IF the race to be champion jump jockey had started on November 1, North Yorkshire’s Brian Hughes would be the runaway leader.
A remarkable 31 winners in November – including trebles as well as four and five-timers – has been followed by 12 successes, and counting, this month.
Now on the 80-winner mark, it is now Hughes – rather than more high-profile jockeys in the South – who is the nearest pursuer to title-holder Richard Johnson, who already has a dominant 123 victories to his name.
It’s unrealistic to expect the 31-year-old to overhaul Johnson; Hughes missed the start of the season with injury and endured a barren Autumn.
Even though he’s becoming one of the most dominant Northern-based riders since Ron Barry, Tommy Stack and Jonjo O’Neill were title-winning jockeys in the 1970s, Hughes knows the odds are stacked against him.
There’s more racing in the South – and his success has been built on the contacts forged with a coalition of smaller trainers, most notably Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson, rather than one powerhouse yard or owner.
Hughes is also slightly embarrassed by the plaudits bestowed upon him as the wider racing community belatedly take note of his horsemanship and will to win.
He attributes his recent success to the horses, and stable staff, while pointing out that the now-retired Sir AP McCoy expected to win 30-plus races each month.
His aim at the start of each season, he said, is to record a century of winners – he’s on course to do so for a third straight year – and win one of the sport’s more prestigious races to add to his two previous victories at the Cheltenham Festival and successes over Aintree’s National fences.
Though Sandy Thomson’s staying chaser Seeyouatmidnight disappointed in Haydock’s Betfair Chase, Hughes did pick up a spare ride on Grand National runner-up The Last Samuri in the Becher Chase and finished an eye-catching third despite being burdened by top weight.
And there are no guarantees – the jockey was beaten on 1-16 odds-on favourite Blue Rambler in a two-runner race at Doncaster last Saturday, while Brian Borhana, first past the post at Catterick on Tuesday, was disqualified when Hughes weighed in 2lb light after some lead slipped out of the saddle.
Yet, as Hughes heads to Haydock today to partner exciting novice chaser Cloudy Dream and then Trickaway in the feature Tommy Whittle Chase, his closest supporters are not surprised by his success. After moving from his native Northern Ireland to County Durham to join the County Durham yard of Howard Johnson, his career took off when he joined Richmond trainer Alan Swinbank and became champion conditional in 2007-08.
“I always said to him ‘keep off those dodgy buggers. Make sure they can jump before you get on them’,” Swinbank told The Yorkshire Post. “Now he can be choosing. He’s done very well. he started from the bottom. He came here when Howard Johnson didn’t really give him a proper chance.
“He’s never surprised me. He always had plenty of confidence. It’s all about winning. Brian Hughes, give him his due, has looked after himself, mixed with the right people and been full of confidence. I wish him all the best.”
Jockey-turned-trainer Chris Grant, one of the iron men of the North in his riding days, concurs. “He’s the best in the North, hence why he can ride the best horses. He’s also much stronger in a finish,” said Grant before highlighting the quality of the feedback that Hughes offers. “He’s a good talker when he gets off a horse. Owners are paying for a service and he tells them where to go next with their horse. He’s good at explaining a race from fence to fence.”
Fortunate that he can ride at the minimum weight of 10st with relative ease, Hughes is also incredibly driven. He rode out on the morning of his wedding, while he invariably spends time, between races, in the lobby of the weighing room scanning the form while looking out for new contacts to forge as his rivals are invariably moaning behind closed doors about their trainers, horses, agents and media.
It’s why he struck up such a rapport with the aforementioned Jefferson around four years ago. The partnership recently recorded its 100th success.
Mindful of the adage that good horses makes good jockeys, Jefferson says Hughes can win races on little-fancied runners because he’s such a shrewd judge of the pace. His stable jockey, he says, is also a form anorak.
“He has a good head on him most of the time and horses jump for him, especially over fences. He rides his own race and can see what is happening in front of him,” added Jefferson. “I think he lives in the form book. He’ll come in the morning to ride out and say there’s a race for such and such. It all helps.”