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Armagh's Brian Hughes eyeing Cheltenham joy in bid to emulate hero AP McCoy


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Home first: Brian Hughes onboard Mister Whitaker after winning at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018

Home first: Brian Hughes onboard Mister Whitaker after winning at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018

Home first: Brian Hughes onboard Mister Whitaker after winning at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018

Brian Hughes used to marvel at the heroics of Tony McCoy in the saddle. Today, the modest man from Newtownhamilton, Co Armagh is on course to emulate the legendary AP and create history in the process.

Ahead of Cheltenham, Hughes, 34, is the leader of the jump jockey championship.

To some that may be a surprise.

Not to those though who have admired his recent consistency claiming 100+ British winners in the last six years.

This season he has 21 more victories than nearest rival Richard Johnson, who has won the last four titles.

Johnson suffered a broken arm in January when he was just three winners behind Hughes. The gap widened in the month as Johnson was out of action but a tight, tension filled climax could be on the cards over the next couple of months.

Johnson has a host of rides on the opening day of the Festival. Hughes, racing at Sedgefield tomorrow, is not scheduled to compete at the most eagerly awaited meeting in his sport until Wednesday when he will be on board the fancied Panic Attack in the Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

Hughes relishes racing at Cheltenham.

He's enjoyed that winning feeling at Prestbury Park three times, in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and would welcome another one this week, not least because every victory moves him closer to being crowned champion jockey come April 25.

Before Johnson began to dominate, everyone on the circuit played second fiddle to Moneyglass marvel McCoy, who won a staggering 20 titles on the trot. Another Ulsterman, Richard Dunwoody was victorious for three years prior to that following in the footsteps of top guns Peter Scuadmore and John Francome.

If Hughes can finish the job in 2020, he will become the first jockey based in the north of England to triumph since Irish great Jonjo ONeill wore the crown 40 years ago.

"Regarding the championship, I'm certainly not getting carried away just yet. There's plenty of the season left and though I'm a good few winners clear, anything can happen. It's just a case of keeping my head down and taking things day by day," wrote Hughes on his Vbet blog.

Hughes appreciates there are similarities between himself and McCoy due to geography - their fathers were also carpenters - but points out: "AP was a hell of a lot better jockey.

"I am humbled to be mentioned in the same sentence as Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson."

A humble character, Hughes declares that his five sisters had "the brains" in his family.

This season the one time flat jockey has showed vast intelligence of his own in reading races and knowing when to strike.

Husband to Lucy and proud dad to Rory and Olivia, Hughes lives in Cleveland in the north east of England.

He has come a long way since leaving St Paul's High School in Bessbrook at the age of 16.

Inspired by McCoy and another Grand National winner from Northern Ireland, Tony Dobbin, Hughes always fancied having a crack at being a jockey. Aged 14 he was riding out for respected local trainer James Lambe. Two years later he began his apprenticeship on the flat with legendary Curragh based trainer Kevin Prendergast.

If life was fun learning his trade there were tougher times after Hughes took the decision to move to England. He considered returning home at one stage and calling it quits until some shrewd counsel from his dad persuaded him to stick it out.

Working at the Co Durham stable of trainer Howard Johnson, another positive influence was Galway-born stable jockey Graham Lee who offered vital words of wisdom and telling advice.

Developing his own style, Hughes, who survived meningitis as a child, impressed trainers by grafting hard day and night. He became the champion conditional jockey in the 2007/08 season and has since enhanced his reputation with a string of classy successes including an eye catching triumph on on Katie T in the €100,000 Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown in 2015. One year later he claimed a staggering 899 to 1 five-timer at Musselburgh and has been going from strength to strength ever since.

Typical of Hughes in the aftermath of that fistful of winners he said he was fortunate and "embarrassed by all the attention".

Should he go on and win the jump jockey title and some glory at Cheltenham this week he will have to get used to even more.

Belfast Telegraph