Beyond Willie Mullins, Curragh
trainer Dessie Hughes leads
the way as Ireland’s best
WITH four weeks left in the season, Dessie Hughes has already come close to his best.
The Gold Cup and Grand National winning jockey has matched his best ever winning strike-rate of 15 per cent and with so much still to play for there is every chance that he could better his highest tally of winners, 53, which was set four years ago.
Famous as a jockey for his Cheltenham wins on Davy Lad and Monksfield, Hughes is not dependent on one or two wealthy owners to provide him with the right horse power. The spread of owners among his winners is impressive with 19 different names among the winners sent out from Osborne Lodge so far this season.
Hughes is one of the trainers on whom Michael O’Leary sprinkles some of his largesse and he has certainly benefitted from the Gigginstown horses but only 11 of the 81 horses he has sent out from his yard behind the Curragh racecourse sport the Westmeath outfit’s maroon and white silks. With the purchase of Our Conor by Barry Connell the Foxrock financier doubled his interest in Hughes’ yard. The Triumph hurdle winner was added to his expensive flat recruit Minsk but the yard is made up of syndicates, smaller owners and self-owned horses showing that success is possible even in these dire financial straits.
The Kildare man’s remarkable season is not all about quantity as the victory of Our Conor showed at Cheltenham. His Sunday stroll to victory in the Triumph Hurdle was every bit as easy and authoritative as Sprinter Sacre 48 hours earlier. Now an unbeaten dual Grade 1 winner he usurped the reigning king Hurricane Fly at the head of the betting for next year’s Champion Hurdle and Our Conor’s bright white blaze is a beacon of hope for everyone with a racing dream. Bought for a mere €4,500 as a two year old in 2011 and sold for a figure in the region of €1 million, he is as exciting a prospect as we have seen for years and gives Hughes a great chance of adding more Cheltenham glory to his trainer’s CV. Hardy Eustace’s back-to-back victories in the race during a golden period for Irish two-mile hurdlers gave Hughes a win in a race he has an illustrious history with as a jockey but it also proved he was back from the doldrums of the 90s when a persistent bug prevented his horses from shining for a large part of that decade.
With Hardy Eustace he re-emerged into his rightful place in the spotlight and with Our Conor further heights could be reached than even that doughty old warrior scaled. Our Conor has an exciting future on the horizon but the immediate future is all about Aintree.
Hughes has targeted the Grand National in recent years and although he never managed to win the race as a jockey, he came agonizingly close three years ago when Black Appalachi’s bold bid for glory from the front was denied by Don’t Push It and AP McCoy. It was the only time he got around in three attempts. Both Black Appalachi and Vic Venturi were the standard bearers for the yard over the national fences with warm-up wins in the Becher Chase on both their CVs but Vic Venturi never completed the National in three tries for Hughes.
On Saturday he returns with Rare Bob and Tofino Bay to try and go one better than Black Appalachi. Rare Bob didn’t get far in last year’s version, brought down at the fifth but he has been trained for this race with just three runs this season and a third place finish in a Navan handicap chase last month his best effort to date. The eleven-year-old is coming into form at the right time.
Tofino Bay was denied victory in the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in the shadow of the line and if that grueling effort hasn’t taken its toll on him and he is allowed to take his chance he will definitely stay the trip and another big run would not be beyond him.
On Saturday Dessie Hughes would dearly love to be first past the post and not best of the rest this time.