Monday 18 December 2017

Against all odds

As a recovering alcoholic, Richard Hughes knows well the magnitude of his accomplishment in riding nine winners in 10 races. Pausing for breath after Tuesday's 3.40 at Leicester, where he has just suffered a rare defeat in this most garlanded of weeks, he is in the mood to savour his astonishing seven-timer at Windsor on Monday.

"When I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, I was told that things would get better -- and they have," reflects Hughes, who once admitted that his struggle was so acute that he could not envisage life without the bottle.

"Now I try to enjoy every moment. I live in the present now, so I appreciate the significance of riding seven winners. Back when I was drinking I would have cursed myself and said, 'Why couldn't I have won eight?' Now when I achieve something, I stay in the moment."

Since becoming only the second rider to claim seven victories at an English meeting -- Frankie Dettori tore through the card at Ascot in 1996 -- the Kildare native radiates contentment.

When he arrived home on Monday night, his son Harvey had inquired, with a six-year-old's typically demanding habit, 'Daddy, how many did you win?' "He always asks, 'Six?'," says Hughes, with a careworn smile. "But this time I managed to do it. In fact, I got seven for him."

Harvey spent the rest of the evening depicting his triumphant father with lurid colouring pens. "He had been seeing my picture all over the television, so he was very excited."

Hughes is an absorbing subject to analyse: hard of face but mellifluous of voice, long on single-mindedness but often short on patience. "Surely you've got enough pictures now?" he snaps at the photographer, with no little menace.

Evidently, the 39-year-old finds life under the magnifying glass an uncomfortable sensation. "Well, I've had plenty of disappointments," he explains. "And I know that you're only as good as your last race."

But the luminous glow persists at Leicester, where he reels off an opening double aboard Van Der Neer and Tunnager Grove to extend his winning streak to a barely credible nine in 10. The second he repairs from this conversation, he registers yet another success, Guiletta in the 4.10, thus delivering a Tuesday treble as a remarkable encore to his record-breaking Monday -- 10 winners in 12 races.

What on Earth has sparked such brilliance from this sometimes mercurial jockey? Initially, his answer is prosaic: "Every horse has such different traits, but I'd like to think that I understand horses."

But scratch a little deeper and one discovers that Hughes, so supreme this season that he could stop racing now and he would still be champion jockey on the Flat, had simply become jaded by his own recent dominance and needed a fresh challenge.

"Two months ago, I felt the adrenalin had left me," he explains. "I felt as if I had done it already. So I just took myself down to Portugal to regain some focus. I like to keep fresh. You can get very stale riding horses. But I want to do my homework right. I don't want to get myself into the wrong frame of mind.

"I was in the Algarve for three days and managed to fit in five games of golf at Vilamoura. I felt refreshed the second I came back."

When any sportsman performs a feat as momentous as Hughes' -- don't forget, his was at the cumulative odds of 10,168/1 -- it is instinctive to perceive it within a wider narrative, as an extraordinary antidote to his battles against alcoholism and self-reproach.

But there is another compelling backstory to his achievement. For it is almost exactly 12 months to the day that he threatened to quit the saddle, after being handed a 15-day ban for flouting controversial new whip rules.

"I cried that night," he recalls. "I just remember that I totally believed in what I had done. It wasn't a rash decision. I simply concluded, 'I can't ride under those rules.' I realised that I wasn't quite ready to give up on racing. But I knew that I couldn't ride the way the rules were. So that was a pretty low point.

"I believed in what was right, and thankfully they saw sense and changed the rules. I was deeply frustrated, too, because I was trying to catch Paul Hannigan in the race to be champion jockey and that was taken away from me straight away."

Instead, the son of leading Curragh jumps trainer Dessie -- no mean jump-jockey in his heyday -- is cantering towards this year's championship. At 5ft 10in, unfeasibly tall for a Flat jockey, his upright style is utterly distinctive, yet closely reminiscent of Lester Piggott.

Under the tutelage of trainer Richard Hannon, his father-in-law, and after a career with many troughs and peaks, he is enjoying a cathartic late blossoming.

"It has been a great year," he acknowledges, with his new-found, AA-induced perspective on life. "We didn't really have superstars in the yard, we had to rely on our babies coming along. We found a few good ones, it seems."

What now, though, for the man whose deeds have just convulsed his sport?

Hughes speaks with a jockey's sanguinity, deriving from a lifetime chasing his tail. "I'm under no illusions that the championship will be all over in a couple of weeks and that I'll be starting at zero again. My ambition is to ride a horse in the Epsom Derby, but my trainer doesn't really have Derby horses," he explains.

"That dream is getting further and further away from me, so let's concentrate on being champion jockey. As my wife Lizzie reminds me, 'Many can ride the Derby but not all can be the champion.' And she might be right."

Such wisdom comes from years of experience, and Hughes is hardened into the ups and downs of the sport. Drawing a blank from his rides at Lingfield yesterday will not have fazed him in the least -- it's onwards and upwards to Ascot for Saturday's big Champions Day meeting. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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