Donn's Articles » Dessie Hughes

Dessie Hughes

The Grand National has never been that kind to Dessie Hughes, but last year’s race gave him as good a metaphorical kicking as he ever got physically when he used to stand in the stirrups instead of in the grandstand. You wouldn’t really know it to look at him or to listen to him now, one year on, steady as a brain surgeon’s hand, Gold Cup winning rider, Champion Hurdle winning rider, Champion Hurdle winning trainer, he has scaled racing’s peaks and plumbed her depths and, if he does submit to exuberance or despondency, he must do so within the quiet confines of Osborne Lodge. King of the matter-of-fact. So when you ask him if he was disappointed when Black Apalachi unseated his rider at Becher’s Brook second time round in the Grand National last year, and he nods his head slowly and smiles, you know that he was. Gutted.

Black Apalachi had traveled supremely well for almost a circuit and a half. He had led the field for most of the way, he had settled into a lovely rhythm under Denis O’Regan, and he appeared to be enjoying it, just as Hughes knew he would. This was the plan. The trainer had always thought of him as a Grand National horse.

He ran in the race in 2008, an unconsidered 66/1 shot, and nobody really took too much notice when he fell at the second fence. Unbowed, Hughes brought him back again the following November for the Becher Chase, stuck Denis O’Regan up on him, and watched as the pair of them made the heavy ground look like tarmacadam and the monstrous fences look like skittles as they danced around for three and a quarter miles and came home on their own. The people who measure these things counted 74 lengths back to the second horse. Then people took notice, so much so that Black Apalachi and Denis O’Regan were no better than 11/1 to win the Grand National last year.

It was all going so well. Hughes couldn’t have been happier with his horse as he watched him jump the water jump in front of him three lengths clear of his field and run away from the stands again to do it all once more, one more circuit, two more miles and 14 more of the biggest fences that you can imagine, although slightly battered this time, the ruins of the walls in a war-ravaged city.

The trainer watched on the big screen as Black Apalachi jumped a little to his left over the third, and a little to his left again over the fourth, but he was straight as a gun barrel over the fifth, and O’Regan angled him out as they passed the innocuous looking privet bushes that tell you that Becher’s Brook is next.

He didn’t really make a mistake at Becher’s. That’s the frustrating thing. He got in a little tight and jumped a fraction to his left, with the result that he jumped the fence a little diagonally and accentuated the drop on the landing side. The last thing you want to be doing at Becher’s Brook is accentuating the drop on the landing side. He landed steeply, nodded, and sprung O’Regan off over his head. Race over.

“He looked to be going just as easy jumping Becher’s in the Grand National as he was jumping Becher’s in the Becher Chase,” says Dessie now. “I honestly thought he had it in the bag, he was in front going easy, he stays well, and the whole field was strung out behind him. The ones that were left in front, after chasing Black Apalachi, they were able to take a breather, and the ones who were behind, some of them tailed off, were able to get back into contention. When he went, they all came back together again over the next two fences, with the result that there were 20 horses in with a chance going around the home turn. It wouldn’t have been like that if he had stood up, he could have strung them right out.”

Denis O’Regan will be on board again, as long as his commitment to Howard Johnson allows. It is not ideal when a jockey gets unseated, as he did last year, but it was the Grand National, it was Becher’s Brook, and he deserves another chance. West Tip fell under a young Richard Dunwoody when traveling easily at Becher’s Brook second time in 1985, and the pair went back the following year and made no mistake.

“Denis got on extremely well with Black Apalachi the two times he has ridden him,” says Hughes. “I know he got unseated off him, and it was a soft enough unseat now, nearly too soft! But these things happen. He just let him drift slightly left going into the fence, if he had jumped it straight he would have been fine. But Denis gets on so well with the horse, he deserves another chance. He’s a fabulous horseman.”

Until recently, the Grand National was never a race that Dessie Hughes really thought of winning, either as a jockey or as a trainer. It wasn’t a race that you could really plan to win, he figured, too much could go wrong, and he never really had a horse who had a chance anyway. Even when he rode Gold Cup winner Davy Lad in the race in 1977, Mick O’Toole’s horse had had a hard race in the Gold Cup, and he probably hadn’t had enough time to recover by the time Aintree rolled around.

“Davy Lad jumped the first fence slow,” smiles Dessie, “jumped the second slow, jumped the third real slow, then all but refused at the fourth. He just put his foot in it and came down.”

Hughes reckons he never got past the fourth fence in the race as a rider.

“The race didn’t really feature with me as a trainer either,” he says. “In 30 years of training, I never had a Grand National horse, and there’s no point in going there if you don’t have the right horse. Then Black Apalachi came along. He looked a National horse from the start, he won a Paddy Power when he was with Philip Rothwell, and he ran very well in a couple of good staying handicap chases for me. There is no end to his stamina, and he is a good jumper.”

Not one Grand National horse in 30 years, then two come along at the same time.

“Vic Venturi won the Becher Chase last November, maybe not as easily as Black Apalachi did the previous year, but he did it very well with a lot more weight,” he says. “He probably didn’t jump as flamboyantly, he is a bit more cagey, but he does jump them. His biggest problem is probably going to be on the first circuit, because he probably won’t get as much light as he would like, whereas Black Apalachi, if he’s lucky enough to get away at the start, he’ll have plenty of light, because he has the pace to be bang up there with them,. The other fellow has pace as well, but he’ll be slow over the first few, that’s for sure, so hopefully he won’t let too many get in front of him. You really have to be handy in the Grand National, don’t you?”

It’s National week for Hughes, with two horses in the top five in the betting for the Aintree, first and second in the same prep race, the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse at the end of February, and Siegemaster set to carry top weight in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse tomorrow.

“Siegemaster is going to have a lot of weight,” says the trainer, “but he’s a classy horse and he’s in good form. All three horses are in good form.”

The Irish National has been kinder to Hughes than the Aintree showpiece, with Timbera having brought the prize back to Osborne Lodge in 2003. A similar result at either Aintree or Fairyhouse this week would do kindly.

© The Sunday Times, 4th April 2010