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Dessie Hughes

It is somewhat incongruous that, high on the wall in Dessie Hughes’s kitchen, among the photos of great horses and great people connected to the Hughes yard, among all the trophies and the accolades, are two fine bone china plates bearing the text of a poem by Michael Gillow, entitled “The Grand National”. Perhaps it is there to remind the trainer how much he wants to win the great race.

It is a race that hasn’t been too kind to the trainer down through the years. Hughes won the Gold Cup as a jockey on Davy Lad, he won the Champion Hurdle once as a jockey on Monksfield and twice as a trainer with Hardy Eustace. The Champion Chase: Chinrullah; the Arkle: Chinrullah again; the Sun Alliance Hurdle: Davy Lad and Parkhill as a rider, Hardy Eustace as a trainer; the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle: Mac’s Chariot; the Stayers’ Hurdle: Bit Of A Jig; the Aintree Hurdle: Monksfield again, three times, or two and a half times really. Name any one of the top National Hunt races in the UK, and Dessie Hughes has probably won it or come damn close. Any one, that is, except the Grand National. In the National, he hasn’t even had a faint whiff.

His best chance in the National as a rider was on Davy Lad in 1977. The trainer sits forward in his chair at the kitchen table as he re-lives that experience. He had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Mick O’Toole’s gelding three weeks earlier. That was a tough Gold Cup. Tied Cottage set a frenetic pace, as was his wont, and Hughes was riding the ears off Davy Lad going past the winning post on the first circuit. Some 40 lengths behind at the last ditch, Hughes’s persistence paid off. He challenged between the last two fences, took it up at the last and went away up the hill.

“That was a good Gold Cup,” says Dessie. “It was a hard race, and it took a lot out of Davy Lad. He was hard on himself, he gave himself hard races, and he hadn’t fully recovered when we lined up for the Grand National just three weeks later. Of course we didn’t realise it, nobody realised it, they made him favourite in front of Red Rum, but I knew very early that he just wasn’t the same horse.”

Davy Lad jumped the first fence slowly, jumped the second fence more slowly, then put his foot into the middle of the third, the big ditch, and turned a somersault. The 1977 National adventure was over.

Hughes never got further than the fifth fence in the National as a rider. He never reached Becher’s Brook. His first ride in the race was on a mare for Mick O’Toole, Persian Helen, who refused at the fifth. He also rode War Bonnet for Jim Dreaper, who fell at the first. It hasn’t been any better for him thus far as a trainer. He has only ever had one runner in the race, Black Apalachi, who fell at the second fence last year. Next Saturday, the same Black Apalachi will be back for more, but things are a little different this time.

Last year Gerard Burke’s gelding was an unconsidered 66/1 shot. He was only nine, probably too immature for the race, he hadn’t been trained specifically for it, and on his last run before going to Aintree, he had finished 10th of 12 runners in the Mick Holly Chase at Leopardstown. This time, he has been trained for the race for the last 12 months. He won the Becher Chase over the big fences and three and a quarter miles of the Grand National course in November and, on his latest run, he ran out a really impressive winner of the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse. He is 10 years old now, exactly the right age for the race, and he is 12/1 third favourite. Try as he might – and he does – his trainer finds it difficult to disguise his optimism.

“We were hoping he would run well last year,” he says, “but we didn’t really think that he had a chance of winning it. I didn’t anyway. It wasn’t like this year, when we think we have a real chance. It’s the Grand National, and of course you need an awful lot of luck, but if he survives the first five fences, and gets a little bit of light going down to Becher’s, then he will have a big chance.”

It was a chance encounter with owner Gerard Burke’s son Justin in a hotel during the 2007 Galway Festival that led to Black Apalachi’s arrival at Osborne Lodge. Philip Rothwell had won the Paddy Power Chase with him in 2005, but the horse’s form was tapering off a little, and the owners thought that a switch of yards would be a good thing. It took him a while, but gradually the horse’s form began to improve again. He finished second in the 2008 Thyestes Chase and then, finally, recorded his first win in almost three year’s in the Becher Chase last November.

Denis O’Regan rode Black Apalachi in that Becher Chase. O’Regan’s boss, Howard Johnson, had Ellerslie George in the race, but that horse was set to carry 10 stone, a weight that O’Regan couldn’t do, so he was free to ride Black Apalachi. That’s the way things go in this game. Right time, right circumstances. It was the jockey’s first time to sit on the horse, but he knew after a couple of fences that he was going to give him a hell of a spin. Some horses just take to the fences, and this fellow was zinging.

“I didn’t know that much about the horse beforehand,” confesses the jockey, “but we just clicked on the day. He enjoyed it and I enjoyed it, and when that happens it is a recipe for success. I didn’t interfere with him at all, I didn’t have to, he just eyed up his fences and flew them. Every single one of them. We might not have the same luxury in the National, but he should take to the fences again. He has a real chance. He’s the best chance I’ve ever had of winning the National anyway.”

O’Regan, fifth on Bewleys Berry in the race last year, was in danger of missing out this year. A fall at Ayr 10 days ago left him with suspected fractured vertebrae. Thankfully, an MRI scan on Friday came back all clear, and he is all set to resume race riding on Tuesday.

O’Regan was delighted to be passed fit, Hughes was relieved.

“The horse and jockey got on so well with each other in the Becher Chase,” says the trainer. “You couldn’t break up a winning team, could you?”

Success breeds success, and Black Apalachi is on the National trail.

© The Sunday Times, 29th March 2009