bought a new maturity to his horsemanship.
Hughes, 28, also enjoys a new perspective on life; he spent countless hours, nights and days at the hospital bedside of his best friend Brian Toomey during the summer and early autumn as the North Yorkshire rider defied medical odds to recover from life-threatening head injuries. Defeat in a photo-finish takes on a slightly new meaning.
“I was there the first night in hospital and they didn’t give him a chance,” he says.
Yet few riders are as dedicated as Hughes who is known to study the form late into the night at his home north of Thirsk. He’s had to be after his career was left at a crossroads in the summer of 2011 when his then boss, Howard Johnson, was banned from racing for four years for horse welfare violations.
He refused to be downhearted. He started schooling at Jefferson’s Malton stables one morning a week and their partnership blossomed when Mac Aeda won at Wetherby’s Christmas meeting two years ago before horse and jockey replicated the success six months later at the West Yorkshire track.
Now Hughes finds himself in the priviliged position of riding horses like Oscar Rock, one of racing’s most exciting equine prospects, and the lightly-weighted Attaglance who bids in today’s Stewart Family Thank You Gold Cup to improve on his impressive fourth-placed finish in last month’s Paddy Power Gold Cup.
Given that the 2012 Cheltenham Festival winner was running from six pounds out of the handicap on that day, he’s now very favourably handicapped to reverse the form with Jonjo O’Neill’s Paddy Power winner Johns Spirit and the runner-up Colour Squadron.
“I am looking forward to it,” said Hughes who enjoyed one of the biggest wins of his career when the enigmatic Tidal Bay won a Cleeve Hurdle at the Cotswolds venue.
“The ground was a bit on the soft side last time. He was 6lb out of the handicap has gone up 6lb so is effectively racing off the same mark.
“You have to go down there with confidence, there’s no point going half-cock. He’ll be a lot better on better ground.”
Hughes is not afraid to go the extra mile in order to school horses for races. While Jefferson is based in Malton, Ewart’s stables are in Dumfrieshire.
“If I thought I would have got to 40 winners by Christmas, I would have taken it,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“As for rough targets, I obviously want to stay in one piece but it would be nice to beat the 65 winners that I rode in 2010-11 which is my career best. You always want to improve yourself.”
Yet, from a Yorkshire perspective, it is the axis between Hughes and the quietly-spoken Jefferson that has been a defining feature of the current National Hunt season.
Hughes enjoys the fact that he is not tied down to instructions because the pair are instinctively on the same wavelength. It is also rewarding, he says, to ride horses like Oscar Rock – and some of Jefferson’s other new acquistions – at the outset of their careers so that he can be intrumental in their longer-term careers.
Understandably connections were disappointed when Oscar Rock was defeated at Newcastle a fortnight ago after winning his hurdling debut at Wetherby by a wide-margin 19 lengths.
Hughes would have been in the past. But it is a measure of his approach to racing that he can now draw positives from defeat – and that can only bode well for the future.
“The horse never felt at home on that surface,” observed Hughes who is now established as the leading Northern-based rider after climbing to eighth in the jockeys’ table.
“If the ground had been soft, he would have won by 10 lengths. I think that he could be the best horse that I have ever ridden and I know there will be bigger assignments ahead.
“A lot of Malcolm’s horses are future chasers. He has a lot of owner-breeders and long-term owners.
“There’s always another day with his horses, the same with James Ewart.
“I am very critical of my own riding. In my younger days, I was bit ‘head up my a***’. Yet, as you get older, you get wiser and that is definitely paying off.
“For a Northern jockey, the chance to ride winners at Cheltenham is few and far between. I hope I can take it.”