THERE are few, if any, jump jockeys who are more determined, and more driven, than Brian Hughes.
The first Northern-based rider to become champion in 40 years, this feat – and lifelong ambition – was overshadowed by Covid.
Yet his quest to prove that his title 2019-20 title triumph was no fluke ended in personal disappointment when he was caught by Harry Skelton in the final fortnight of last season.
Hughes, 36, is blunt. There were no excuses – or hard feelings towards the new champion – because he simply did not ride sufficient winners.
However the North Yorkshire rider is all-out to retain his cherished crown – he’s on the 65-winner mark for the current campaign and 24 clear of his pursuers.
He’s also leaving nothing to chance as summer jump racing – the early skirmishes – is replaced by typical winter jumping before the 2021-22 season reaches its climax next April.
Hughes is speaking on Thursday afternoon. He’d been up at 4am to travel to Donald McCain’s stables in Cheshire to school a string of novice chasers.
He then travels to to Worcester where one ride – Charlie Longsdon’s Haas Boy – yields a fourth-place finish. And he was then staying in the South West for Chepstow’s season-opening meeting which concludes today.
Hughes, who hails from Northern Ireland, is an increasingly familiar figure at southern courses in the pursuit of winners. He’s also phlegmatic about Haas Boy. “He’s a nice horse and he will win in time,” reports the rider. “I stand more chance of riding him if I make the effort to ride him on days like this. I’ve had a few winners for Charlie (Longsdon) this year.”
One of just 22 champion jump jockeys since the war, Hughes moved to Britain in 2005 to team up with Howard Johnson and then the late Alan Swinbank at Richmond, becoming champion conditional in 2007-08.
He’s now ridden a century of winners for seven successive seasons in the wake of the dominance of Sir AP McCoy and Richard Johnson – consistency that has become his benchmark. He describes his start to the current season as “okay”.
The ever analytical Hughes notes his personal strike-rate is 21 per cent which is good “given the volume of rides I get and for many different trainers” – he doesn’t add that this, for now, is a career-best.
And for a sportsman renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the form book, Hughes is humble about the circumstances of his championship when Covid led to the season ending prematurely.
He also gave up a day’s rides a fortnight ago to support his wife Luci when she won the Macmillan charity race at York, raising nearly £12,000. In a role reversal, it was Hughes looking after the couple’s two children at the races.
He was thrilled because of the sacrifices that his wife and family makes so that he can ride. His sister now does his accounts, his agent Richard Hale books rides and arranges where to ride out in the mornings and two friends help with the driving – “I hate driving” – so he can be mentally and physically focussed when he arrives at the races.
“It’s something I’m immensely proud of,” says Hughes as he reflects on his title. “I didn’t dwell on it because of what was going on at the time, what with Covid and a lot of people losing their lives. It was a very difficult time for everybody.
“I was champion and wanted to defend it. I was leading for most of last season until a couple of weeks to go when Harry (Skelton) rode more winners than I – and he was champion jockey. I didn’t ride enough winners to be champion jockey. End of.
“This season I have started off okay. Hopefully, when we get going now with the jump season proper, there’s a lot to look forward to but you have to stay fit and healthy in this game. What will be.”
Hughes says he’s respectful of every rider and a shared determination. “At the end of the day, everyone is out there to do their best, but because of the risks, there’s no point in having grudges.”
Until now, Hughes has a solitary success at Grade One level – Waiting Patiently’s emotional win in the 2018 Ascot Chase for Ruth Jefferson just a day after her father Malcolm, a great mentor to the rider, had been laid to rest.
Now the horse is trained in Wales by Christian Williams and Hughes has been assured by owner Richard Collins that he keeps the ride. He’s impassioned when describing the injury-prone horse’s third-place finish in the 2019 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown before chasing Frodon home in last year’s King George Chase at Kempton – races that could, with luck, have ended with happier outcomes. “I still believe in the horse,” he maintains.
And he’s equally effusive when he hears jockeys likened to “self-employed businessmen” and how riding is as important as studying the form book, maintaining peak fitness and communicating with owners and trainers alike. “Horse racing is a sport but it is also an entertainment sport,” he adds with discernible passion.
“People who own horses – it is a passion for them and it is their day out.
“They fund everything so we have to make sure they have a nice day out.
“Being a jockey, it’s about the whole package.”
They’re also the qualities of champions.