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.

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