Dessie Hughes: Jockey and trainer who won the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in the saddle and two Champion Hurdles out of it


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Dessie Hughes was one of the few men to make a significant impact on jump racing both as a jockey and a trainer. Among his numerous successes were 14 at his sport's holy of holies, the Cheltenham Festival, including the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle in the saddle and two Champion Hurdles after he retired from it.

But more than winning races, the quiet and modest but determined and courageous Irishman won friends and admiration wherever he went. He was a remarkable horseman, but firstly a remarkable man. Racing can be a brutal profession, physically and mentally, bringing heady highs and devastating lows, of which Hughes experienced both. And he really did treat the two imposters just the same.

His death from cancer came during meetings at two of the arenas where he so successfully plied his trades, Punchestown in Co Kildare and Cheltenham. At both venues an immaculately observed silence was a tribute to the esteem in which he was held by industry professionals, many of whom had benefited from his tutelage and wisdom, and racegoers alike.

Dublin-born, he was the son of a postal worker and, unlike most in the sport, had no racing background. But he discovered an empathy with equines when introduced to ponies at an uncle's farm on childhood holidays, and at the age of 14 went to Co Kilkenny trainer Dan Kirwan as an apprentice. While there, he used to exercise a young grey horse, Nicolaus Silver, who won the 1961 Grand National after his transfer to an English stable.

Hughes' character was tested the first time he passed the post first, on Sailaway Sailor at Tramore in June 1962, for he was disqualified and placed last after the runner-up objected. But three days later, on the same horse at Ballinrobe, he made no mistake. That was on the Flat; his first win over jumps was on Baxier in a steeplechase at Limerick six months later, both horses trained by Willie O'Grady. His riding career, though, took time to take off – a badly-broken arm and the period of recuperation that followed did not help – and it was not until the 1970s that it blossomed, largely due to his partnership with Mick O'Toole.

It was for O'Toole that he rode his Cheltenham Festival winner, Davy Lad in the 1975 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle. Seven more followed at the fixture over the next four seasons, including famous victories on Davy Lad in the 1977 Gold Cup and, especially, Monksfield in the 1979 Champion Hurdle.

Monksfield's great rivalry with Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse was a feature of what is regarded as one of hurdling's golden ages. Monksfield, trained by Des McDonogh, cost only 740 guineas as a yearling and his rags-to-riches background and tiny size made him a public favourite.

It was in 1980 at the Cheltenham Festival that Hughes' career as a rider came to an end when he broke an arm in a fall from Light The Wad in the Sun Alliance Chase. He had always planned to train, and by then his operation at Osborne Lodge, next to the Curragh racecourse in Co Kildare, was in place and started with a flourish when his first runner, Church Island, won at Fairyhouse on New Year's Day 1980.

Two years later Hughes was back in the Cheltenham winners' circle, with Miller Hill after the Supreme Novices Hurdle. But then came an alarming slump that came close to putting him out of business as he struggled for years to eradicate a virulent fungal infection that infested his yard. It was not until the early noughties that he returned to the big time, mainly with another horse who became a hurdling legend, Hardy Eustace.

Like Monksfield, he was a bargain buy and ultra-tough, and was one of a vintage crop. As a novice he took the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle in 2003 and returned to Cheltenham in the following two years to win the Champion Hurdle. Hardy Eustace had been ridden to his first Cheltenham victory by stable jockey Kieran Kelly, whose death in a fall at Kilbeggan five months later was a terrible blow to Hughes and all at Osborne Lodge. It made the horse's first Champion Hurdle, when he started at 33-1 and made all under Conor O'Dwyer to beat Rooster Booster, a poignant occasion. The next year he was one of the favourites and had two necks to spare over Harchibald and Brave Inca.

In four Grand National attempts as a rider Hughes failed to get round Aintree, but came close to winning as a trainer when Black Apalachi finished second to Don't Push It in 2010. His final Cheltenham success came last year with Our Conor in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, but the brilliant young horse suffered a fatal fall in the Champion Hurdle in March. The 2013-14 campaign had proved his trainer's best, with 58 winners in Ireland and Britain and this season he had notched 30 winners, most recently with a top-class new recruit to Osborne Lodge, The Tullow Tank, at Fairyhouse 12 days ago.

Hughes took enormous pride in the achievements of his son, three-time champion Flat jockey Richard, who earlier this month dedicated his latest title to his father. He was one of the kindest and most helpful in his profession, always willing to give generously of his time and experience. As long as horses do battle up Cheltenham's famous hill, racing men and women will remember him.

Desmond Hughes, jockey and racehorse trainer: born Dublin 10 October 1943; married 1968 Eileen Lyons (one daughter, one son); died 15 November 2014.