Hughes century is perfect riposte to critics

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The Independent Online

For a rider to whom everything seems to come easily, Richard Hughes has always had to cope with surprising levels of adversity. In younger days, he struggled to dovetail weight and lifestyle, and to this day his patient, elegant style still goads those who need coarser evidence of a jockey's contribution. Only days ago, for instance, he endured the breathtaking indignity of being replaced on Youmzain, in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Sunday week, by Richard Hills. Yet his equilibrium, both in and out of the saddle, remains such that only Ryan Moore has surpassed his achievements this season.

His success on Appraisal in the opener here yesterday was his 100th of the turf campaign, and he promptly added a 101st on Heliodor. Both horses are trained by his father-in-law, Richard Hannon, whose own prolific season has palpably counted for a great deal. But Hughes deserves credit in his own right for the way he has responded to the loss, this time last year, of his retainer for Khaled Abdulla. He had ridden for the prince for seven seasons, without winning over all his trainers – most notably, and most destructively to his reputation, Sir Michael Stoute.

But Hughes has always been one of the most natural horseman of his generation, and his sunny sense of fulfilment illuminated a dank day on the Downs. Whatever his private resentment, his reflections on Youmzain were characteristically gracious. "It was a bit of a kick in the stones, all right," he said wryly. "But I'm old enough to realise that if the owner wants to pick someone else he's entitled to do so, and I wish them all the luck in the world."

The reality is that Youmzain is an awkward animal, hardly the sort on whom to parachute a new jockey. And over the post two years Hughes has turned him into one of the best middle-distance horses in Europe. Together they were beaten only in a photo by Dylan Thomas in the Arc last year, and beat Soldier Of Fortune in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud during the summer. Even Hills's greatest admirer, in contrast, could not pretend that he has ever been favoured with many big rides outside his retainer for Sheikh Hamdan. "I'm disappointed because I know the horse so well," Hughes admitted. "Maybe Richard Hills will get on with him better than me. I don't know. But he is a bit quirky."

Instead Hughes finds himself looking forward to a lucrative opportunity on Soul City, who has won his last two starts in France and now tackles the Goffs Million at the Curragh on Sunday. "He's a powerful horse now, and he'll take all the beating," Hughes said. "He's quick, but he stays as well, and that's what you need for that race."

The most remarkable feature of Hannon's season has been its consistency. "At the start of the year, the head lad was saying they were the best bunch ever," Hughes said. "I just thought they were nice, without getting too excited, but when we started running a few, and thought they'd be placed, they were winning – and they have just carried on from there. I've never known them so healthy. Usually you have a little lull, but I rode for Richard at Salisbury the other day and five of the six gave a buck and a kick on the way to the start, so well they were."

In effect, the loss of the Abdulla retainer became a spur. For a start, Hughes now knows on Monday where he will be riding on Saturday, and can pick up the best spare rides – "instead of waiting until Thursday, and being left with scraps". But he also felt a need to make a point.

"Sometimes you get a bit stale through the year, but I've been very motivated," he said. "People tell me I'm riding better than ever. But I'm riding no different. All I'm doing is riding Richard Hannon's two-year-olds. But I do feel I'm riding well. I'm very positive this year. If I don't feel I'm on the best horse in a race, I'll find a way to beat it."

As it happens, the target he set himself in March had been 100 winners, but he resisted any laurels. "We'll be back to zero again soon," he grinned.

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