IT is 10 years to the week since Alan Swinbank, the late racehorse trainer, said Brian Hughes will be “one of the top six jockeys in the country – if he keeps working hard”.
Swinbank had invited The Yorkshire Post to his Richmond stables where the workaholic Hughes, the then champion conditional, was looking to take his career to the next level.
It was, at the time, a bold call – National Hunt racing was being dominated by AP McCoy and Richard Johnson, the two winning-most riders of all-time, and a clutch of young stars.
Yet the prediction by the jockey’s early mentor, who died in April 2017, was a conservative one. Hughes, the undisputed No 1 rider in the North, has been runner-up to the aforementioned Johnson in the past two title races and is currently third in this season’s standings with 116 wins to his name.
And today the North Yorkshire-based rider is back at Wetherby where the 33-year-old recorded his milestone 1,000th winner on Friday last week when My Old Gold prevailed after a typically patient ride before Hughes became more forceful in the finish.
Now on the 1,010-winner mark after another productive week, including a Sedgefield treble yesterday, Hughes became just the 25th jump jockey to reach the four-figure landmark and My Old Gold’s win came at the expense of longstanding rival Paddy Brennan on the runner-up Lough Salt.
I wouldn’t like to pick out one winner as a highlight. I appreciate every winner I get and all the people that help me get them – all the owners, trainers and my agent.Brian Hughes
Both jockeys previously rode for Howard Johnson, the then County Durham trainer, in the past. And when Hughes won last year’s Ascot Chase on Waiting Patiently, a long overdue first win at Grade One level, it was Brennan who had to settle for second on the great Cue Card.
“When I started at Howard’s, Brian did all the simple things right,” said Brennan, another member of the 1,000-winner club, in a heartfelt tribute to this newspaper.
“He was always on time. He had the talent. He was brilliant riding work – and he worked incredibly hard. You need luck. Lots of jockeys get in his position at the start of their careers and they don’t have the luck through injury, weight issues and so on.
“I’m not surprised he’s done so well. He’s completely dominated the North. Yes, he’s lucky to have the support of trainers like Nicky Richards and Donald McCain.
“But if he didn’t have Nicky or Donald’s horses, he would have someone else.
“I never like being beaten but he was always going to win a Grade One and he’s going to win a lot more Grade Ones.”
Hughes, who hails from Northern Ireland, has now recorded a century of winners for each of the past five seasons. Not universally popular with his weighing room colleagues because of his ruthlessness, he would retort by saying racing is not a popularity contest.
The first rider on the gallops each morning – he even rode out on the morning of his wedding – he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the form book despite leaving school with minimal qualifications. If he does not have a ride in a race, he will be in the lobby of the weighing room seeking out connections. He is also a regular in the gym at Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund rehab centre in Malton, that provides elite-level health and fitness support.
Just as McCoy and Johnson changed racing’s dynamics with their will to win, Hughes continues to set a standard for excellence that young riders in the North need to aspire to if they are to have successful careers.
And while Hughes did play down his latest achievement, the landmark clearly matters to his family, including wife Luci and their young son Rory.
“I wouldn’t like to pick out one winner as a highlight. I appreciate every winner I get and all the people that help me get them – all the owners, trainers and my agent, Richard Hale,” said Hughes, who has also enjoyed Cheltenham Festival success on Hawk High, Ballyalton and Mister Whitaker.
“Obviously any winner at the Cheltenham Festival is good, and it was great to get my first Grade One winner on Waiting Patiently. Hopefully we can continue to ride more winners, and more big winners.”
The emotional win on Waiting Patiently came a day after the funeral of the top class horse’s trainer Malcolm Jefferson who had become not just a strong supporter of Hughes but a mentor. Hughes does ride for Jefferson’s daughter Ruth who took over the licence and saddled Waiting Patiently to win at Ascot in her name, but he prefers to keep his options open.
That said, his frustration was plain to see when the lightly-raced Waiting Patiently was effectively brought down by Bristol De Mai in Kempton’s King Goerge Chase on Boxing Day – big races are hard enough to win without such misfortune.
In the meantime, Hughes has set his sights on riding another 1,000 winners.
And although it is an “ambition” to be champion jockey, no Northern-based rider has achieved the feat since Jonjo O’Neill 40 years ago.
Not only is there more racing in the South, but yards from all over the UK target meetings at Yorkshire’s tracks with far greater regularity. “I think it will be very difficult to become champion jockey as long as Richard Johnson is riding,” noted Hughes.
“Richard is a brilliant jockey and a great man, and has taken over where AP (McCoy) left off.
“I think I’m doing as well as I possibly can – and I’m still around 50 winners behind him this season. I don’t want to sound defeatist, but I want to focus on things I think are totally achievable.”
But the now retired Andrew Thornton, who recorded his 1,000th winner in December 2016, says a successful title challenge is feasible.
“It is not beyond the realms of possibility,” he said. “He is dedicated and he has tunnel vision. It is his job. It is his hobby. I don’t think he has another hobby. He is single-minded.
“I don’t think he can do an awful lot more. You need to stay healthy and well, that goes without saying. It is just a case of ‘keep going’. Being a jockey, someone is going to get injured at some point and you just hope it is not you. It is a case of ‘what will be will be’.”
Yet, while Brian Hughes has become a much more accomplished horseman over the past decade, his mindset has not changed. As he said after the Alan Swinbank-trained More Like It won at Catterick 10 years ago: “You never get tired of riding winners.”