BRIAN HUGHES is in pole position to become the first Northern-based champion jump jockey for 40 years after his rival Richard Johnson suffered a broken right arm in a heavy fall.
Hughes, who is based in North Yorkshire, already held an advantage of three winners when Johnson, the reigning champion, was unseated from his mount Westend Story at the sixth fence in a novice chase at Exeter.
Johnson was trampled on by a pursuing horse and lay on the track, grimacing in pain, for some time afterwards. He was treated by doctors at the track before being taken by ambulance to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital around 10 miles away for scans and further assessment.
He is due to undergo surgery.
Westend Story’s trainer Philip Hobbs confirmed last night: “He has broken his right arm in between the elbow and the hand.
“He is going to have an operation on it, to have it plated, either tomorrow (Wednesday) or Thursday. He expects to be off for a month or so. He sounded very positive about Cheltenham.”
Arm fractures can leave riders on the sidelines for a minimum of six weeks, with Johnson facing a race against time to be fit for the blue riband Cheltenham Festival which is due to begin on March 10.
Hughes and Johnson have been locked in a protracted struggle for most of the 2019-20 season and were both on the 111-winner mark at the start of racing on Monday at Newcastle.
Yet, while Johnson drew a blank at the North East track, an inspired Hughes booted home a treble courtesy of trainers Ruth Jefferson, James Ewart and Gillian Boanas to ease into the lead in the title race which ends at Sandown’s traditional season-ending meeting on April 25.
The last Northern-based rider to be crowned was the legendary Jonjo O’Neill who won the second of his championships in the 1979-80 season.
More recently Johnson was the perennial runner-up to the record-breaking Sir AP McCoy who won an unprecedented 20 successive titles before hanging up his riding boots at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Since then, Johnson, 42, has won four successive titles and was favourite to win a fifth championship despite the emergence of Hughes, 34, who hails from Northern Ireland.
He first came to prominence when teaming up with the late Richmond trainer Alan Swinbank and was crowned champion conditional jockey in the 2007-08 season. He also had significant success with Malcolm Jefferson before the Malton trainer died nearly two years ago.
This year Hughes, a father-of-two, has been the ‘go to’ jockey for trainers across the North who respect his work-rate and encyclopaedic knowledge, bordering on the obsessive, of the form book.
In a statement of intent, he travelled last summer as far away as Newton Abbot in Devon for a solitary ride in order to just keep in touch with Johnson in the early stages of the championship.
Since O’Neill, just five men – John Francome, Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody, the aforementioned McCoy and, most recently, Johnson – have won the title race.
However, with three months of the season to go, Hughes will know that his 28-winner advantage over third-placed Sam Twiston-Davies is not unassailable and Hughes will be looking to maintain his winning momentum at Catterick today, Wetherby tomorrow and then Doncaster’s two-day Sky Bet Chase meeting.