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Obituary: Renowned jockey and trainer, Dessie Hughes


Leading figure: Dessie Hughes. Photo: Matt Browne.

Leading figure: Dessie Hughes. Photo: Matt Browne.

Leading figure: Dessie Hughes. Photo: Matt Browne.

Dessie Hughes, who diedlast Sunday, aged 71, was a leading figure in Irish National Hunt racing, initially as a jockey and in his later years as a trainer. Many racegoers knew him particularly for his achievements in both roles at the annual Cheltenham Festival.

Among the highlights of Hughes's career as a rider were his association with the diminutive Monksfield, on which he won Cheltenham's 1979 Champion Hurdle, and with Davy Lad, on which he won the Gold Cup in 1977. Three weeks after that Gold Cup, Hughes and Davy Lad went to Aintree for a tilt at the Grand National, but although made favourite ahead of the great Red Rum, they fell at the third. The National was not to be Hughes's lucky race, and he never progressed further than the fifth fence.

After setting up as a trainer in 1980, Hughes scored his greatest successes with Hardy Eustace, one of the toughest hurdlers of his era and winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2004 and 2005 under Conor O'Dwyer. Hardy Eustace also won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in 2007, defeating his great rival Brave Inca. By the time Hughes's horse was retired in 2010 it had earned more than €1m in prize money.

Born on October 10, 1943, Desmond Hughes rode his first winner on June 14, 1962, on a horse called Sailaway Sailor at Ballinrobe (three days earlier, on the same horse at a different meeting, he had finished first, but had been disqualified by the stewards and placed last). By the 1970s he was among the leading jump jockeys in Ireland, notching up notable victories at Cheltenham, among them the Arkle Trophy (Tip The Wink in 1977, and Chinrullah in 1979); the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle (Parkhill, 1976); and the Stayers' Hurdle (Bit Of A Jig in 1976). In 1977, in the Templegate Hurdle at Aintree, Hughes rode Monksfield to a dead heat with Night Nurse in what is regarded as one of the finest hurdle races of all time.

Hughes had always plan-ned to become a trainer, and from 1966 to 1979 he served as assistant to Mick O'Toole.

He launched his new career at Osborne Lodge, next to the Curragh racecourse, and his first runner, Church Island, was a winner at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day in 1980. An early star of the stable was Light The Wad, winner of the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in 1982 as well as the 1981 and 1982 renewals of the Drogheda Chase at the Punchestown Festival. Also in 1982, Hughes won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham with Miller Hill.

From the late 1980s, Hughes's yard was the victim of a fungal infection which kept winners to a minimum. By the new millennium his fortunes had been restored, but it was a bitter blow when the stable jockey, Kieran Kelly, died following a fall at Kilbeggan in August 2003; he had been aboard Hardy Eustace when the horse had won Royal & Sun Alliance Hurdle at Cheltenham, and would no doubt have shared in its future glories.

Hughes had his last Festival success in 2013, when Our Conor, ridden by Bryan Cooper, took the Triumph Hurdle by 15 lengths. His other notable horses included Central House, Colonel Braxton, Schindlers Hunt, Grangeclare Lark, Rare Bob, Black Apalachi, Vic Venturi, Siegemaster, Magnanimity and Raz De Maree.

Dessie Hughes is survived by his wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1968, their daughter Sandra, and their son Richard Hughes, who has been Britain's champion Flat jockey for the past three seasons.

Sunday Independent