Three weeks after horse racing in Britain was stopped by the coronavirus, the authorities have confirmed that Brian Hughes is champion jockey for the season that was supposed to end at Sandown a fortnight on Saturday. Hughes got the news on Monday while celebrating the first birthday of his daughter, Olivia, and was grateful that 6 April will now have more positive professional associations for him than was the case a year ago.
On the day Hughes’s wife, Lucy, gave birth last year, he took a crashing fall while duelling for the lead on Bingo D’Olivate, whose flailing hoof did a lot of damage. “I got my face smashed in,” he recalls. “Jaw broken in three places.” His agent told a reporter at the time that the jockey would need his teeth reset because “they’re all over the place”.
So, while Lucy was in a hospital in Middlesbrough, recovering from giving birth, Brian was in a hospital in Newcastle having his face put back together. Such is life when there’s a jump jockey in the family.
Memories like that mean Hughes can be sanguine if it is ever suggested that he was helped to his first title by injury to Richard Johnson, who broke an arm at Exeter in January. He knows that everyone in his line of work gets their share of bad luck in the end. And he was three winners in front at the time of Johnson’s injury.
Hughes is the first northern-based rider to become champion jump jockey since Jonjo O’Neill 40 years ago. “Hopefully it’ll give northern racing a boost,” he says. “A lot of the northern owners, trainers, even the staff in the yards and racegoers were always wishing me well. People should know that we can do the job as well as anyone.”
The dominance of AP McCoy and Richard Johnson means that Hughes is just the third person to be champion since 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago. And here’s an odd fact: since 1986, every champion jump jockey has come from either Northern Ireland (Hughes, McCoy, Richard Dunwoody) or Herefordshire (Johnson, Peter Scudamore).
Hughes has other things in common with Sir Anthony, like the fact that their fathers were both carpenters and they are both liberally supplied with sisters. The relevant point, however, would be that for Hughes, as for McCoy, success has been the product of hard work and determination.
He has taken over jump racing in the north. This season, he has been the winningmost jockey for all three of the most successful trainers at that end of the country, Donald McCain, Nicky Richards and Brian Ellison, as well as for Keith Dalgleish and James Ewart. You’d have thought the urge to compete would prevent five such powerful yards from essentially sharing a principal jockey; instead, it seems there is a consensus as to who is the best rider in that part of the world.
But for now Hughes is grounded, like the rest of jump racing, and will not be back in action until July at the earliest. His family is observing its own lockdown, because there are two small children in the house and two grandparents living next door on the family farm.
“I haven’t been riding out at all,” Hughes says. “It is tough but we’re lucky enough to live where we do. I go and help Lucy’s dad do jobs on his farm and I go for a run every morning for a bit of exercise.
“It’s great spending time with the kids. Rory’s two and a half and thinks he’s 22, he’s funny. I’m trying not to annoy the wife too much.”
In the other jockeys’ championship, for conditionals, Jonjo O’Neill Jr (61 winners) beat Ben Jones (41) and Connor Brace (35). All three look like serious young talents with long careers ahead of them. So long as the sport can get back on its feet at some point, there will be no shortage of accomplished riders available.