Hughes hoping to earn Gold stripe with Colonel

The Cheltenham Gold Cup remains the premier event in the steeplechasing calendar, and Dessie Hughes certainly knows what it takes to win the Blue-Riband event of the festival, having piloted the Mick O’Toole-trained Davy Lad to victory in the 1977 race.

Fast forward 26 years as 59-year-old Hughes prepares to saddle his very first runner in the Gold Cup.

The horse in question is Colonel Braxton, runner-up with Norman Williamson aboard in both this season’s Ericsson and Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup Chases’ at Leopardstown.

Whitehall-born Hughes, who partnered seven festival winners altogether, including the Dessie McDonogh-trained Monksfield in the 1979 Champion Hurdle, saddled Hardy Eustace to win the Sun Alliance yesterday and visited the winners’ enclosure in ’82 courtesy of Miller Hill in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

In addition, to Colonel Braxton and Hardy Eustace, Mutineer appears to have outstanding claims in the Triumph Hurdle today.

On top of that, Hughes could also be represented by 2001 Irish Grand National runner-up Rathbawn Prince in the Kim Muir Chase.

However, it is safe to say that Colonel Braxton, which races in Sue Magniers’s regal blue colours - the same as Rhinestone Cowboy, who represented her in the Champion Hurdle, is the jewel in Hughes’ burgeoning crown.

“Yes,” he says, “I would have to be very happy with Colonel Braxton. He ran a cracker by finishing second to Beef Or Salmon in the ‘Ericsson’ over Christmas. He came out and beat Go Roger Go over two miles at Navan next time before once again finishing second to Beef Or Salmon in the ‘Hennessy’. He is certainly going in the right direction to run in the Gold Cup. His main attribute, I suppose is that he is a fine staying chaser with a touch of class.

“Norman (Williamson) has loads of experience and he seems to get on very well with Colonel Braxton,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the ex-Kevin Prender gast-trained Mutineer differs from both Colonel Braxton and Hardy Eustace in the sense that he won his Cheltenham ‘trial’, the Grade 2 Cashman Bookmakers Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.

On that occasion, the grey, who frequently races with the aid of both blinkers and a tongue-tie, beat Golden Cross, successful at Fairyhouse since, by a head whilst there was an eight length gap back to Kenilworth in third.

Incidentally, Mutineer is the top-rated juvenile hurdler in the country at present.

“We bought Mutineer especially to go jumping,” Hughes reveals. “He is a good tough horse who likes cut in the ground and he should put up a good showing in Cheltenham.

“The festival is without doubt the highlight of the jumps season and I start planning for it when I come home the previous year. A winner there is worth four or five anywhere else and I suppose up to yesterday Miller Hill winning the ‘Supreme Novices’ would have had to be the highlight of my training career.

“Miller Hill actually failed to win a bumper and he only won his maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse a fortnight before Cheltenham. We gave him a good chance in going there and got a great ride and he won well for my stable jockey at the time, Tom Morgan,” says the Co Kildare-domiciled trainer who also sent out Timbera to finish second with Davy Russell in last year’s four-mile National Hunt Chase.

Hughes started his career in the sport with the Late Willie O’Grady, father of Edward, in Co. Tipperary in the early-60’s. However, following a stint in Britain, his race riding career only took off in the mid-70’s when he combined forces with Mick O’Toole.

Hughes recalls : “I received a bad fall in Britain while I was with Reg Akehurst and I came home to recuperate. Whilst convalescing, I met Mick O’Toole and he was only starting-off training in Castleknock then. Mick was very easy to ride for and he used to leave everything up to me. I worked with him at his Maddenstown stables on The Curragh and knew the horses from riding them out every morning.”

Indeed, six of Hughes’ Cheltenham victories were for O’Toole and that would have been seven hadn’t Chinrullah, the 1980 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, been subsequently disqualified on a technicality.

The highlight of Hughes’ association with O’Toole would surely have been Davy Lad’s 14/1 victory in the 1977 Gold Cup, one of three festival successes for the jockey that year, the others being Mac’s Chariot and Tip The Wink. Incidentally, the David Jack-sired Davy Lad, who was owned by Mrs Joe McGowan, also carried Hughes to victory in the 1975 Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle.

A fall from Light The Wad in the 1980 Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Chase, in which he sustained a broken left arm, brought Hughes’ riding career to a somewhat premature end. He had already commenced training in his own right a few months previously and indeed, he rode his first winner as a trainer, Church Island at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day 1980.

However, Hughes will probably be best remembered for guiding the teak-tough Monksfield to success over the Jonjo O’Neill-ridden Sea Pigeon in the 1979 Champion Hurdle.

In recent years, Hughes and his wife Eileen have gained immense pleasure from the exploits of their son, Richard, on the flat. Now 30, the younger Hughes partnered Cockney Lad to victory for Noel Meade in the 1997 AIG Champion Hurdle, but he has been operating as retained jockey on the flat to Khalid Abdullah for the past couple of years and he finished second to Kieren Fallon in last season’s British jockey’s championship.

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