Friday 23 February 2018

'Everyone said he wasn't good enough to beat Frankel and that broke my heart'

Richard Hughes has had his battles but he's been able to win most of them, as he tells Aisling Crowe

RICHARD HUGHES has a compelling story to tell. A story woven with the dark and bright threads that bind the strands of his life so far. Now he has committed that story to paper and laid bare his battle with alcoholism and the weight issues which have plagued his career. He conceals nothing, because he has nothing to hide. His new autobiography deals with difficult issues but deciding to publish it was not a hard decision for the jockey.

"It wasn't a difficult decision to write the book. My good friend Lee Mottershead, who ghost-wrote the book, helps me with the articles (his column in the Racing Post) every week so it was a very natural thing to do. It was easy," he explains.

Recalling the dark days of his descent into alcoholism, the destructive effect it had on his life and the suffering he caused his loved ones might have been painful to recount, but it proved the opposite. "It wasn't difficult to write about the difficult issues. It was actually therapeutic if anything, especially the hard chapters, the drinking chapters and things like that. I enjoyed doing it and I was able to speak to Lee because he is a good friend."

He conquered his demons with the support of his wife Lizzie, his family and his friend Johnny Murtagh. Hughes continues to attend regular AA meetings for himself and to aid others in need. His drinking problem is a thing of the past, having been sober for the last seven years, but his weight issue remains with him. The methods he resorts to now are less extreme than the routine of diuretics and alcohol he practised in the early days. It is a constant battle for a man who is 5ft 9ins to force himself down to 8st 7lbs at his lightest, but he has resigned himself to something which is part of the job for a jockey.

Others perceive it differently. It's a roasting hot day at The Curragh and he is finished for the day. As he tucks into an ice cream cone, his first meal of the day and a treat he's been anticipating, punters jokingly admonish him for enjoying his 99. He has to deal with this most days and for a jockey whose weight issues are well publicised, it's an unavoidable aspect of life.

What those who jest about his eating habits don't realise is how little he survives on. A man who spends his working life perched precariously on top of half a tonne of unpredictable horseflesh consumes cups of coffee and nibbles at chocolate until he has his evening meal, usually something hot and spicy to help shed the pounds. He has heard these comments so many times before.

"If I've heard that once, I've heard it a million times. The weight is just part of the job. I just get on with it and that's it. If I didn't have to do it, it would make life a lot easier. I envy some of the boys who don't have to do it."

Weight is the only downside to his job as stable jockey to his father-in-law Richard Hannon. He's been riding for Hannon since he first moved to England 18 years ago and took over the position full-time in 2008 after seven years as retained rider to Prince Khalid Abdullah. The relaxed family atmosphere in Hannon's yard embraces staff, owners and horses and makes going to work every morning a pleasure for the jockey. Importantly, it reflects well on the horses which thrive in the environment.

"It's a big free-for-all. You walk into Hannon's kitchen and no one gives out. I go in every day to work and I'll pick what I want to ride. It's very easy-going. The way the horses behave you would know it was easy-going. They all behave very well. It's just a happy atmosphere."

Meeting different people at the races is one element of the job he loves. People regularly come up to him for a chat or to ask about a particular horse they have an interest in. It happens wherever he goes and he takes it all in his stride. In England, dealing with owners requires a different approach to here.

"You tell some people that it's no good and they don't want to know and they'll say, 'He doesn't like my horse'. That's their mentality in England so you tell them what they want to hear. Some people are different and they want to know how good they are but there are a lot of people in England who it would be easier to tell that you're having an affair with his wife than his horse is no good. It's more direct here. When I left to go to England, Richard used to say to me, 'Don't tell me how they've run, tell them'. In Ireland, you would always go to the trainer and say how it ran. Richard says, 'You can tell me later, just tell them. It's their day out,' which makes sense."

Last year, when the controversy first erupted over the change to the whip rules, Hughes was one of the first to fall foul, incurring a 15-day ban just four days into the new regime. In protest at what he saw as the draconian punishments being meted out for minor infringements, he effectively handed back his licence. Amid talk of a strike, the BHA rowed back on the severity of the sanctions and the strictness of the limits. Hughes was one of a number of jockeys to have their bans lifted and fines rescinded.

"I didn't want to ride the way the rules were as I felt it took the art of race riding out of it. It's okay now. The only problem I had with the whip rule was that you were only allowed hit them five times inside the furlong pole, that was the only issue I had and as soon as they changed it I was fine coming back. Seven is a little bit low but times are changing and we have to go with the flow," he explains. One of the charges levelled at jockeys as the controversy raged was that they don't care about horses. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Hughes. Royal Ascot is just around the corner and last year it was the scene of one of his greatest triumphs in the saddle. Canford Cliffs is the best horse he has ever ridden and brought him his first Irish Classic victory in the 2010 2,000 Guineas.

In last year's Queen Anne Stakes, Hughes and Canford Cliffs won a thrilling tactical battle with the outstanding Goldikova and Olivier Peslier. It was a race to savour and established Canford Cliffs' greatness. In remembering that victory Hughes is immediately drawn to a different memory, Canford Cliffs' final race when he took on the mighty Frankel in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. The race was billed as a showdown between the star milers but Canford Cliffs was below his best and couldn't land a blow on Frankel, finishing five lengths behind him in second.

"Royal Ascot was brilliant because of all the hype before it. As much of a thrill as that day was, it was nearly a bigger disappointment when he took on Frankel because I knew in my heart and soul that he wasn't quite right going to the start. Everyone said he wasn't good enough and that broke my heart. He was good enough and he would have given him a run for his money. He might have beat me but so what? He wouldn't have beat me five lengths, that's for sure. Now we'll never know and that's a shame."

His experience dealing with the vagaries of owners is good practice for when he hangs up his racing boots. Although not retiring immediately and with unfulfilled ambitions in the saddle -- he would love to ride an Epsom Derby winner -- he is already excitedly planning for life as a trainer. Watching the hardships his father Dessie and father-in-law have endured as part of that profession hasn't diminished his enthusiasm one bit.

"I can't wait, but I love riding so much now that I'll carry on doing it for probably another four or five years and then straight away go training. There's a lot of heartache but when I went to India in the winter you basically have to train them anyway, you get very involved over there. I enjoy it immensely."

Training will be a compelling volume in the life story of Richard Hughes but he is not quite ready to write it. There are still some chapters to be written before then.

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