Chasing dreams: The story of Champion Jockey Brian Hughes
SOMEWHERE in the back of his mind he thought he heard the teacher call his name but he ignored that as he gazed out the window.
Three o’clock couldn’t come quickly enough for Brian Hughes and his thoughts were miles away in the green fields of home with his father’s horses, long before the school bell rang.
When class finally ended at St Paul’s High School, Hughes was gone in a flash and when he finished his GCSEs, he was gone for good.
He says he only went to school because he had to.
“I got out what I put in,” he says and it’s been the same with racing.
Having grown up around horses, becoming a jockey was his dream from an early age and, despite falls at the first, kicks in the teeth, setbacks and broken bones, his dream came true. And Newtownhamilton native Hughes isn’t just a jockey, he’s a Champion Jockey.
St Paul’s played a part. One day the conscientious careers teacher at the Bessbrook school produced something she knew would interest her indifferent pupil – a brochure for the Racing School in Kildare.
His ears pricked up.
“Once I knew it existed that was what I wanted to do,” he says and before long he was enrolled as a trainee jockey. A lot of winners have passed the post since but, 20 years later, he still remembers how the course was structured.
First term: Learn to ride.
Second term: Work in a trainer’s yard in the morning and lessons in the afternoon
Third term: Work for the trainer all day.
Lucky enough, 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.
“He’s a brilliant man and I have a lot to thank him for,” says Hughes.
In those days his ambition was to make it as a Flat jockey but Mother Nature thought otherwise and Prendergast shared her opinion. Hughes had winners on the Flat but he got older, taller and heavier and, after putting his body through torture in an effort to keep weight off, the penny finally dropped.
“I got offered a ride on a Jim Bolger horse,” he recalls.
“I had to do 7 stone 13lbs on it so I didn’t eat or drink for three days before the race – from Friday to Sunday.
“I won on it. I remember it was a really hot summer’s day and I looked like a ghost. I remember thinking it was great to ride a winner for Jim Bolger but it was just torture.
“I had to do a drug test after the race. I had to do a urine test and I was that dehydrated, I was there for six hours. I couldn’t produce a sample.
“It was just torture. From that day on I knew I was going to struggle to maintain weight to ride on the flat.”
HIS future was over fences in the National Hunt and when we spoke last week, Hughes was driving from the Doncaster races to Cheshire where he was due to ride-out at trainer Donald McCain’s stable the following morning.
At Doncaster he’d ridden his 153rd winner of a brilliant season (he’s now on 159) and with second-placed Harry Skelton 73 behind him, there’s no real doubt that he’ll be Champion Jockey for the second time - the first title came in 2020 after he’d been runner-up twice.
With almost two months of the season remaining, the only question remaining is: Can he get to 200? Only Peter Scudamore, Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson have ever managed that.
“I’d like to ride as many winners as I can,” he says.
“Please God I’ll stay in one piece until the end of the season. If I could ride 200 winners that would be great, it would be a serious feather in my cap. I’ll give it my best shot and if I can ride a winner at Cheltenham or Aintree that would be great.”
This season he has blown away his rivals in the Jump Jockeys’ Championship. He brought up 150 winners for the season on February 7 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 (who sent a text to congratulate him).
“It was nice to do,” says Hughes with typical humility.
“It’s not the biggest record in the world but it’s nice to do.”
So it’s a surprise to learn that he has just one ride confirmed for Cheltenham next month. A man with his track record of riding winners… Why isn’t the phone ringing off the hook? Well, racing is a complicated business and geography plays a part.
Hughes lives in the north Yorkshire village of Carlton-in-Cleveland with wife Luci and their kids Rory (4) and Olivia (2). The owners he rides for focus on meetings in that part of the country and Ayr (the Scottish National) and Aintree (the Grand National) are their priorities.
The faraway glamour of Cheltenham isn’t high on the list and without the exposure that winning a Gold Cup or a Queen Mother would bring, Hughes hasn’t yet become a cross-over star like his Champion Jockey predecessor McCoy. Despite all his success he remains the freelance outsider hoping to crash the party.
“People seem to think that I don’t like going to Cheltenham but the reality is that last year I didn’t have a ride - none with a chance anyway,” he says.
“I was busy elsewhere and there’s no point in going to Cheltenham to make up the numbers. I’d love to be going there with a handful of fancied rides but there are jockeys riding for the big stables and they ride those horses which is the way it should be. I’ve no divine right to ride good horses if my stables don’t have runners. That’s just the way racing is.”
HE has learned that since he parted company with Kevin Prendergast was 2005. By that time he’d decided that he needed a move to make his mark and so he took up the offer of a job at Howard Johnston’s yard near Durham as ‘a conditional’ (an apprentice jump jockey).
“It wasn’t easy at times but I’m that stubborn I just stuck with it,” he says.
“That’s who I am. I was determined to make a go of it and I always told myself that if I didn’t achieve what I wanted to it wouldn’t be for the lack of trying. My da told me when I was going: ‘Just try your best, that’s all you can do’ and that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.”
