As a 16-year-old weighing 7st you schooled over fences for James Lambe and knew from then that you preferred jumping to the Flat, even after a three-year apprenticeship with Kevin Prendergast. What made jumping more attractive?
I came from a hunting background and was still at racing school when I started riding out for James Lambe – even then jumping seemed to take pride of place in my mind. He took me to Down Royal to ride work the morning after James Nicholson Chase day and I assumed we’d be going round on the Flat. But when we went out on to the track we suddenly seemed to be showing the horses a fence.
James told me to follow the other lad, Danny, down the back straight and then I realised we were supposed to be schooling! Danny set off over the fences and I just followed him, all 7st of me! I was on a big jumper and wasn’t strong enough to hold him; he winged every fence, passed Danny and pulled up at the top of the hill. James revealed I was on a four-year-old who was away from home for the first time, and he told me I was wasting my time thinking of being a Flat jockey.
What made you leave your roots in South Armagh in 2005 and come to England?
During my apprenticeship with Kevin Prendergast I was wasting and pretty weak. I knew how tough it was on the Flat and I probably wasn’t good enough. James told me to go to England and become a jump jockey. As I’d left home at 15 to go to Kildare I didn’t think a move to England would be too much of a challenge. Bobby O’Ryan, the bloodstock agent, got me a job with Howard Johnson. I rode 11 winners in the first six months when Graham Lee was stable jockey.
He left, Paddy Brennan took over, got the quality rides and I started to struggle with just three winners that season. I was a bit miffed and contemplated going home and taking a trade; Dad’s a carpenter but he convinced me to have another go. So I left Johnson’s and rode for Alan Swinbank, John Wade, Jimmy Moffatt, Bob Woodhouse, Diane Sayer and anyone that wanted me. I ended up champion conditional.
With 100 winners in the last two seasons and recent five-timers and four-timers your public profile is growing. Are you comfortable in the limelight?
I prefer to be on the outside looking in and not the centre of attention. I just want to get on riding the horses as best I can and maintain a low profile. I’m not one for all singing and all dancing; I like to keep my head down and kick on.
I always try and portray racing in the best light possible, particularly in the north where there are so many good trainers. All racing up here lacks is the big owners. It’s a concern there are TV pundits who try to portray themselves in a good light, rather than the racing. Not all of them, but some of them.
You ride with “sweetness and finesse” according to one trainer. You are not a ‘stick’ jockey. Is it your natural instinct to let your mount tell you when it can or can’t go, rather than forcing it?
I like to listen to the horse, get the feel of how it’s going. When I was at Howard Johnson’s Graham Lee was stable jockey and I watched what he did and tried to do it myself. He used to creep around in a race quiet as a mouse, making the horse do as little as possible. He always had his mounts well balanced, in a great rhythm, popping away saving energy. I always thought I’d like to ride like that.
You have fewer whip bans than almost any other jockey. What do you think of the present ruling where eight hits from a jump jockey, compared with seven on the Flat, triggers a review?
In 2015 Sam Twiston-Davies and myself were the only two jockeys among the top few who didn’t receive a ban. Though shortly afterwards we received a ban each. I hit mine a couple over the limit and that was the only stick ban I have received. Again going back to Graham Lee, he always picked up his stick as a last resort and I always tried to follow his example.
Any young jockeys that don’t use the amenities at Jack Berry House want a kick up the backside
In general it becomes very hard for a jockey, particularly in a three-mile chase, to restrict himself or herself to eight hits. Ten might be more realistic, though I have to say most jockeys ride within the rules. There are instances when you go over the limit but they are more slaps of encouragement. You do need to keep a horse’s mind on the job, especially over those last few fences in a long-distance chase. The stewards are more understanding these days if you do go over the limit.
How important is your agent, Richard Hale, to the Hughes tally of winners?
He is very important. Richard decides what I ride, advises me where to go and gets it right more than he gets it wrong. Nine times out of ten it’s his decision and I go along with it. He is a very, very good judge of form and an excellent race-reader. He watches all the racing on television, day in day out. We talk twice a day about different rides and he invariably has the last word. Without him I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.
You are a regular visitor to Jack Berry House in Malton even when you are fit. What makes you head to the IJF headquarters in the north and how does it benefit you professionally?
Why wouldn’t you use it? Jack Berry House is a state-of-the-art facility and it doesn’t cost jockeys anything. For us it’s not just about getting fit, it’s keeping fit. Any young jockeys that don’t use the amenities – hydro therapy pool, physios and gym – want a kick up the backside.
It’s a wonderful place for fitness training as well as receiving all the necessary treatment and help in recovering from injuries. From 10lb claimers to top jockeys, they should all be using Jack Berry House. The staff there can’t do enough for you.
How can racing in the north start to find its way again, particularly challenging for the big southern prizes? The new Northern Lights series culminating with a big finals day at Carlisle in December is encouraging, but what else needs to be done?
The problem in the north is that they cater too much for bad horses. They need to put on higher-rated races so our better horses do not have to go south in search of opportunities. In other words provide more chances for horses rated 120 upwards, rather than all those races for horses rated 105 down. The race planning system is strange in that we might have three or four meetings one week and then hardly anything the next.
