Lifetime pursuit of the next big thing keeps those pulses racing
The prospect of an unpolished gem keeps Dessie Hughes young at heart, writes John O'Brien
A typical racing scene. He parks his jeep by the side of the gallops, the dealers unload their stock and the riders climb on board. He sits and watches them canter towards him, slickly jumping the hurdles in front of them. He has his eye on one horse, a four-year-old by Presenting. The dealers whisper encouragement. "A real old-fashioned Irish chaser," they say, "but not slow." "He'll be a nice horse in time," they add. "But he's fit to win this minute."
He watches and listens and nods in a gesture that offers neither outright approval nor any visible sign of disinterest. They exchange some small talk, he thanks them for their time and turns his jeep around for home just the other side of the railway line on the edge of the Curragh. Later, when darkness sets in over the plains, there'll be time to think and to ponder his next move.
Dessie Hughes is 33 years in the business of training and the prospect of unearthing a young, unpolished gem invigorates him as much now as it ever did. So far the season has been kind. Thirty-three winners saddled before the festive season kicks into gear and, as long as he can remember, he's never had such a promising start. Holding his own among the chasing pack as they watch -- half-admiringly, half-terrified -- Willie Mullins power clear in the distance.
The problem as Hughes sees it is that the best horses have been coming out of France these past 10 years and Mullins has been busy harvesting the best of them. Staying competitive has never seemed tougher or such an expensive pursuit. You wait for a good Bumper horse or a decent prospect off the Flat and the price is already approaching stratospheric. So you fight over the scraps or hope to stumble across a pearl that has somehow slipped through the cracks.
"Racing's a funny game," he says. "You never know when you're going to come across a top horse. It's like me with Our Conor. Willie had three or four of the best juveniles he could get out of France last year and Our Conor was only a little horse, cost €5,000 out of Goff's, and he just kicked them out of the way. So you never give up. There's always hope anyway."
Always hope. That was the mantra that followed him through the toughest days. Hughes grew up a postman's son on the sprawling Larkhill estate on Dublin's northside in the grim years after the second world war when rations were sparse and nothing ever came easy. He spent summers on his uncle's farm in Wexford, riding the horses down to the ploughing fields in the morning and back again in the evening, knowing even then all he ever wanted was to be a jockey.
Different times, though. To become a jockey back then required a stiff seven-year apprenticeship when jockeys were sometimes treated little better than slaves. Hughes started off with Dan Kirwan in Kilkenny, moved to Willie O'Grady after Kirwan's death and finished his time with Georgie Weld. By the time he was 24 and married to Eileen, he was still a seven-pound claimer, struggling to earn a living. If nothing else, he thinks, it taught him the virtue of patience.
"It was a tough struggle early on," he says. "I rode my first winner in 1960. Didn't ride another winner for a year after that. I didn't start to earn any sort of money until I was 30, 28 or 29 anyway. You stuck at it because you wanted to get rides. The only way you'd get rides was if you worked your backside off and hope the boss would say, 'Okay, you can ride that horse tomorrow'."
At 21, wondering if the grass was greener on the other side, he answered an ad in The Irish Field and went to ride for Eugene Ferris in Lockerbie. Ferris ran a luxury hotel nearby and, as breakfast was served at eight, the horses had to be worked before dawn, sometimes with the jeep lights as the only guide. Hughes didn't mind the unconventional approach. He was riding winners.
He headed south after leaving Ferris but found the going stickier there. When a horse landed on his chest at Wolverhampton in 1966, he thought it was the end of what career he had left. He spent three months in hospitals in Swindon and Oxford before he pulled through and headed back to Ireland to recuperate. As it happened, the fall turned out to be the lucky break he had been tirelessly seeking.
Back in Ireland he took a job breaking young horses for a man called Mick Byrne whose nephew, Mick O'Toole, was just starting out training beside the Phoenix Park. From there a happy 13-year partnership developed that would yield a Gold Cup and five other victories at the Cheltenham Festival. Good horses and good times: Davy Lad, Chinrullah, Bit Of A Jig, Mac's Chariot among them.
As a character, O'Toole was larger than life, shrewd and fearless and blessed with a steady eye for a horse. "I remember him going to Doncaster one year," Hughes recalls, "and bringing back 11 horses. Didn't have an owner for one of them. But they were all sold within six months. Davy Lad was one of those. Mick was a gambler and a great judge of a horse."
