The final instructions trainer Dessie Hughes, who has died aged 71, gave to Conor O'Dwyer before the 2004 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham were for his jockey to make "plenty use" of their 33-1 outsider, Hardy Eustace, and exploit the horse's stamina.
But the words nagged at Hughes as he walked to the stands to watch the race. So his son, Richard, was sent scurrying back down to the track to find O’Dwyer and tell him to lead – but “not to go mad” – so that Hardy Eustace would last up the punishing final hill.
Ultimately the only ones who turned out to be mad were those who failed to back what was only the ninth Irish-trained horse ever to win the Champion Hurdle.
Hughes realised better than most that the instruction a jockey remembers best is usually the final one. He also knew better than most how to ride a Champion Hurdle winner, having himself ridden Monksfield to his second success in the race in 1979.
Hardy Eustace won a second championship himself in 2005, but it was that 2004 victory which placed Hughes in the most elite company, alongside legendary Englishmen
, as the only people to have ridden and trained a Champion Hurdle winner. It was also a day which typified much about him.
Hughes replaced Hardy Eustace’s set of blinkers in the parade ring because he thought the originals too garish. The quietly spoken Dubliner who spent much of his life on the Curragh was the antithesis of flash.
That his career made him one of the most enduring figures in Irish racing only reflected the quiet but resolute substance of the man: Hughes's thoughts after that 2004 success were dominated by the memory of Hardy Eustace's jockey Kieran Kelly, who had been killed in a fall just seven months previously, a tragedy which deeply affected him.
Hughes was never under any illusions about how hard racing could be.
As a struggling young jockey himself in Britain in 1966, he once spent three months in hospital with back injuries. Returning to Ireland, it was only in his late 20s that he became successful, teaming up with trainer
to win many prizes at the Cheltenham festival, including the 1977
on Davy Lad.
However it was Hughes’s association with Monksfield that remains the most memorable of his riding career for many racing fans, the little horse and the tall jockey on his back, memorably described by one racing writer as “lean, like a gunfighter, and as deadly”.
Hughes also experienced the full spectrum of racing fortunes when he turned to training in 1980. Initial success was followed by almost a decade of frustration caused by a fungal infection in his stables that sickened horses and almost forced him to give up.
Again however he persevered, re-establishing himself as one of the top National Hunt trainers in the country, and not just of horses. He was instrumental in moulding the careers of jump jockeys like Charlie Swan and Bryan Cooper, while his son, Richard, one of the top flat riders in Europe, was recently crowned British champion jockey for a third time.
What is remarkable is that a man whose life was so consumed by racing originally had no link with the sport at all.
Brought up in Whitehall in Dublin, he left school at 14 dreaming of a career as a jockey. Through perseverance and talent he realised that dream in the saddle, from a first winner as an 18-year-old on Sailaway Sailor at Tramore in 1962 to the pinnacle of Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle glory.
Understated and popular
He replicated that success as a trainer, succeeding in a famously competitive industry while in his quietly understated way remaining a hugely popular figure. “Dessie was one of the nicest people I’ve met in horse racing anywhere,” said his colleague and Curragh neighbour
this week. A spokesperson for Cheltenham racecourse, scene of his greatest triumphs, described him as “one of the kindest and most helpful in his profession” and a “thoroughly decent man”.
He is survived by his wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1968, their daughter, Sandra, and their son, Richard.