Friday 23 March 2018

Aintree ultimate field of dreams for Hughes

richard forristal

Once a year, in the off-season, most respectable training outfits will go through the process of sterilising stables. It can be a tedious enough chore, but it is accepted as a necessary practice in the battle against the various equine viruses.

Any lingering infections are banished with the aid of a power washer and a potent splash of disinfectant, the yard cleansed before the new season commences.

At Dessie Hughes' base in Kildare, this procedure takes place not annually, but every six weeks. Eight or nine times a year, the Osborne Lodge stables are sprayed thoroughly with an anti-fungal solution.

Such an aggressive policy might seem obsessive given the yard's sustained prominence these days, but it is born out of a very rational fear of a return to the bad old days. For over a decade up to the end of the 90s, the Hughes string was beset by a fungal contagion called Aspergillus that manifested itself in the form of a viral infection.

From the late 1980s, his yard was plagued. In 1998, having finally identified the exact nature of the problem, a remedy was sourced, and the past 10 years have seen the yard bloom. Prevention, Hughes now reasons, is better than cure.


Such was the debilitating extent of the virus, those of us whose memories don't stretch back to the early 1980s might be forgiven for thinking that Hughes only advanced to the higher echelons of the training ranks at the turn of the millennium.

Colonel Braxton, Central House and, most importantly of all, Hardy Eustace might have been the first coming. Ignorance is a fine thing.

In his first few years with a licence, fresh from closing out a brilliant riding career with fabled wins on Monksfield and Davy Lad, Hughes hit the ground running. Among others, an impressive haul in his new vocation included Cheltenham wins in the 1981 Arkle Chase with Light The Wad and the 1982 Supreme Novices' Hurdle with Miller Hill, as well as a Galway Plate success in 1985. Then the wheels fell off.

"It was a terrible time," he says now of the struggle. "We had up to 50 horses around 1983 and 1984 because we had a great couple of years when we started. By 1990, I'd say we were down to about 15."

A straight talker, but only in hushed tones, it's hardly surprising that Hughes comes as close to animated as you're ever likely to see him when that period of his life is being discussed. It stirs in him a depth of emotion to which we're not normally privy.

"This Aspergillus thing is a type of fungus that will be everywhere there is hay or straw and the like," he explains, "and if it's in a yard for a period of time it can take over. A horse can be in its stable for up to 23 hours a day, so they're going to pick it up. We were actually one of the first places to discover what it was, but it was there for a long time and it wasn't easy to kill.

"We tried all sorts of disinfectants before we got the right one. We washed out the boxes and left them empty for months on end, but the thing was still there as soon as the horses went back in the stables.

"At one stage, we even poured tar on the stables as that was supposed to kill everything, but that didn't work either. In the end, when we got the right disinfectant, we were spraying the stables for 12 months before we got a negative reading. That's how long it took to get a clean cert. After that, the horses just seemed to blossom."

Still renowned for a resolute ability to graft, the 66-year-old Hughes maintains that he never considered giving up the ghost. The same can't be said of the bank manager.

"I didn't ever come close to quitting training," Hughes insists, "but I came very close to having to sell the place. We were lucky that Mick Kinane adjoined us at the time, and he bought 16 acres from us.

"It was touch and go whether we'd be able to keep the place going, but the sale gave us some breathing space. It kept the bank manager happy for a couple of years, and then things started to pick up again."

And so here stands Dessie Hughes. Through the glorious exploits of Hardy Eustace and Co, the nine-time Cheltenham-winning rider has gone on to far surpass the promise of those early days as a trainer. Last season, his 29th with a licence, he recorded his best tally of 54, finishing third in the Irish trainers' championship.

At Aintree today, he goes in search of the ultimate feather in the cap. Black Apalachi and Vic Venturi are many people's ideas of potential winners of the John Smith's Grand National.

Both have already won over the course and come here on the back of carefully tailored preparations that culminated in Vic Venturi holding sway over his stable-mate in the Bobbyjo Chase in February. That one-two came after the weights for today's spectacle were published, and moved the handicapper Phil Smith to suggest during the week that Hughes' pair are best in now.

Black Apalachi, a faller at the second in 2008, before unseating when still lobbing along in front at Becher's Brook second time round last year, is having a third crack at the race. A year ago, Hughes' understated confidence was noted before the unfortunate spill. He is no less forthright this time.

"Both of them are going there fresh and fit. They are fairly exposed already, but I think they have their chances with the weight they have got.

"They're both on 11st 5lb, but they are entitled to their ratings, and will carry more next year after those runs in the Bobbyjo at Fairyhouse. When you look at it that way, they must have chances."

He continues: "What happened Black Apalachi last year was a shame, but he is a terrific 'lepper' and usually clears the fences there effortlessly. Vic Venturi is totally different. He'll really mind himself and jump them steady and slow until he warms up. Hopefully, when he does get going, he'll still be in contention."

Having steered Monksfield to three Aintree Hurdle triumphs, including that revered clash with Night Nurse when they shared the spoils in 1977, Hughes is already assured a place in the sacred annals of the Liverpool track's folklore.

Still, when you consider the ups and downs that he has experienced between then and now, success for either Black Apalachi or Vic Venturi today would surely be sweet.

Irish Independent

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