It’s all there in black and white in the March 2008 issue of this magazine. ‘This man has an overriding ambition… to breed a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner on his grouse moor,’ ran the headline accompanying a feature on Richard Kelvin Hughes.
Twelve years later and the owner-breeder will head to this month’s Cheltenham Festival with the favourite for the blue riband in the imposing form of eight-year-old homebred Santini, the young pretender out to topple the established giants and cement his place on the famous roll of honour at jump racing’s premier fixture.
Much has changed in the past decade for the property developer who grew up on Dartmoor. The aforementioned grouse moor, occupying a beautiful tract of wilderness at Knarsdale in the Pennines, was sold in 2014, while Kelvin Hughes’ Trull House Stud now handles only horses out of training, his broodmare band ensconced at Robert and Jackie Chugg’s Little Lodge Farm in Worcestershire.
Yet what has remained constant is a steely determination to compete against the biggest owners and best horses around on the showpiece racedays. It is the reason why Kelvin Hughes has pumped a considerable amount of money and devoted countless hours into developing a boutique breeding operation that has cultivated pedigrees and families with the aim of producing champions.
That Santini now heads to the Gold Cup as the sole British-bred, owned and trained contender is no accident.
“For me it’s been a dream since I was ten years old,” Kelvin Hughes relates. “I did a lot of showjumping, eventing and some point-to-pointing, also working with the Canadian team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. I’ve always loved horses and racing.
“But I think it really took hold when I saw Dawn Run. You fall in love with a horse, don’t you? And I just fell in love with Dawn Run. That’s when I knew I really, really wanted to have fillies – to have another Dawn Run and breed my own Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.
“Of course, you get sucked into business and working and I didn’t have the money early on; everything I was earning I had to plough back into what I was trying to build. As we got successful in business we started with some point-to-pointers and did that for a few years. Then we got a little more successful and went into it a bit more seriously.”
Making the next move
To take the next step and move into the world of National Hunt breeding, Kelvin Hughes enlisted the help of a trainer he felt understood racemares better than anyone else.
“I started with Nicky [Henderson] because of his reputation with fillies,” Kelvin Hughes explains. “We have become very close friends. We fish together, we shoot together, we socialise together.
“Nicky wears his heart on his sleeve. Whether you have one horse with him or 20 horses, he just makes it so personal and such fun that you want to go racing as much not to disappoint him as for the horse.
“When we started, we set out a ten-year plan. We wanted to buy fillies, get to know them, race them, grade them, and then with that knowledge, choose the right sires for them.
“We did buy some geldings at first because we had nothing to race apart from the fillies. We were buying horses from different bloodlines and I loved it; for anyone who likes detail, pedigree research and knowledge adds another dimension to this sport.”
“For me it’s been a dream since I was ten years old”
Those early purchases included Santini’s dam Tinagoodnight, bought privately from France, Chomba Womba, My Petra and Lindeman. All were successful on the track for Kelvin Hughes and became important foundation mares at stud.
An abundance of fillies on its books saw Trull House Stud conduct a part dispersal at Goffs UK in January 2018. While Hora, dam of classy performers Thomas Campbell and Lisp, found a new home, the big names stayed in the Kelvin Hughes ranks.
Santini, the product of Tinagoodnight’s pairing with Milan, has amassed an impressive race record, with seven wins from ten outings, having started out in the point-to-point sphere. The signs of promise were there right from the start.
“Even when Nicky saw Santini as a foal, he was an outstanding mover,” Kelvin Hughes recalls. “Then he grew bigger and bigger and Nicky thought he was too slow!
“Will Biddick rode him when he won his point-to-point at Didmarton and after the race he said to me and [wife] Lizzie, ‘Thank you for letting me be part of this horse’s journey’.
“We always compare him to Jack Reacher [the fictional character in the novels by Lee Child] – a big strong man with huge hands and feet but also very light on his feet and very kind. For a big horse he’s very light on his feet and very well put-together.
“However, it seems nature always makes one weakness and Santini has very soft soles, which means he bruises very easily if he stands on a pebble the wrong way. That’s the problem we had last year before the RSA Chase.
