Professional sport is not participating, it is winning

The simplest article or column in the world that I can write concerns my former profession and those who participate in it. As the season draws to a close in the UK today, leaving only the Punchestown extravaganza next week to conclude the Irish one, I should write about Northern Ireland’s last man to reign master in the UK.

Instead of just writing about Brian Hughes, my words and thoughts also go out to his English counterpart Josh Moore, who is now traveling a polar route opposite to Hughes, having started the same journey 12 months ago.

At the end of the 2020/2021 season, both men had the opportunity to be optimistic for the upcoming season. Brian went full steam ahead to reclaim his jockeys’ title from Harry Skelton, and Josh had just had the best season of his career with 40 winners and was reportedly optimistic that that total would improve.

However, this is where their journeys separated, as the only certainty in the life of a jump jockey – injuries – took hold of Josh.

Brian had a summer of AP McCoy-style winners and, from September, was on course to become the fourth jockey in UK racing history to mount 200 winners in a season.

Regaining his title was a foregone conclusion once he avoided injury and, from halfway through the season, it was a question of how many winners he would ride.

A concussion had cut Josh’s summer short, but he was back to start the best class run in the fall, only to have Botox Has crash into a rookie Plumpton chase, leaving him in need of surgery on his T4 T5 vertebrae. He spent six days waiting in a crowded Covid hospital before six hours of surgery which sidelined him until the end of January.

Being a National Hunt jockey and therefore an eternal optimist, he must surely have sensed that a new year would bring new fortunes and his return was announced as such. Botox delivered in Fontwell’s National Spirit Hurdle and when your home is the southeast, winning the southeast’s greatest race is sweet.

Meanwhile, Brian’s relentless pursuit of winners showed no signs of slowing as he scrambled through the north of England and Scotland, racking up the miles and ticking off the winners.

The champions, of which he is a part, have this streak. Professional sport is not about competing, it’s about winning, and he’s shown his ruthlessness at times throughout the season.

The big spring events have escaped him, but only because of the lack of high-level horses housed in the stables for which he rides. These yards must cut their fabric to size. That could mean being at Sedgefield where he could ride winners rather than being a participant at Cheltenham. In this case, that’s where it was at: working, winning, maximizing opportunities with ambition, consistency and talent.

Champions should set the standard, and others should admire it and see what they need to do to achieve it. AP McCoy set a standard for everyone in my generation to follow, Richard Johnson continued it, and Brian Hughes is setting it now.

This afternoon his final total will be decided, but I like to see someone working tirelessly through a season, totally focused on one goal.

No one can control how much luck you need, in terms of injuries, to achieve your goals in horse racing. You hope you get that. So, as Brian chased his 200th winner this week in Perth, his mind will have been drawn to Aintree, not the racecourse but the University Hospital, as Josh’s luck ran out last Saturday at Haydock.

The Moores are the kind of people every community needs, and Josh Moore is reminiscent of his dad, Gary.

Last weekend, a brutal fall in the veterans pursuit at Haydock left Josh with a broken femur, punctured lung, broken ribs and back damage. A team at Aintree University Hospital operated on his leg, but complications from a lung infection now see him ventilated and in intensive care.

His history with the injuries shows me he’s just as tough as his old man, and I know he’s kind, polite and accommodating, just like Gary. For the first time this season, he needs a break, and it’s a break anyone would give him if they could. News and reports suggest he needs every moment of his resolve, and Lady Luck must find her way alongside Josh.

The Moores hope that a son, brother, uncle and brother-in-law – just your regular person – can get through the biggest fight he’s ever faced, and the shadow of Josh Moore will linger in the mind of all National Hunt fans today at Sandown.

The Hughes family will rightly visit Esher, proud of their son, husband and father. From learning on the Curragh with Kevin Prendergast to winning the championship in front of no one two years ago, Brian has made his way to where he is now.

He’ll be thanking more people than he needs today and diverting a lot of his thoughts to Liverpool. There have been no trumpets or moans – pomp and ceremony are none of his business – but there will have been plenty of down days and self-doubt that will make today feel like it was all worth it the penalty.

An average man will step onto the podium and receive all the applause, hoping that another average man, just like him, will soon become his colleague again.

It’s a day of celebration and fear: the extremes of what a jockey’s life can be like.

Sara R. Cicero