The year he joined, Howard Johnston was the leading trainer at Cheltenham and Hughes recalls how the yard “was bouncing” with talented horses all raring to go jumping.
In his first six months, Hughes rode 10 winners but things changed when Graham Lee left the stable and Paddy Brennan took over as number one jockey. Brennan was put on the horses that had a chance of winning and Hughes, piloting the ‘also-rans’, rode just three winners in the next year.
“I got a bit disillusioned,” he said.
“The only options I had was either throw the towel in and go home or do something different so I left Howard’s.”
There was talk of a job with Nigel Twiston-Davis in Gloucestershire and a move to the south-of-England scene but fate intervened when he was offered a ride on a horse owned by John Wade (another north-east trainer) at Sedgefield. Hughes steered the horse to victory and that was the start of a good partnership with Wade and he has since built on that by forming alliances with Donald McCain, Nicky Richards, Brian Ellison, James Ewart and others.
“I ended up riding for small trainers in the north of England,” he says.
“I was Champion Conditional that year and it has gone from strength-to-strength ever since. I just kept building on it every year up to where we are today.”
AND where are we today? He’d had five rides and one winner at Doncaster the day we spoke. He beat the favourite in the penultimate race and then rode the favourite in the last hoping to finish the day with a double.
His mount was motoring as she passed the final furlong marker and they hit the front to kick for home and then… Well, she decided she didn’t want to be in front.
“That filly today, she’s a decent filly, she’s young and you try to ride her in a way that suits her and we jumped the last and inside the last furlong we decided it was time to go for it,” he explained.
“It’s a balancing-act, she’s not a filly that has an instant turn-of-foot, she takes a bit of winding-up and you try to time it right and I thought I’d done that.
“She hit the front and she had a good look round, you try to give her all the encouragement to go forward but she just slowed down and unfortunately another one caught her on the line.
“There’s nothing you can do about it really.”
There you have the fascinating conundrum of horseracing. So many variables come into play – ground, weather, weight, distance… Some horses like to run from the front, some like to run from the back… We, the betting public, don’t see that. For us you just put a horse on the track and it runs but of course it’s not as simple as that.
“Some horses don’t like to be crowded,” says Hughes.
“I rode another filly today and she’s small and she doesn’t like the other horses in around her, she likes to be on the outside of the pack.
“Anything you can do to make the horse comfortable so you can get the best out of it. The bottom line of it is you can’t make a horse do anything it doesn’t want to do. You can ask it and coax it but they have their own minds and you have to read their mind and find out what makes them tick, what makes them run.
“You find out if it jumps well, runs well, stays well… If it stays well you can ride it aggressively and it’ll see out the trip well. Things like that. People fill you in and you have to figure out the best way to get the best out of the horse.”
There’s talk of a McCain horse that might have a chance in this year’s Grand National. Hughes says he’s still not sure what the story is.
“The National is still a long way away,” he says.
When it does come around (April 9) he is due a little luck. He’s ridden in it eight times now and has yet to be placed although he has won over the National fences – he won the Topam Chase in 2010 on Always Waining.
To win a National you need a super-fit mount built for a four and-a-half mile slog over 30 mountainous fences and he’s never had a horse that ticks all those boxes. The closest he came was when Seeyouatmidnight finished 11th in 2019.
“He was a decent horse in his own right but he was very fragile and he had unlucky preparation – they only managed to get one race into him before the National,” Brian explains.
“You need a few runs under your belt for the National and to be fair he travelled well until the second time at the Melling Road but fitness told at the end of the day and he just didn’t have anything left.
“I’m not saying he would have beaten Tiger Roll but he would have been in the shake-up, he might have got placed if he’d had a few runs under his belt.”
He wasn’t placed but it must have been a pleasant change for him to dismount in the paddock after the race because he’s had his fair share of falls at the National.
“I’ve had loads of falls, I’ve had plenty of falls at the first and that’s what happens when you’re on a horse that is rated high enough to get in but isn’t really good enough to be there,” he says
You’ve fallen at the first? I repeat sympathetically. What’s that like? It must be a bit of a kick in the teeth?
“Ha, don’t worry, I’ve had a few of them as well,” he shoots back.
“I fell in the National and got kicked in the face and broke my cheekbone in three places. A couple of years ago I had a fall and got kicked in the face and got my jaw broken in three places and all my teeth knocked out.
“That was fairly annoying… If you ever want to lose weight that’s one way. I lost about a stone having my jaw wired for a month!”
Jockeys pretend they’re not hurt, footballers pretend they are and Hughes shrugged off a long list of injuries including a cracked sternum, broken wrists, fingers, collarbone…
“Niggly, silly injuries,” he says.
They’re tough men, these jockeys.
He’s almost in Chester when we say goodbye and I wish him well for the rest of the season.
I hope he gets to 200 winners but what a journey he’s had since those days when he gazed out the window at St Paul’s. I wonder what he’d say to his 16-year-old self now?
Work hard and chase your dreams kid…