Also, there are times when we have two northern meetings on the same day and then nothing the following day; such clashes must surely have an adverse effect on attendances. It goes without saying that the other thing badly needed is better prize-money.
As the most successful jockey in the north, could you ever be attracted south to compete regularly at the major meetings and for bigger prize-money?
I go south a couple days a week when there’s no northern racing. I only drop in for the odd spare here and there. Some southern trainers use me when their regular jockeys are not available and I appreciate that. Of course, you never know what’s round the corner, but I’m not one for looking at what I don’t have, I try and make the most of what I do have.
Does title talk grate with you? Or does the fact that you are being mentioned as a possible champion jockey boost your confidence?
I think people are getting a little bit over excited. I have had a great time but am still 40 winners off Richard Johnson. I don’t want to sound defeatist; I am simply being realistic. If I can stay in a similar position to where I am in the table, ride as many winners as I can and stay in one piece, I’ll be happy. Of course, I’d like to ride a couple of big winners along the way and maximise the opportunities I have.
I know everyone wants to be champion, but at the end of the day there’s only one champion. At the minute it’s Richard Johnson, who’s a worthy champion, a very good jockey and a nice fella into the bargain. The likes of AP used to have a great month every month, I’ve just had one good month. Of course people talking in terms of championships does boost your confidence. It’s a case of the more winners you have the more people want you, and that’s a great situation to be in.
You have been described as “dedicated, grounded and totally professional” in your preparation for a day’s work. But you must have some time for relaxation. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t seem to have too much spare time. Recently on a day off I mucked out our horses while my wife, Lucy, rode them out. I’m generally a groom for my two hunters. I enjoy going out to dinner with friends, though I am teetotal. Sun holidays bore me – three or four days off is enough for me.
You have ridden over 100 winners for Malcolm Jefferson, who has enjoyed a great start to the season with his 48-horse stable. What makes him such a successful trainer?
He buys the right type of horse and then brings it on steadily. When he goes to the sales he might not be on a good page, with the posh sires like Robin des Champs and Flemensfirth, but the horses he selects will be good lookers, good athletes, good walkers and good movers.
Malcolm will always buy a good model, but not necessarily off a good page in the catalogue. When you start off with the right model that’s very much in your favour and Malcolm always nurtures his young horses. I know how he wants the bumper horses and novice hurdlers ridden, always with the future in view.
What has been the most exciting moment in your career so far?
Winning the Cleeve Hurdle on Tidal Bay when I was only just out of my claim meant a lot at that stage of my career. A couple of winners over the National fences about six years ago also gave me a great feeling – Always Waining in the Topham and Frankie Figg in the Sefton. I hope I’ve still got some exciting moments to come; I haven’t won a Grade 1 yet. It’s difficult to name one favourite, but Oscar Rock, Cloudy Dream and Seeyouatmidnight are among those I always look forward to riding.
With all the travel, wasting and inevitable injuries there must be considerable pressure, particularly when things aren’t going well. How do you cope?
When you’re younger you’re inclined to take it personally when things aren’t going well. Then you start trying too hard, only to make matters worse. It takes time to learn to deal with the stress when you think everything’s against you. Nowadays there is a lot of pressure from social media, which I think is a load of bollocks. It doesn’t concern me, but you get these clowns who’ve had a fiver on your horse and when it gets beat they call you all sorts. As long as the owner and trainer are happy, then so am I.
Nowadays, there is a lot of pressure from social media, which I think is a load of bollocks
There is a lot more pressure and hype because you are increasingly in the public eye and I tend not to listen to what people are saying. Obviously, I am not keen on the wasting side of the job but the travelling is particularly hard and, for me, it’s the downside. But I really love what I’m doing.
You took near identical falls in consecutive high-profile races at Ayr’s 2015 Scottish National meeting. Did that knock your confidence?
Both horses, Oscar Rock and Runswick Royal, were knocked over and both would have won. And, yes, of course, such incidents don’t do your confidence any good. Turning in on Oscar Rock I switched to the outside to have a clear run, but at the third last Top Gamble jumped across me, hitting Oscar Rock in mid-air and we came down.
You have a split second to make decisions; clearly it wasn’t the right decision because I came down. It’s all about tiny margins but at the end of the day you’ve got to pick yourself up and go on. On Runswick Royal I was travelling well and delaying my challenge when the horse in front of me was jumping violently left; I was full of horse going to the last fence but had nowhere to go and was knocked over. That was hard to swallow because it wasn’t my horse’s fault.
There is a lot of advice nowadays for professional sportsmen and women regarding diet, fitness and mental health. Are you disciplined enough to follow it all?
My diet isn’t great. When we were in apprentice school we were told to eat a bit of this and bit of that, but at the end of the day if you don’t like that sort of food you are not going to eat it. I always try to eat a little of what I enjoy and then follow it with some exercise.
I’ll eat what I like in moderation; when it comes to diet you’ve got to find what works for you because everyone’s body is different. I eat a lot of chicken, sometimes steak as well as brown bread. I can do 10st and keep my weight fairly level, though I am always very conscious of being as strong as I can be.