It takes two to make a triumph. Harry Skelton will be rightly lauded as he accepts the jump jockeys’ championship at Sandown Park today, but spare a thought for Brian Hughes, whose relentless efforts and untiring excellence has taken his defence of last year’s title into the final week of the nine-month season.
What’s more, the way that he and Skelton have conducted themselves has confirmed this as one of the most uplifting as well as most arduous duels in sport. Since riding in the Grand National, in which Skelton was sixth and Hughes fell at the first, they have motored the length and breadth of the country to compete in up to seven races a day on drying ground and often deteriorating horses. Sometimes separately, mostly together, they have battled round at Sedgefield, Southwell, Bangor, Exeter, Ludlow and Perth without a touch of rancour. Not in the great arenas — and much more for the glory than for the £10,000 winning prize — have the two athletes in their thirties, whose whole working lives have been sustained by the dream of having “Champion Jockey” attached to their name, competed.
For Skelton it is also the fulfilment of a unique family achievement. More than 90 per cent of his 151 winners have been supplied by his brother, Dan, from the training centre that they have developed on the land bought by their showjumping legend of a father, Nick.
It was only seven seasons back that Dan started and many doubted the wisdom of entrusting all the riding to his younger sibling, whose early success had dwindled to only eight winners the previous term. No family faith was ever better justified and you can be sure that when Harry says that the proudest day of his life was when his father won a gold medal in Rio, the compliment will be reciprocated when father and sons stand on the podium this afternoon.
At 31, Harry has made himself into a formidable rider. He has harnessed a deep understanding of horsemanship with a strong work ethic and competitive drive endemic in a trophy-winning family, which includes his wife, Bridget Andrews, a fellow jockey. There are still times when his commitment can get the better of him, but the link with his brother brings a confidence no other trainer/jockey partnership can hope to match.
To make this afternoon’s ceremony even more exceptional, the trainers’ title will go, for the 12th time, to Paul Nicholls, mentor to Dan and Harry and whose easy openness has rubbed off on his two protégés.
“I’m not going to stand here and say it’s been easy,” Harry said when the title was finally certain on Thursday night. “It’s been a battle and there is a lot of thought that has gone into it, but I’ve had people around me to help me cope and I’ve enjoyed it.”
It’s been a battle without bitterness and it’s ironic that what had originally been seen as Harry’s single stable disadvantage has turned in his favour as the Skelton firepower has far exceeded anything in Hughes’s locker. Since Harry first took the lead with a treble at Southwell last Tuesday, he has ridden 23 favourites to his rival’s nine. Last year Hughes became the first northern-based jockey in 40 years to take the title and it had been assumed that his dominance of that circuit would outgun the Skelton team. But despite riding for 38 separate trainers, Hughes has not been able to hold on in a season where he has been on only two horses with a Racing Post rating above 150, compared with 16 for Harry.
Disaster has been equally shared, Skelton crashing out at the last on 1-4 shot Interconnected at Bangor on Monday just as Hughes had done a day earlier on Wetlands at Ayr. Hughes, 35, rides in a quieter, neater style than Skelton, much more like the Flat-race jockey he originally was in his native Ireland. But he has great feeling for the horse and well-deserved last year’s title.
It will not feel like it for Hughes but in truth what has happened over these past few arduous days has been a triumph for him and Skelton, and most of all for the sport that they now adorn.