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Fitzgerald delighted to see Hughes gain just reward at Sandown

Things were a little different for Brian Hughes at the bet365 Jump Finale at Sandown on Saturday.

Two years ago, when he lifted the champion jump jockeys title for the first time, the country was in a Covid lockdown. No crowds, no presentations, no celebrations, no reward for the sheer hard graft.

Mick Fitzgerald never had the ammunition or the luck to topple Richard Dunwoody, Sir Anthony McCoy or Richard Johnson to become champion, but he had plenty of big days to go with plenty of major injuries.

He knew what it took to be a champion, yet even in his halcyon days, he simply had the misfortune to be riding in the Martin Pipe era, just as the equally brilliant Adrian Maguire had found.

It says plenty about the man that one of his biggest racing moments – one of the most little known – came far from the spotlight, long after he quit the saddle, after a long drive to Sedgefield.

“It is a big deal to win the title and it is a big deal to him (Hughes),” said Fitzgerald. “I think that was a little bit lost as I don’t think people realised what a big deal it was.

“To be champion jockey it takes an awful lot. You have to make sacrifices, you have to push yourself all the time to be constantly striving to be ahead of the guy behind you.

“I can’t emphasise enough how big a deal it is to be champion jockey. You ask Brian, and he would tell you the truth, he will say that he never thought he would be champion. He wanted to be, but you never think you are going to be. Then you are, and then you don’t have anything to signify you are champion jockey.

“The trophy that goes with it is beautiful, but it is the list of names on that trophy that makes it so special because you are thinking, ‘I’m one of those’.

“That is why I could not believe he had no trophy.”

Fitzgerald added: “I interviewed him at Southwell and said, ‘well, at least you have the trophy’, and he said, ‘what trophy?’

“You could see the disappointment on his face, and while he never said it, I felt he should have had his day at Sandown, but because of Covid it was nobody’s fault, but I felt, ‘at least let him have his trophy!’.

“So I rang the BHA and they said it had nothing to do with them, it was Great British Racing who organised it.

“I spoke to them and they said they had the trophy and were waiting for a date to give him it at Sandown, and I said, ‘you don’t know how long this virus is going to last’. They said they wanted to let him have his day to celebrate, but I said, ‘he’s not going to have it – give him the trophy, he’s earned it!’.

Hughes rode his 200th winner of the campaign at Perth on Wednesday
Hughes rode his 200th winner of the campaign at Perth on Wednesday (Jane Barlow/PA)

“So I asked if it could be delivered to me and I took it up to him. I spoke to the guys at Sky and they filmed me giving him the trophy.

“You could see on his face and his wife’s face how proud he was. I don’t think he could quite believe it – and it is only when you have physical evidence – that this champion jockey’s trophy is yours.

“No-one is giving it to you, you’ve earned it. It means an awful lot to him.

“It has nothing to do with me. I just felt he deserved it, just wanted to have his due reward.

“He deserved to have the trophy on his sideboard, because not having it, he had been robbed of it, because eight or nine months later he would have to hand it back.”

Brian Hughes and his family at Sandown
Brian Hughes and his family at Sandown (Nigel French/PA)

Hughes had his day at the Esher track on Saturday. In the warmth of friends, family and plenty of supporters, he received his trophy from The Grand Tour and former Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond and his wife, Mindy.

Naturally enough, he was quick to pay tribute to those who helped him take a second title.

Hughes said: “I’m the lucky one who gets to ride a lot of winners, but the early mornings, late nights and being away from family for days at a time is tough.

“Every jockey works hard and you see today it looks glamorous and all that, but all the lads put their heart and soul into it to do their best, so to be champion is hard work, but I’m the one getting all the rewards, so it is a lot easier when you are getting the rewards.

“Donald McCain has been a mainstay. I have had over 100 winners for him this season and he has had a career best of 155 and that is massive.

“Everyone at Cholmondeley has worked extremely hard to get me horses to ride this year, so I massively appreciate their help.

“Obviously, I ride for Nicky Richards, Charlie Longsdon, Brian Ellison and lots of trainers – I’ve ridden for 35 different trainers and I’m very lucky they have supported me for a lot of years.

“I have been lucky to have ridden winners consistently week in week out. I never thought I would achieve 200 winners, but I’m delighted to have achieved that and it is something I am proud of.”

Hughes with his trophy
Hughes with his trophy (Nigel French/PA)

Now the silverware has whetted his appetite, he will make space for more on the mantelpiece, should the opportunity present itself.

“Another championship would be nice and that will always be the goal until I retire,” he added.

Fitzgerald looking on, smiling as Hughes was presented with the trophy, said: “Today makes all the stuff that has gone, it makes all this immaterial.

“Because this is his day and everyone is here to share it with him and it is lovely for him. I’m really pleased for him. He is a proper champion and deserves every accolade going.”

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