“How Nicky got him there I do not know but he did no work for two and a half weeks and still ran a cracker to finish second [to Topofthegame].”
At the time of writing there were 19 horses still engaged in the Gold Cup, 17 of whom were bred in either France or Ireland, leaving just Presenting Percy, trained in Ireland by Pat Kelly, and Santini as the sole entries carrying the GB suffix.
“When we started, we set out a ten-year plan”
Does Kelvin Hughes feel like a bastion of the British National Hunt breeding scene, trying to keep the invading hordes at bay so jump racing’s most coveted prize stays at home?
“No,” he responds without hesitation. “We all know how much luck is involved. We’re all terrified of tempting the gods in this sport.
“At the beginning of the season I wrote to Paul Nicholls and the owners of Topofthegame because my heart felt for them when their horse was ruled out for the season. Topofthegame beat Santini last year, so they must be thinking they would have been favourite for the Gold Cup.
“It’s a tough game and you can easily be left on the other side of the fence very quickly. There are so many moving parts – you can never be arrogant.”
One of the most discussed topics in recent weeks regarding the Cheltenham Festival has been whether or not adding a fifth day would be beneficial.
Kelvin Hughes is in no doubt that a five-day meeting would be a positive move for all involved in racing and breeding.
“I’ve told [Cheltenham racecourse Chairman] Martin St Quinton that it would be a good thing, as long as the money from it goes back into prize-money. The Saturday would produce more betting turnover and help attract a younger audience.
“Better prize-money will help smaller breeders; the higher the prize-money the more their foals will go for.
“It’s like throwing a stone into a pond. The bigger the stone, the more ripples there are around it. A lot of people won’t have the resources I have but they’re still benefiting from those ripples.
“If we make the stone bigger, everyone benefits.”
Debate around a five-day Festival will continue but for now, Kelvin Hughes is focussed on his own team heading to Cheltenham. Lisp will head to the speed test that is the Grand Annual but it is stayer Santini, unsurprisingly, that is occupying most of his owner-breeder’s thoughts.
“It’s quite surreal, really,” he says with a smile. “You feel like you’re in a dream. Suddenly on March 13 you’re going to wake up!
“At the moment, naturally, you’ve won the race in your mind. You’ve planned it, ridden it, done everything. You just want to think good thoughts.
“The best horse will win on the day. Nicky will have done everything he can, like all the trainers. And there’s no-one better than Nico [de Boinville] in the saddle. He’s really matured as a rider.”
Santini’s two performances this season, scraping home by a head on his return at Sandown before seeing off Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January, didn’t convince everyone of his Gold Cup potential.
“You feel like you’re in a dream. Suddenly on March 13 you’re going to wake up”
Kelvin Hughes, however, feels that his charge heads towards his biggest test as a horse still on the upgrade.
He says: “The [negative] comments are all part of racing – and it sells newspapers.
“We’ve never lost faith or confidence in the horse. He’ s such a genuine horse, he doesn’t know any other way but to try, that’s why he comes up the hill so well.”
Kelvin Hughes adds: “Of course, we’ll be thrilled if he’s placed. We love it when our friends win and always celebrate together. But you can’t be in this game and not be competitive.
“We invest a lot of time, money and commitment into the horses, and of course it’s not just for you; we’ll have everyone with us at Cheltenham, from the stable staff to the farrier, trainer and friends. They all want him to win, too.
“At the end of the day you have to be quite British about it but underneath you hurt when you don’t win – and if you don’t then you shouldn’t be in this game, should you?”
If there is one regret about the Santini story for Kelvin Hughes it is that his good friend, Anthony Speelman, will not be a co-owner with him on Gold Cup day.
On the recommendation of Kelvin Hughes, Speelman took a share in Santini before he ran as a novice. Yet after Nicky Henderson decided the gelding wasn’t ready to stand up to full-time training, and advised going down the point-to-point route instead, Speelman had his money returned.
“A year later everything had changed,” Kelvin Hughes says. “How do you value a horse like that when he starts winning?
“But I’m sure we’ll have another one together and I know that Anthony will be standing right next to me in our box at Cheltenham, cheering on Santini in the Gold Cup.”