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Big triumph at Ascot was emotional, says Hughes


By Ron McKnight

Armagh jockey Brian Hughes has been enjoying a rare break back home ahead of the Cheltenham Festival next month, taking in the Armagh point-to-point on Saturday and visiting Belfast yesterday in his new role as Racing Ambassador for Toals Bookmakers.

Punters in the High Street shop - the largest bookmakers outlet in the UK and Ireland - took selfies and received signed caps from the leading jockey.

Hughes (32) is originally from Newtownhamilton, but has been based in Cleveland for the last 12 years with his wife Lucy and recent addition, son Rory.

He began riding out for local trainer James Lambe aged 14 before going to RACE - the Turf Club jockeys' academy - after leaving school at 16, where he was placed with legendary trainer Kevin Prendergast, with whom he was based for four years.

And he clearly made an impression on Prendergast, who called the Ulsterman when the regular rider of Katie T became unavailable for the major £100,000 Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown in 2015 - and Hughes duly partnered the high-class mare to victory.

His most recent big success - in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase on Waiting Patiently a week ago - was a very poignant affair after trainer Malcolm Jefferson's funeral took place the previous day.

Jefferson's daughter Ruth saddled the high-class chaser ahead of Hughes' triumph over Cue Card, who is due to contest the Ryanair Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

"It was emotional for all concerned. It was a great pity Malcolm was not there to see the horse win. He had long targeted the race as he always thought a lot of the horse," reflected Hughes, who has a total of 864 winners plus another 26 in Ireland, including 27 Graded and Listed victories.

"I rode 140 winners for Malcolm, he was a great trainer. I don't think Waiting Patiently will run at Cheltenham - it's more likely he'll go to Aintree."

Hughes' - who partnered 144 winners to finish runner-up to champion jockey Richard Johnson last season and is currently on the 112 mark this term, which sees him in third - CV includes two Cheltenham Festival winners to date, including the Close Brothers Chase on the former Ulster graduate Ballyalton, plus a Topham Trophy and Grand Sefton over the Aintree fences.

Asked about prospective Cheltenham Festival mounts, Hughes responded: "There's several - it's a bit early at present and I'll know more closer to the time."

His racing commitments and daily travelling consume much of his time and he returns to Musselburgh tomorrow where he has five booked rides.

He can recall a five-timer at the track in 2016.

He said: "It was an add-on meeting - all the distances and horses suited perfectly that day."

In addition to his two Festival winners, Hughes won the Cleeve Hurdle on Tidal Bay and the Dipper Chase on See You At Midnight at the course.

He admitted, however, he will need to lose a few pounds prior to resuming riding.

Normally 10 stone, he smiled: "Being at home, my mother has me well fed - I know I've put on a few pounds."

Gary Toal, head of the Toals operation, added: "After finishing runner-up in the jump jockeys championship last year, I thought Brian would be ideal as our ambassador. He's popular with punters, a great rider, is local and ultra media friendly.

"He is a genuine sportsman at the top of his game."

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