Northern Ireland has proven to be a fertile ground for top-class National Hunt Jockeys. The name of AP McCoy immediately springs to mind when we think of jumps riders hailing from the Northern end of the Emerald Isle – and rightly so, with Sir Anthony being one of the greatest to ever climb into the saddle. However, McCoy is far from the only Northern Irish rider to have hit the big time. Pat Cosgrave and the great Belfast-born, Richard Dunwoody, crossed the Irish Sea to make waves on the British racing scene, and so too did a certain Brian Hughes.
Despite being nothing like so high-profile as the likes of McCoy or his Champion Jockey successor, Richard Johnson, and a world away from the razzmatazz of a Frankie Dettori on the flat, Hughes has slowly but surely ascended to the summit of the National Hunt game. Long admired for his relentless work ethic, never-say-die attitude, and supreme horsemanship, in recent years, those talents have been rewarded, with the 2022/23 season seeing Hughes crowned the British Champion Jumps Jockey for the third time in four years, having accumulated over 1,700 winners in British Jumps racing over the course of his career.
Bitten by the Racing Bug
Born in County Armagh on the 27th of June 1985, Hughes appears to have had little interest in his schoolwork. Brought up around horses owned by his father, the love for all that is equine seems to have taken hold at a young age. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replies simply, “A jockey, always”.
As such, it is no surprise that the ears of a teenage Hughes pricked up when his teacher mentioned the Racing School in Kildare. It wasn’t long before young Brian enrolled in the course, and from there, the path of his life and career was set. But it certainly hasn’t been a straightforward journey – there have been a few twists and turns along the way.
A Change of Path
Having survived meningitis as a young child, Hughes was used to facing adversity outside his control. More was to follow not long into his tenure at the Kevin Prendergast yard. When a young Hughes dreamt of being a jockey, winning the major events on the flat occupied his thoughts. It was on the level that his career began, with Hughes picking up 18 wins in Irish Flat races. The talent was clearly there, but, unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t playing ball.
As Hughes continued to grow and develop, it soon became clear that his natural frame was simply unsuitable for the life of a flat jockey. He gave it a good go – wasting down to below eight stone at times – but, realising the unsustainability of the situation, he opted to make the move into the National Hunt sphere – a decision which would ultimately prove to be spectacularly successful.
Career Path: From County Armagh to Carlton-in-Cleveland
Born in Northern Ireland, these days Brian Hughes calls the north of England home, having settled in the small North Yorkshire town of Carlton-in-Cleveland with wife, Luci, and children, Rory and Olivia. From that base, Hughes plots the latest steps of a championship-winning career, which began in earnest just before the turn of the century.
- 1999 – Begins riding out for Irish trainer James Lambe and schooling at Down Royal.
- 2001 – Completes course at the RACE Jockey’s Academy in County Kildare, including a work placement at the yard of Kevin Prendergast.
- 2002 – Rides his first winner in an Irish flat race.
- 2003 – Having made the decision to switch predominantly to jumps racing, Hughes returns to the yard of Jason Lambe – having his first ride over hurdles on Boxing Day 2003 at Down Royal.
- 2005 – Moves to northern England in search of opportunities, joining the yard of Howard Johnson. Hughes won his first English Jumps race aboard Bob Justice at Wetherby in December 2005.
- 2007 – Considers quitting the sport, having endured a season of only three winners from over 120 rides. Ultimately continues to ride, but leaves the yard of Howard Johnson and begins to pick up rides for a squadron of small northern trainers.
- 2008 – Picks up 50 wins for the first time and wins the Conditional Jockeys Title.
- 2015 – Breaks through the 100 winners in a season barrier for the first time – a feat he has repeated every year since.
- 2019 – Rides his 1,000th career winner aboard My OId Gold at Wetherby.
- 2020 – Rides 141 winners and wins the British Champion Jumps Jockey title, becoming the first rider based in the north of England to do so since Jonjo O’Neill in 1980.
- 2022 – Having lost out to Harry Skelton in 2021, he reclaims the British Champion Jumps Jockey title. With his total of 204 winners, Hughes became only the fourth member of the 200+ club, alongside Peter Scudamore, AP McCoy, and Richard Johnson.
- 2023 – Wins the British Champion Jumps Jockey title for a third time.
Have Saddle, Will Travel
One of the hallmarks of Brian Hughes’ successful career is his willingness to travel anywhere and everywhere in search of a winner. That relentless pursuit regularly sees him racking up over 60,000 road miles a year and has resulted in him picking up rides for well over 400 different trainers. There are rides for the likes of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls amongst that vast collection, but Hughes is far more commonly associated with smaller northern trainers, such as James Ewart, Nicky Richards, the late Malcolm Jefferson and his daughter Ruth, and, in particular, Donald McCain, for whom he has amassed well over 1,500 rides.
Hughes is so dedicated to the craft, that he could even be spotted riding out on the morning of his wedding, although his explanation of, “I rode out that morning as it was probably the safest place to be with a lot of crazy women around arguing with each other!” suggests that he is not found wanting in the common sense department either.
That win first, prestige second approach means Hughes often foregoes the most high-profile meetings of the year. He will go to your Cheltenham’s and Aintree’s of the world when he believes he has a realistic opportunity of coming home in front, but why go to Cheltenham if there is a book of fancied runners waiting for you at Sedgefield? That mindset has played a large part in Hughes accumulating such impressive numbers, but he perhaps doesn’t quite have the Grade 1 resumé you might expect of a three-time Champion Jockey. Nevertheless, when compiling the Hughes highlight reel, it is the following contests which will top the bill.
- 2010 Topham Chase – As of 2023, Hughes is yet to win the big one at Aintree. However, he did partner Always Waining to victory over the famous Grand National fences in this event.
- 2014 Fred Winter Juvenile Novice’s Hurdle – Hawk High provided Hughes with his first Cheltenham Festival winner.
- 2015 Top Novices Hurdle – A second major win at the big Aintree meeting came when steering the Colin Tizzard-trained Cyrus Darius to a 10-length romp in this Grade 2 affair.
- 2016 Centenary Novices Handicap Chase – A second festival success aboard Ballyalton.
- 2016 Centenary Novices Handicap Chase – Win number three at Prestbury Park came aboard the Donald McCain-trained Mister Whitaker.
- 2018 Betfair Ascot Chase – At long last, Brian Hughes claimed a first Grade 1 success aboard the appropriately named Waiting Patiently. A particularly poignant victory, as the race took place just one day after the funeral of the horse’s former trainer, Malcolm Jefferson.
Still going strong in 2023, there will no doubt be more big race successes added to the above list before Hughes calls time on a career which has been a testament to what can be achieved with hard work, dedication, and no little talent.