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Hard-working Hughes reaps rewards with landmark victory

Pure dogged determination has seen Brian Hughes become only the fourth jump jockey in history to ride 200 winners in a season.

The acclaim he will deservedly receive at Sandown on Saturday will be in stark contrast to when he first won the title in 2019/20, when the season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic meaning he was denied a proper presentation.

It is not that Hughes is an attention seeker, far from it. But it will give his peers and racing fans alike the chance to give credit where credit is due.

Losing his title to Harry Skelton last year hurt – he has admitted as much. But rather than sulk, Hughes came back out fighting after the brief break between seasons.

He hit the ground running, starting with a treble on May 4, and, before any of his rivals knew it, he was clear of the field. Hughes brought up the 100 in double quick time on Dreams Of Home at Ayr on November 22 and talk of a second title was already rife.

He raced to his first 150 in a season on February 7 this year, with an 83-1 four-timer at Carlisle, and in doing so smashed the 44-year record for northern jump jockeys of 149 winners set by Jonjo O’Neill – the last northern-based champion in 1979/80 before Hughes came along.

That gave Hughes further impetus to join three National Hunt legends in the 200 club – Peter Scudamore, Sir Anthony McCoy and Richard Johnson.

It became a scramble in the closing days, with several defeats on odds-on shots and plenty of rides for different stables, but his name now sits alongside three real icons.

It is fair to say Hughes – who become the 25th jump jockey to ride 1,000 winners when he partnered My Old Gold to victory at Wetherby on January 4, 2019 – was destined to be a jockey from a very young age.

Born on June 27, 1985, in Newtownhamilton, County Armagh, in Northern Ireland, he could not wait to leave school.

An understanding careers teacher produced something she knew would interest her indifferent pupil – a brochure for the Racing School in Kildare – and Hughes’ eventual rise to the top was set in motion.

He was placed with the legendary Kevin Prendergast, a trainer he still rates as the best in Ireland. He worked at Prendergast’s yard for four years and got his first rides there.

His first of 22 winners on the Flat came on Perugino Lady at Downpatrick on October 9, 2002, but it some became clear that Hughes would face an uphill battle to remain on the level as he continued to grow, becoming both taller and heavier.

He described it as “torture” trying to make light Flat weights, parting company with Prendergast in 2005 to relocate to Britain, where he teamed up with County Durham handler Howard Johnson.

The trainer was flying at that point with the likes of Inglis Drever, Lord Transcend, Grey Abbey and Arcalis all in their prime and while Hughes did not get to ride the stable stars, he enjoyed a healthy stream of mounts before the arrival of Paddy Brennan as stable jockey saw his chances diminish.

Hughes felt he had to move on and could have migrated south, but he won on a chance ride for Cleveland trainer John Wade, which proved the springboard to a good partnership and later link-ups with giants of the northern scene such as Nicky Richards, Brian Ellison, James Ewart and Donald McCain – the latter being so much a part of the Hughes story.

He was crowned champion conditional in 2007/08, but in recent seasons his relationship with Cheshire-based McCain has proved immense.

The Grand National-winning handler has described Hughes as the “ultimate professional” and admitted it was a “no-brainer” to sign him up as first-choice rider.

Donald McCain is a huge part of the Brian Hughes story
Donald McCain is a huge part of the Brian Hughes story (Mike Egerton/PA)

McCain certainly does not lack for firepower – he himself has had one of the best campaigns of his career – but the fact he lacks a real star performer and instead plies his trade on the northern circuit makes Hughes an outlier.

Not for him the big days at the Cheltenham Festival, with Hughes accepting there is little point in partnering no-hopers on the biggest stages when instead you could be racking up victories at lower-key cards.

He had a handful of rides at Aintree, but on Grand National day he was at Bangor, riding one valuable winner in his numbers quest.

The fact he has only had one Grade One winner, Waiting Patiently in the Betfair Ascot Chase at the Berkshire track in February 2018, and three at the Cheltenham Festival, means he does not have the instant recognition of the likes of McCoy, Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty.

Hughes is the kind of man who prefers it that way though, telling the Daily Mail earlier this year: “I don’t crave accolades or fanfare.

“I don’t need people to tell me ‘That was brilliant’. You know if a job is well done. You get satisfaction and that is good enough for me.”

Hughes will surely be afforded plenty of attention now, not least from his wife Luci and children Rory and Olivia who will make the trip south from their Carlton-in-Cleveland base in North Yorkshire to see him rightfully lauded at Sandown.

While Hughes may lack the public profile of a champion, this achievement sees him elevated to true great status.

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