Racing: Hardy Eustace keeps the quiet man happy

Hardy Eustace, the Champion Hurdler, circled slowly in the indoor school at the Osborne Lodge yard of Dessie Hughes in Co Kildare yesterday. Through the open door, great sheets of snow could be seen coming down, but there was no blizzard of words in the sports arena.

Hardy Eustace, the Champion Hurdler, circled slowly in the indoor school at the Osborne Lodge yard of Dessie Hughes in Co Kildare yesterday. Through the open door, great sheets of snow could be seen coming down, but there was no blizzard of words in the sports arena.

Hughes does not do braggadocio or hubris. In fact, he does not do words much at all. The 61-year-old, though, is fluent in quiet confidence. He looked over at his little squirt of a creature and smiled. "You can't be confident, not in a race like the Champion Hurdle," he said, "but I'm very happy with the horse. He is a special horse, the best horse I've ever had."

When he sees Hardy Eustace, Hughes also sees an alternative vision of himself. The equine hero possesses the singular faculty - as his name suggests - of great durability. It was the same with another beast with which Hughes was once associated, one whose name immediately invokes the echo of a different, but splendid, era. Monksfield, Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon tangled thrillingly for the title of champion hurdler in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the first named was Hughes's indefatigable partner.

It was Monksfield's gift, or burden, that he responded to every crack that Hughes ever put on his hide. The little monkey never had a little race. He suffered what, by contemporary levels, would be considered systematic abuse. Yet he always came back for more.

Hughes rode Monksfield to dead-heat with Night Nurse in the 1977 Templegate Hurdle at Aintree and that remains perhaps the most exhilarating hurdles race of all time. Two years on, he rode the little bruiser to his second Champion Hurdle. Exactly 25 years later he was in the winners' enclosure after the same race, this time by Hardy Eustace's heaving quarters.

Dessie was born in 1943 in Dublin's Whitehall area, where the only horses he saw pulled milk floats. By the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Dan Kirwan in Kilkenny and a great journey had started, one which reached the sunlit uplands in company with a shrewd little man called Mick O'Toole.

O'Toole was volatile and mercurial, Hughes the taciturn iceman. Big races and big betting plunges became the norm. Hughes still remembers most fondly the day when Davy Lad won the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle 30 years ago. "He hadn't run since November," the trainer said yesterday. "But he still went off at 5-2."

Two years ago, Hardy Eustace won the same race. It may be because of his reclusive trainer, or the horse's blue-collar style of running, but there is little recognition that Hardy Eustace is on the same petal-strewn path as Istabraq. If he wins on 15 March, the eight-year-old will be one step away from statistical legend. But then they do not do bombast very well at Osborne Lodge. It is in his nature, and also in the Hardy Eustace story, for Hughes to be phlegmatic. The gelding, who is now so purposefully ridden by Conor O'Dwyer, was originally the mount of Kieran Kelly, whose greatest moment came in the Royal & SunAlliance. Just months later, though, Kelly was killed in a fall at Kilbeggan.

Hughes has had other empty times too, most notably the void between his first Festival winner - Miller Hill in the 1982 Supreme Novices' Hurdle - and Hardy Eustace. "When I first started training I preferred the riding, but now I have got a horse like him I'm beginning to enjoy the training more," he says. "He's an easy horse to train. He doesn't overwork himself and he must have great big lungs because he never blows hard after a piece of work. He's honest. He's straightforward."

Hardy Eustace remains third favourite with Coral to retain the crown he collected so tenaciously in the Cotswold last spring. As the snow piled up yesterday, it was a persuasive thought that the little horse - the one apparently constructed from sheet metal like an earlier rugged Hughes associate - had seen and done it all before. So too has the figure who guides, the one recognised before in Ireland, the quiet man.

* Martin Pipe and jockey Jamie Moore will not appeal against the Jockey Club's decision to fine the trainer £3,000 and suspend Moore for 21 days over the running and riding of Celtic Son at Exeter in October.

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