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Dessie Hughes

Dessie Hughes’ daughter Sandra spoke about her dad at his funeral on Tuesday. She spoke about his ethos: get up early, work hard, be kind to people. That was Dessie Hughes. Kind to people.

Dessie’s achievements are recorded in racing’s annals, indelible marks in the history of racing. He rode Bit Of A Jig to win the World Hurdle in 1976. He rode Davy Lad to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1977. He rode Chinrullah and Tip The Wink and Mac’s Chariot and Parkhill and, of course, he rode the little thunderball that was Monksfield to win the Champion Hurdle in 1979, and to win a Welsh Champion Hurdle and three Templegate Hurdles at Aintree.

As a trainer, Dessie sent out Hardy Eustace to win back-to-back Champion Hurdles, in 2004 and 2005, and he prepared Our Conor for his devastating win in the 2013 Triumph Hurdle. He trained other Cheltenham Festival winners Miller Hill and Oulart, and he won most of the top races on the Irish National Hunt racing calendar, including the Irish Grand National with Timbera and the Irish Arkle with Schindlers Hunt.

What isn’t recorded in racing’s annals is the type of person that Dessie Hughes was. Nowhere does it mention his kindness, his regard for people, his generosity, his honesty. Always thinking about others.

We got a sense of it in the tributes that were paid to him during the week. Ruby Walsh said that Dessie was a gentleman, someone he always respected. Willie Mullins said that he was a professional in every sense. Barry Geraghty spoke of the impact that he had on the careers of many youngsters, trying to gain a foothold in racing. Nicky Henderson said that he was a lovely man, that it was always a joy to be in his company. Aidan O’Brien said that he was a special person, liked and respected by everyone.

Nothing was ever too much trouble for Dessie. Requests for interviews were always accommodated. He was a giver, always generous with his time, always happy to sit at his kitchen table and chat about his horses, always willing to put up with a journalist as he followed him around his yard, pestering him with inane questions. He didn’t seek the exposure, didn’t necessarily want the publicity, he just put up with it because he wanted to help, because that’s the type of person he was.

Every year in recent years in the lead up to the Cheltenham Festival, he agreed to sit on a panel that would preview the Festival. Every year he made the journey, he and Eileen, gave up his evening, gave up his time during one of the busiest periods of the year, usually coming straight from the races. And every year, quietly and without fanfare, he gave his fee for the evening to charity.

You rarely saw Dessie without Eileen, rarely saw Eileen without Dessie. Sandra spoke on Tuesday of the closeness of their family, of the four of them together. Eileen would ask Dessie, why do you love me? For your sense of humour, Dessie would say. Dessie would ask Eileen, why do you love me? For you kindness.

That family bond was often in evidence too when son Richard spoke after big-race wins. The three-time champion jockey often cited the impact that his dad has had on his career, of the path he cleared, the advice he gave. The start of a race is as important as the finish. Why would go around the outside when the shortest route is along the rail? The last jockey to go for his whip usually wins the race.

You can see all of it in Richard’s riding.

When Richard was once again crowned champion jockey in Britain on 8th November, he dedicated the championship to his dad.

And Richard’s was not the only fledgling rider’s career on which Dessie Hughes had a profound impact. Tom Morgan and Charlie Swan were early protégées, and Dessie had enough faith in the late Kieran Kelly to entrust the ride on Hardy Eustace in the 2003 Sun Alliance Hurdle to him. It was a faith that was repaid in spades by the rider, so tragically killed in a fall at Kilbeggan just five months later. Dessie was also one of the first people to recognise the talents of Bryan Cooper, and to give him the early opportunity that was the fuse that lit the young rider’s sparkling career.

Of course, Dessie himself had been there. On Tuesday, in front of the packed church, David Egan, Dessie’s 15-year-old grandson, read out a letter that the 15-year-old Dessie had written to his mother just after he had arrived at Willie O’Grady’s yard in County Tipperary in 1958.

The whole thrust of the letter appeared to be to assure his mother that everything was okay, to put her mind at ease. The food is good, we get a fried egg for breakfast. We’re up at 6.30, but we are off between 1.00 and 3.00. I’m sharing a room with two other boys, it’s a nice room, with a sink and a wardrobe. And they are Catholics.

Even then, Dessie Hughes was thinking about others.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd November 2014