PLAUDITS do not always rest easily on the shoulders of Brian Hughes. He is a jump jockey who believes that his next win will be his best one.
However, the North Yorkshire rider had every reason to be proud of his endeavours this season when recording his maiden century of winners courtesy of Warden Hill’s success at Market Rasen last Sunday.
It is a feat which should not be overlooked – Hughes is the first rider based almost exclusively in the North to reach the landmark since Graham Lee in 2005-06. And unlike those riders in the South who enjoy prolific ties with the top trainers, the 29-year-old has become the ‘go-to’ man for a whole raft of trainers when his services are not required by Malton’s Malcolm Jefferson.
“The 100 is something that I started to think about when I had such a good start to the season,” said Hughes, who is fifth in the current jockeys’ standings behind AP McCoy, Tom Scudamore, Richard Johnson and Sam Twiston-Davies.
“By the New Year, I was already at 70 so it became realistic. Malcolm’s horses were slow to come to hand, but they have finished the season well. I’ve been lucky that everything has clicked.
“I’m never going to be champion jockey – there just aren’t the big yards in the North that you need to make it happen – but my aim for next year will be to work towards 100 winners again. You have to set yourself little targets, but be realistic.
“After Warden Hill won, a lot of people were ringing and texting. I didn’t think it was anything special, but I realised in fact that it meant quite a lot to those who are close to me and who support me.”
It is also apt that there is a special significance to the three of the headline horses – Katie T, Surf And Turf and finally Cyrus Darius – that have helped Hughes take his career to new heights.
Katie T, who won a valuable handicap hurdle at Leopardstown in January, is trained by Kevin Prendergast – the trainer who gave Hughes his first break in racing and whose exacting standards were critical to the young rider’s development for three years.
“Kevin was very important. I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time, but it was the best grounding going,” said the rider. “You had to put your head down and work away.”
From here, Hughes made the journey across the Irish Sea to Richmond where he teamed up with Alan Swinbank and became champion conditional in 2007-08. Head lad was Kevin Frost – the man responsible for Surf And Turf’s win in the Betfred Red Rum Chase on day one of the Grand National meeting. The 33-1 outsider could not have been more impressive and Hughes was quick to praise the trainer.
“Me and Kevin go back a long way,” he said. “He’s a tremendous horseman and can do the job as good as anyone.”
And, 24 hours later, Hughes was back in the Aintree winner’s enclosure courtesy of the Jefferson-trained Cyrus Darius – this fine novice hurdler has the potential to be an even better steeplechaser next season.
“You can pick a Malcolm Jefferson horse a mile away,” said Hughes. “He buys a big store horse with a view to them becoming steeplechasers in time. Malcolm has been in this game a long time and showed his experience this season to get the horses back and running well. There are a lot of trainers who have been struggling the whole year, but Malcolm turned it around and it was good to win a Grade Two race for him.”
Yet, despite Hughes enjoying a career-best season, he was left scrambling for a last minute ride in the National itself and then suffered the ignominy of parting company from Charlie Longsdon’s Ely Brown at the very first fence.
As for today, the jockey is aboard Jefferson’s stable stalwart Cape Tribulation in the Coral Scottish National as the former Cheltenham and Aintree winner – one of the most versatile horses in training – steps up in trip to four miles for the first times.
However, the 11-year-old has his work cut out against the likes of Scottish hopeful Lie Forrit and last year’s winner Al Co.
Like Ely Brown, the Peter Bowen-trained Al Co came to grief at the first fence in the National – but he has the scope to become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals since the late Malton trainer Jimmy Fitzgerald’s Androma prevailed 30 years ago.
The defending champion is also the mount of the trainer’s 17-year-old son Sean, who is the season’s leading conditional and who completed the National course at the very first attempt last weekend aboard Mon Parrain. No wonder Brian Hughes says he will have to work even harder to ride his next century of winners. After all, this is a sport where nothing should be taken for granted.