Racing: Hardy annual in full bloom

Cheltenham countdown: Hughes and his admirable Champion Hurdler look forward to a rerun

When Dessie Hughes showed off his pride and joy, Hardy Eustace, at Osborne House stables, the adjoining expanse of the Curragh, the wide, rolling Co Kildare plain that encompasses Ireland's premier racecourse and some of the best training gallops in Europe, was under a covering of snow. The gentle look of the hard winter's day was not inappropriate, for Hughes is softly spoken, but not soft. The quiet man's quiet man.

When Dessie Hughes showed off his pride and joy, Hardy Eustace, at Osborne House stables, the adjoining expanse of the Curragh, the wide, rolling Co Kildare plain that encompasses Ireland's premier racecourse and some of the best training gallops in Europe, was under a covering of snow. The gentle look of the hard winter's day was not inappropriate, for Hughes is softly spoken, but not soft. The quiet man's quiet man.

In nine days' time, Hardy Eustace will be at Cheltenham to defend his Champion Hurdle crown. The bay gelding's stirring victory 12 months ago was the culmination of his trainer's 30-year love affair with the meeting. Before he turned to his second career, Hughes was a top-class rider, with eight Festival victories to his credit. The highest-profile were a Gold Cup on Davy Lad in 1977 and a Champion Hurdle on Monksfield two years later; the first was Davy Lad's Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1975.

They were heady days, those charges up the famous hill, and Hughes, a still-lean 61, remembers them with a yearning fondness. "The training has its challenges," he said, "but the riding... aah, now, it was great. But a horse like this one is making me enjoy the training more."

The man from north Dublin has matchless experiences to call on, and paid Hardy Eustace the considerable compliment of likening him to brave little Monksfield. The battling entire was one of the best of the golden age of hurdling; Hughes rode him to his second title victory after a titanic struggle with Sea Pigeon. "Very much the same types," he said. "Tough and genuine, give their best all the time, and both of them two-and- a-half-mile horses with the speed to compete at the top at two miles."

Hughes is riding high as a trainer, but in nearly half a century has known all sides of the business. Apprenticed as a 14-year-old to Dan Kirwan, then fellow-trainer Eddie O'Grady's father Willie, his search for further opportunity after moving to Britaincame to an abrupt halt with a fall that left him with serious chest injuries and a four-month stay in hospital.

Back in Ireland, a chance encounter brought a job with a rookie trainer, Mick O'Toole, and an indomitable partnership was forged. Davy Lad's first Cheltenham victory was typical. "When he went there he hadn't run since November," said Hughes. "The weather and the ground were dreadful. Yet he still started 5-2 favourite, and won by three lengths."

It was at the Festival that Hughes's riding career came to an end, after he broke an arm in a fall from Light The Wad in the 1980 Sun Alliance Chase. By then he was training anyway, and the knowledge he gleaned during his time as not just the shrewd O'Toole's stable jockey but also head man served him well. His early success included Miller Hill in the 1982 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but the good times stopped rolling. That scourge of the profession, a virus, arrived at Osborne House, and stayed put. Hughes's numbers dropped to the extent that he had to sell half his land to survive. "We were struggling big-time," he said, "almost on our uppers. I count myself blessed that so many owners stayed with us."

All 65 of the grey-painted or corrugated iron-faced boxes at the 1938-built establishment are now full. Twenty-one years after Miller Hill's triumph, Hardy Eustace bridged the yawning Festival gap for Hughes with success, under young stable jockey Kieran Kelly, in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle. Twelve months on, the Champion Hurdle triumph, a resolute five-length defeat of Rooster Booster, was overshadowed by the tragedy of Kelly's death after a fall. "It put a lot of things in perspective," said Hughes.

Hardy Eustace, who cost just Ir£21,000 (£18,360) at auction as an unbroken three- year-old, has earned nearly £450,000 and developed into the complete professional. After cantering briskly in the snow, ridden by his regular home partner, Robbie Hennessy (Conor O'Dwyer takes over in public), he quickly relaxed and stood in his box like a kid's pony. "He's such a kind horse," said Hughes, "a special horse, the best I've ever had. He's easy to train; he never overworks himself and he's got great lungs. He's uncomplicated and a perfect ride, I've even sat on him myself."

Hughes will put the finishing touches to the seven-year-old today, with a racecourse spin at Leopardstown, an occasion when most of his Irish-based rivals will stretch their legs too. The gelding goes to Cheltenham off a confidence-boosting success at Gowran last month; his trainer is not unduly concerned about the three defeats before that. "To have a horse 100 per cent for Cheltenham, you can't have him 100 per cent in December or January," he said. "He's bigger and stronger and in better shape this year, and although it's harder to defend a title than win it, he's been prepared just for that day.

"All we want is reasonable ground and a good gallop. If there's no pace, then he'll make it; wearing blinkers makes that easier for him. I know he'll be vulnerable to something with a turn of foot, but they'll have to get to him first, and if they haven't done so by the last they'll have a job up the hill. You can't be confident in a race like the Champion Hurdle, but this fella does have one great asset. Heart."

So; resilient, durable, honest, straightforward, unflashy, a great Cheltenham record. Like trainer, like horse.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor