There are no short cuts on the long and winding road to a jockeys' championship, and the one taken by Richard Hughes at the first bend at Wolverhampton last Saturday night now seems the most fatal of dead ends. Hughes yesterday took his six-day ban for careless riding to the British Horseracing Authority, and while its appeal board returned his deposit, he was otherwise sent away empty-handed. Bookmakers now make Paul Hanagan as short as 1-8 to win his first title.
Hughes is not giving up quite yet, however, and intends to go "all out" to close the gap so that Hanagan remains under pressure during his suspension. "It's frustrating," he said. "But there's nothing I can do about it, and I've just got to keep going as hard as I can up until the day I'm banned. Then I'll have to assess things when I get back."
He promptly rode his 159th winner of the campaign at Newbury, reducing Hanagan's lead to 10, before proceeding to lock horns with his rival back at Wolverhampton last night, making it 160 in the second race.
In many ways, it is fitting that Hughes should have reached a critical crossroads when and where he did. Having enjoyed a long career as an elite rider, he would never previously have been seen dead riding mediocre horses under floodlights on the eve of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. This was the man, remember, who forfeited a week of winners in midsummer to guarantee that suspensions did not separate him from various top-class mounts at Goodwood in July. It has been fascinating, and impressive, to see him rise to the gruelling demands of a title challenge – though Hanagan, having kept himself out of the stewards' room in recent weeks, is entitled to the quiet satisfaction that it was his adversary who blinked first.
It remains conceivable, of course, for Hanagan to let Hughes back into the race through some transgression of his own. But Hughes, having seemed to build inexorable momentum over the previous week or two, must now fear that the issue is out of his hands. It was instructive that he had only appealed against the severity of his ban, rather than protest his innocence. Remember also that he was suspended for a seventh day for a whip offence on the same, fateful card, and he will now sit out 16 to 22 October inclusive – starting with Champions' Day at Newmarket tomorrow week.
Regardless of what happens, he is set to miss the final denouement, at Doncaster on 6 November, to ride at the Breeders' Cup. Gio Ponti, runner-up to Zenyatta last year, seems unlikely to seek a rematch with the unbeaten mare in the Classic this time. With the meeting returning to Churchill Downs, the leading turf performer in North America would have to switch to dirt, and he is duly being tried over a shorter trip at Keeneland tomorrow with a view to tackling the Breeders' Cup Mile, where his rivals would include Paco Boy, ridden by Hughes.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Mango Music (4.30 York) A switch to Richard Fahey is paying immediate dividends for this mare, who beat 32 out of 34 rivals for two races over 24 hours at Ayr last month and remains well treated on her best.
Emiratesdotcom (6.50 Wolverhampton)
Handicapper has reacted to three wins this summer, but there were signs last time that there may still be more to come and the four-year-old is now back at scene of latest success.
One to watch
Blessed Biata (W J Haggas) was soon behind in a big-field, big-money sales race at Newmarket last Saturday, after just one previous start, but stormed into a close sixth despite meeting traffic.
Where the money's going
Vulcanite, last seen completing a hat-trick in July, is 6-1 favourite from 7-1 with the sponsors for the valuable Ladbrokes Handicap at Ascot tomorrow.
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