THE anticipation in Barry McHugh’s voice is palpable as he looks forward to the biggest day of his life when he partners the unheralded Lily Rules in today’s Investec Oaks – the prelude to tomorrow’s Epsom Derby.
“When you become a jockey, these are the days when you want to be riding,” the unassuming 31-year-old told The Yorkshire Post as he prepares to partner Malton trainer Tony Coyle’s horse in a race that will pay homage to legendary trainer Sir Henry Cecil who died a year ago.
A first Classic contender for both McHugh and Coyle, Lily Rules does not enjoy the high profile of many of her 16 more illustrious rivals but it would be foolhardy to dismiss the filly’s chances if the forecast rain turns Epsom’s undulations into an even greater stamina test.
Halifax-based owner Chris Whitley agreed to take the gamble of paying a £30,000 supplementary entry fee after his horse was a very creditable second to the Kieren Fallon-inspired Madame Chiang – one of today’s more fancied runners – in York’s Musidora Stakes last month.
Such confidence will only help McHugh as he lines up alongside his great friend Paul Hanagan, who will be hoping to break his own Classic duck aboard the lightly-raced market leader Taghrooda, owned by Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum and trained by the in-form John Gosden.
McHugh served his racing apprenticeship alongside Hanagan, the 2010 and 2011 champion jockey, at Richard Fahey’s Malton yard before opting to ride as a freelance this season for trainers like Coyle and Kevin Ryan, who won the French Derby last weekend with The Grey Gatsby.
That experience, coupled with the knowledge that McHugh beat the best when winning races like the 2011 Bunbury Cup on Fahey’s Brae Hill, can serve the County Tyrone-born jockey well today.
“I’ve only ridden once before at Epsom and that was on the sprint course,” he said. “I’ve never ridden the mile-and-a-half track, but I’ll get there plenty early enough to walk the course.
“With the rain coming down, she’s got a little chance of getting in the frame – and I’d be delighted with that. She is so relaxed in her races and she has a good turn of foot when you ask her to go.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to switch her off, but still be in touch coming down Tattenham Hill, and get in the race.”
This is where the race will be won and lost, hence why Madame Chiang’s trainer David Simcock took the Musidora winner to Epsom last week for a racecourse gallop.
Due to the aforementioned Fallon continuing his association with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation after being picked to ride 1000 Guineas third Ihtimal, Northern racing College graduate William Buick takes the ride on Madame Chiang.
“William said that coming down the hill she switched on to the right leg straight away and it is very pleasing. It was only a routine canter but all worked out very well,” said Simcock.
“That was the first time William had sat on her. Kieren (Fallon) would have ridden her but he is on Ihtimal.
“We were looking for a suitable replacement and it was as much Kirsten’s (owner Kirsten Rausing) decision as mine to put William on. Madame Chiang has a great attitude, nothing really fazes her and she will stay very, very well.”
McHugh, who lives in Malton, concurs. He says he was impressed by the stamina of the Simcock horse as she pulled clear on the Knavesmire.
Yet he hopes today’s race will be just the beginning of a long, and successful association, with the aforementioned Coyle.
“He’s very like his filly. He’s very laid back and relaxed. He’s getting more horses every year – this is only about his fourth year,” said McHugh.
“If Lily Rules was trained in Newmarket, you could halve her odds and she would be thought of more highly. There’s no pressure. Sometimes it’s an advantage to be the underdog.
“It’s like anything – you’re only as good as the horses that you get to ride or train – but I’m hoping to do well so I improve my chances of getting more rides in the bigger races.
“That’s one of the reasons why Paul took the Sheikh Hamdan job. He wants to win the Classics and I’m sure it is only a matter of time. If I can’t win the Oaks, I’d love him to – he’s been great to me. If ever you need a little bit of advice, he’s the first person that I turn to.”
As for that man Coyle, he hopes Lily Rules can replicate her York run rather than her tardy work on the gallops at home.
“She’s entitled to go down, she ran a blinder at York,” he said. “It cost us a few quid to put her in but like the owner said to me, we might never have a chance to run another filly in the Oaks again.
“For the type of prize money on offer it’s worth taking a shot. She’s not going down to make up the numbers. She’s a very good filly.
“Hopefully, they get the rain that is forecast, the more rain the better for her. She goes on good no problem, but she’s more effective on soft as it takes the sting out of the others.
“We fancied her to run well at York. She’ll definitely get a mile and three (furlongs), but on pedigree she’s not guaranteed to get a mile-and-a-half.
“She wasn’t stopping at York so I don’t think she’ll have a problem. If she’s in the first five I’ll be as proud as punch.”
So, too, will Barry McHugh.
Can Racing Post Trophy winner Kingston Hill win the Derby? Read Tom Richmond’s interview with big race jockey Andrea Atzeni in The Yorkshire Post tomorrow.