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Remembering a true legend in Dessie Hughes

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Dessie Hughes

Dessie Hughes

SPORTSFILE

Jockey Bryan Cooper with trainer Dessie Hughes in the winners enclosure after Our Conor had won The Spring Juvenile Hurdle during the Hennessey Gold Cup Day at Leopardstown Racecourse, Dublin

Jockey Bryan Cooper with trainer Dessie Hughes in the winners enclosure after Our Conor had won The Spring Juvenile Hurdle during the Hennessey Gold Cup Day at Leopardstown Racecourse, Dublin

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Dessie Hughes

Dessie Hughes was a universally loved colossus of the Irish racing scene. A quietly spoken gentleman who had a knack of expressing strongly held opinions without ever breaking out of hushed tones or becoming animated, he was someone who inspired generations of racing folk.

He rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner on Davy Lad in what is now the Neptune Novices' Hurdle in 1975.

Later, Hughes would play a starring role during what is remembered as a golden era for hurdle racing in the 1970s, famously fending off Jonjo O'Neill on Sea Pigeon aboard the Des McDonogh-trained Monksfield in the 1979 Champion Hurdle.

That win, in the year during which Hughes also began training on the Curragh, ensured his place among the immortals.

Two years earlier, he had claimed a memorable Gold Cup triumph in the Cotswolds aboard Davy Lad for another iconic Curragh figure, Mick O'Toole.

Hughes' win on Monksfield, then, saw him grace an elite group of riders to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, and he would further enhance his reputation with some unforgettable victories in the training ranks.

After initially enjoying Prestbury Park success in his new vocation with Miller Hill in the 1982 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Hughes' stable was struck with a virus that made life extremely difficult for over a decade.

However, following years of painstaking investigations and characteristically quiet graft behind the scenes, he finally managed to eradicate it.

As ever, he simply would not lie down.

Hughes would return to achieve glory in the Cotswolds with the Kieran Kelly-ridden Hardy Eustace in the 2003 Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle, a success that proved desperately poignant when Kelly tragically suffered a fatal fall at Kilbeggan racecourse just months later.

His handling of the teak-tough Hardy Eustace was a tribute to Kelly's memory, as the tenacious hurdler went on to plunder back-to-back wins in the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. Under replacement rider Conor O'Dwyer, Hardy Eustace became an enormously popular totem of the latest golden generation of two-mile hurdlers. A month after Hardy Eustace's first Cotswolds coup in 2003, Hughes also secured a thrilling Irish Grand National victory with Timbera.

His final winner at the Festival was the runaway 2013 Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor, which sadly suffered fatal injuries when falling during its attempt to add to Hughes' remarkable Champion Hurdle record last year.

Our Conor was ridden in its Triumph rout by Bryan Cooper, (pictured below) yet another rising star of the jumps game who emerged as a serious riding talent under Hughes' serene tuition.

That was the great man's style, to foster rather than force the talents that came his way, be they human or equine.

He is sadly missed, so it is the Irish Independent's privilege to honour him in the title of this year's Leading Trainer award at the Festival.

Irish Independent