Lean times for burgeoning talent

Racing: Richard Hughes has had to sweat to taste top-level success. Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online
Jockeys will do anything to keep their weight down. On the darker side, through the years, have been pee pills and those riders, still around today, who have polished off mounds of eggs, rashers and cereal from breakfast bowl only to clandestinely reproduce it all in another bowl just minutes later.

The most notorious battle with the scales was conducted by Fred Archer, the outstanding jockey of the 19th century. In his 29th year the scales won when a chronically depressed jockey took his own life.

There are several similarities between Archer and a man born nearly 90 years after his passing, Richard Hughes, the young Irishman who captivated Royal Ascot last week with two well-timed victories. The 22-year-old may care to associate himself with Archer's skills rather than his end.

There is no point hiding from the fact, however, that like the man from yesteryear, Hughes's career will be built on self-denial. Like Archer, he eats just one meal, in the evening, a day (Archer's celebrations used to stretch to a glass of champagne and water biscuit during a game of billiards before he retired to his couch).

Last week, Hughes moved into a new home, complete with its own sauna, in the Berkshire village of Great Shefford, replicating the idea of Archer, who had his own Turkish bath. He has yet, publicly at least, to find anything to match the old timer's slimming concoction, the name of which did not yield much guide to the potion's components. It was known as Archer's Mixture.

Hughes can enjoy the fact that at 5ft 9in he has an inch less to fill than his Victorian counterpart. Nevertheless, he does not take many chances. "I try not to eat anything at all during the day," he said this week. "I might pick away at a biscuit with a cup of tea. And then at night it's a light meal. Maybe a bit of fish or chicken."

Hughes accepts this regime because he has always wanted to be a jockey. He was born into it as a son of the National Hunt rider Dessie Hughes, whose finest hour came on board Monksfield in the 1979 Champion Hurdle. "I remember going up to my Auntie Peggy's at Dublin when that Cheltenham was on," he said. "I rode out the finish myself. On my Uncle Hubert."

Following the traditional conduit of pony racing, Hughes graduated to major league in his native land, but soon found he was restricted by a combination of weight and a relatively sparse racing calendar. A move to Britain, and its bulging fixture list, became inevitable.

The switch from Kildare came last July, since when Hughes has ridden 51 winners, most of them for Mick Channon, to whom he is retained rider. Channon, with the simplistic vernacular of the dressing room, knows his man as "Hughesie".

However, when he arrived at Windsor racecourse on Monday evening it was to a weighing room that knows him by a different name. Thanks to Willie Carson and his height, Hughes is called "the window cleaner".

Like the bulk of his colleagues, Hughes saves his timing for the racecourse proper. Initial attempts to keep a pre-arranged meeting were met with the information that he was inhabiting an area he uses less frequently that just about anyone alive. He was on the toilet. Ninety minutes later (not all of it spent in the little boys' room) he presented himself for interview.

The immediate feature that strikes about Richard Hughes is his shape, or absence of it. It is not too melodramatic to suggest his body is reminiscent of the dreadful souls found behind barbed wire in POW camps. And he has done this to himself.

Hughes makes light of the incarceration he has created daily for himself in a sauna. "I go in for an hour and a half in three 30-minute spells with a bucket of ice to stick my head in," he said. "It's boring, but it's not painful and plenty others like Pat [Eddery] and Frankie [Dettori] have to waste as well.

"There are people who drive for an hour and a half into London for work every day and I wouldn't do that for all the money in the world."

Inevitably, though, there are those who believe Hughes will end up in the jumping sphere, in which he has already recorded more than 50 rides, including a mount at this year's Cheltenham Festival.

At Leopardstown this winter, Hughes measured himself on the scales with National Hunt men Charlie Swan and Norman Williamson and found the arrow went further when his bottom was on the chair. "The three of us jumped on and I was 4lb heavier than either of them," he said. "And I was meant to be the Flat jockey."

The jumping game will have to wait some time, though, if it is to welcome Hughes fully into its brotherhood. The young man with the blue eyes and pasty complexion has already prompted much respect in the other code with a riding style that reminds much of another tall jockey, Cash Asmussen.

When the bubbles come out of his head, Richard Hughes dreams of enhancing this reputation. And he also dreams of a steaming feast. "Saturday night is the big meal of the week, the one when I pig out," he said. "I eat as much as anyone else. But then, on Sunday afternoon and Monday, I pay for it."