Looking back now, he supposes some of O'Toole's fearless spirit must have rubbed off. By 1980, he'd already bought Osborne Lodge and trained his first winner at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day. Three years later, Miller Hill won the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham. He was top trainer in Ireland. Flying. But soon Hughes began to realise he was in deeper than he'd imagined.
"I put a good load on my back buying that yard with virtually no money," he says now, wincing. "It was all borrowed. Or 80 per cent of it anyway. Around 1980 or 1981 interest rates even went up to 20 per cent. That was tough. I was very brave at the time. A bit too brave."
When a mystery virus struck the stable towards the end of the decade, it all but wiped Hughes out. The insidious nature of the disease -- a fungus that lived in straw and attacked the horses' kidneys -- tormented him for years. At home the horses would work well only to travel to the track and empty out at the business end of their races. By the time they solved the puzzle, Hughes had only a handful of horses left and the banks on his back.
"For a time it was very tight," he says. "I was lucky. I was married to Eileen and she was great support. Without that, you couldn't have gone on. We got through anyway. Survived. We might have had to have sold up here but we always wanted to stay where we were. We felt this was a lucky yard."
So he put his head down and started building once more, brick by steady brick. He thinks back, though, and wonders where they'd be if Hardy Eustace hadn't come along at the beginning of the 2000s. He'd had good horses before: Miller Hill, Rathbawn Prince, Open The Gate. But nothing like this. "Hardy Eustace brought us to another level," Hughes says. "He definitely helped us get better horses."
Better horses. It is the eternal hope that keeps the pulse racing. He remembers the morning he first saw the two-year-old bay horse with the white blaze down his head and thinking it didn't look anything special. But it had surprised him too when the owners explained they had paid as little as €5,000 for him. When he studied Our Conor's pedigree, he could find few faults. At the very least, he thought, he would make a very promising young hurdler.
In the measured but excitable way he talks about Our Conor, it is clear that Hughes has waited a lifetime to have a horse of this calibre. His faith is unshakable. On the morning of the Triumph Hurdle, a fellow trainer, after having dinner with Hughes the evening before, reflected that he had never seen him so bullish about a horse in the 40 years he'd known him. For all Hardy Eustace's sheer guts and resilience, he couldn't excite like Our Conor can. The four-year-old is all pure speed and raw potential.
It doesn't perturb him that Our Conor has yet to jump a hurdle in public this season or that he has never raced beyond novice company. He remembers the unease that spread when he entered him for a Flat handicap at Naas in November. "Dad, that's one of the roughest races of the year," his son Richard had warned him over the phone. And, sure enough, Our Conor suffered a rough passage, finishing fourth with a number of cuts and bruises for his efforts, missing three weeks' work as a consequence.
The trainer shrugs when he is reminded of it. If he missed his intended outing against Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana at Punchestown, what matter? For Hughes, all roads lead to Cheltenham in March and he aims to have a fresh horse going there, ready to approach his peak.
Next week he'll face Hurricane Fly in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown, after that the Irish Champion beckons and then the Festival itself. In Hughes' hands, Our Conor will never be over the top.
"Ah no," he shoots back politely when the suggestion of horses enjoying too easy a life is put to him. "There's only so much mileage in any of them. You either use it all up in the one year or you spread it out over a few years. That's my idea of it anyway."
And so Christmas looms. The racing comes thick and fast and he has a team ready to do battle with. Our Conor in the Ryanair, Gigginstown's Bright New Dawn in the staying Novice Chase the same day, Art Of Logistics in the big two-mile Novice Chase on Thursday and Lyreen Legend, the Sun Alliance Chase runner-up, in the Lexus on Saturday in which Hughes is expecting a big run. Good horses running in the top graded races. That is what keeps a stable ticking over, he says.
And what keeps a man young, perhaps. It's just over four months now since Hughes lay on an operating theatre in Dublin while surgeons worked to remove a malignant tumour from his pancreas. He's back in full flow now and doesn't wish to make any more of it than necessary. "It's over and done with," he says softly. "I'm back in good health now. I was terribly lucky. They got to it early and got rid of it."
He lost two stone after the operation and the worst of it was being away from the horses, bereft of the energy to even make it to the gallops. But he's busy piling the weight back on now and attending daily to the best crop of horses he has ever had at his disposal.
Dreaming of where the ones he has might yet take him and of the good ones that are yet to come his way. The hope never dies.