Andrew Thornton’s advice to title-chasing Brian Hughes is mindful of racing’s risks: “Stay in one piece and you’ve got a chance to make history.”
North Yorkshire-based Hughes is currently leading the race to become the 2019-20 champion National Hunt (NH) jockey after Richard Johnson broke his arm.
Now on the 126-winner mark for the current campaign, Hughes is now 15 clear of Johnson who has won the last four titles and is the second most successful NH jockey of all-time behind Sir AP McCoy.
Thornton, one of an elite group of jump jockeys to have ridden more than 1,000 winners in his career, has watched Hughes convert his early promise into a ruthless resolve to win.
And, unlike so many, he’s not surprised by the rider’s rise through the racing ranks which sees Hughes close to becoming the first Northern-based jump jockey to win the sport’s ultimate accolade since Jonjo O’Neill in 1979-80.
Today sees Hughes venture to Newbury where, on a competitive’s day racing, he’ll be simply pleased to add to his season’s tally – his mounts include the Nicky Richards-trained Simply Ned as the veteran takes on the all-conquering Altior.
Yet, while many are surprised that a Northern-based rider is leading the title race, this is now the sixth successive season that Hughes has ridden a century of winners – the objective that the no nonsense jockey sets at the start of every campaign.
And while he’s been in the championship mix for the last four campaigns, this is the first time that Hughes finds himself as favourite and the man to beat.
However, as Thornton says, Hughes already held a very narrow edge thanks to a treble that he rode at Newcastle last month 24 hours before a seemingly innocuous fall at Exeter left Johnson, the reigning champion, on the injury sidelines.
“This is the fourth season that he’s been riding at this level,” said Thornton who won the 1998 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Cool Dawn. “He doesn’t court the publicity and he lets his riding do the talking. Everybody is more media-savvy these days and he’s starting to get that. In his post-race interviews, you can’t get him off the microphone.
“People say that he’s not riding down the south, and that’s where the best riders are, but you have to go where there are the best opportunities to ride winners.”
Thornton, a popular pundit on both ITV Racing and Sky Sports Racing, maintains that Hughes would have preferred a tough tussle with Johnson for the title rather than his rival’s campaign being curtailed by injury.
But he says this should not detract from the achievements of Hughes whose sole Grade One win came two years ago when Ruth Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently beat Cue Card at Ascot. The jockey’s strike-rate is now a career-high 21 per cent and Thornton, from Thirsk, told The Yorkshire Post: “When you are riding with such confidence, you make horses believe they can find a little bit extra. The split-second between having to think about making a move, and having to make a manoeuvre, is the difference betweeen winning and losing. When you’re on top of your game, you don’t have to think about it.”
Thornton also hopes that the success of Hughes helps convince more owners to invest in jump racing in the North. “I think it shows the jockeys can’t do it without the horses,” he added.
“It shows the trainers up here, and Brian rides for a good many of them, are more than capable. The difference is they have owners spending thousands of pounds on horses while, down south, owners spend hundreds of thousands. There are a lot of good trainers up here.”
Yet, with the season ending at Sandown in late April, Thornton still urges caution.
He says Hughes was lucky to escape serious injury in a novice chase at Market Rasen – he was leading a race when he hit the deck and the remaining runners trampled over him – while just one horse was behind Johnson when his arm was kicked, and broken, at Exeter.
“As long as he stays in one piece, he has a chance,” he added.