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Sandra Hughes

Lieutenant Colonel’s bid to land the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse at the end of November was bursting with emotion.

The Gigginstown House horse had always been held in the highest regard by the late Dessie Hughes. He was only a frame of a horse last season, when he won a Grade 2 contest as a novice hurdler, but he had begun to grow into himself through the summer. He could probably do with another season over hurdles, Dessie had said. It could be the making of him.

The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle was run 12 days after Dessie Hughes’ funeral. His daughter Sandra had taken over the reins at Osborne Lodge. It was what Dessie wanted, and it was a seamless transition. All through their lives, no matter what was going on in their lives, the horses always came first for the Hughes family.

“No matter what difficulties we faced,” says Sandra, “the horses had to be exercised, the entries had to be made. That was always Dad’s way.”

By then, Lieutenant Colonel had already run in a beginners’ chase, and been beaten. As a result, the decision was made to revert to hurdles, allow him take his chance in the Hatton’s Grace.

“Eddie (O’Leary, of owners Gigginstown House Stud) rang me and said, ‘I think we might go back over hurdles.’ I was delighted because I knew that that’s what Dad would have wanted. I would imagine, if Dad hadn’t been sick, he would have phoned Eddie and Michael and suggested that anyway. He did that with Bright New Dawn, it just gave him that extra year.”

Strange the way things work out. If Lieutenant Colonel had won that beginners’ chase by a length instead of getting beaten by a length, he probably would have remained over fences.

Sandra Hughes went to Fairyhouse that day with her mother Eileen, hopeful that Lieutenant Colonel would run well. The previous day at Fairyhouse, she had registered her first win as a trainer when Sub Lieutenant had won his maiden hurdle. In one sense, that had relieved the pressure, eased some of the emotion. In another, this was completely different. A Grade 1 race on national television. Big league.

Lieutenant Colonel did win the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle that day. He travelled well through the race for Bryan Cooper, took up the running on the run to the second last flight, and stayed on well to beat Jetson by four lengths.

Sandra was blown away. The well-wishers, the feeling of goodwill towards her and her mum, the attention, the congratulations. She held herself together through it all, the questions from the press, the presentations, the television interviews. After it was all over, she and her mum walked to the car together, got in, closed the doors behind them, and broke down in tears.


Sandra Hughes grew up around horses. You couldn’t be Dessie Hughes’ daughter and not grow up around horses, the clippety-clop of hoof on yard never too far from her bedroom window.

As a youngster, she worked with the horses. She and her brother Richard rode out, mucked out, did whatever needed to be done. She didn’t ride on the pony racing circuit, she left that to her brother but she always went with Richard. She was the one who would tack up the pony and send Richard hurtling around the pony racing fields of Ireland.

After a spell in England, she returned nine years ago to work with her dad. She started off working in the office, but, as time went on, she found herself getting more and more involved with the horses as well.

“The operation was getting bigger,” she recalls. “It needed to be run as a business, and that was not Dad’s forte. He was a horseman, he just wanted to be with the horses, but the accounts, the administration, all the boring stuff, all that needed to be done.”

Gradually, she started to move more from office to yard. She started to work with the horses again.

“It was really always the plan that I would take over from Dad,” she says. “It wasn’t ever really said, that wasn’t Dad’s way, but Richard was in England, his future was always going to be there. I think that Dad was always preparing me for this, without saying too much about it. Whenever I am faced with an issue now, I always think, what would Dad do?”

It was in August 2013 that Dessie Hughes first got sick. Before his operation that September, his doctor, Professor Conlon, told him that he would have him back training in two months. He was at Leopardstown that Christmas.

“I was just saying to Mam this morning,” says Sandra slowly: “Weren’t we so naïve? We thought, that’s it, gone, he’s cured, he’s better. Then it came back and, when it did, it came back with a vengeance.”

Dessie went to the July Cup meeting at Newmarket last year, and came back feeling awful.

“It all happened very quickly then, which, in some ways, was a relief. I know of people who have suffered for years. Mam and Dad were watching on television in early November from the hospital when Richard was presented with his Champion Jockey trophy. Mam got very emotional when Richard said, ‘This is for you Dad.’ Dad just turned around and said, ‘For God’s sake, I’m not dying’. That was just him. He took a turn the following morning, and that was it. He never came around again.”

Through the heartache, the horses didn’t stop. That was Dessie Hughes’ way. Sandra sat down on the Sunday morning, the day after her dad died, and phoned all the owners in the yard to tell them. That Wednesday, the day after the funeral, they had runners at Fairyhouse.

‘Everyone has been brilliant,” says Sandra. “The owners have been great, and the staff, Rob Hennessy, all of them, have been fantastic. And we haven’t been doing too badly, the horses are running well and it was great to have a couple of Grade 1 wins. We have Lieutenant Colonel and The Tullow Tank and a few others for Cheltenham. We’ll see how Apache Jack and Thunder And Roses get on at Navan on Sunday. We’ll just keep working as hard as we can, doing as well as we can do.”

That’s what Dad would do.

© The Sunday Times, 15th February 2015