Winning against the odds on and off the track

Winning against the odds on and off the track

THERE were two boys living next door when I was growing up, next door being a lose term when you live in the Irish countryside.

It was a five minute cycle in either direction if you wanted to go and play with them. On one side was a boy named Stephen. He was a wild, good-hearted, red-haired lad a year older than me with a passion for pushing the limits of what we could get away with.

On the other side was Richard Hughes. He was my brother’s best buddy, a mere eight years older than me, although, at that time in my life, those eight years may have well been 20. Richard stood out. It was kind of understood at the time that he was the coolest kid any of us had ever met.

First of all there was the fact that he appeared to be a grown-up while being a child. This was in part down to the fact that he was earning money hand over fist as Ireland’s champion pony racing jockey.

Pony racing took place at makeshift tracks on Sundays all across Ireland. It was big business with prize money and bookmakers attending. Richard and his pony “Chestnut Lady” were virtually unbeatable.

At 14 years old the guy was a self-made millionaire in our eyes. He was also hilarious and had an insane athletic ability. Victory in games of rounders was more or less decided by whether or not you were on Richard’s team.

Legend had it (my brother once told me) that Richard’s throwing ability was so great that he once threw a rotten peach 200 metres to accurately splat another youngster on the back.  Everyone, including Richard, knew that he could be a champion professional jockey someday but nobody knew how difficult the journey would be.

Choosing horse racing as a sport is crazy to me to start with. It might be the most extreme sport in the world. There is the prospect of losing your life every single day that you’re involved even if you’re just a stable lad.

Most people will leave the sport penniless and broken but it’s addictive like no other. The jockeys push their bodies to the limit of its capabilities and beyond just to have the chance to take part, just to make the insane weight required to sit in the saddle.

I didn’t know about Richard’s struggle until I read his book, A Weight Off My Mind. I knew he was 5'11''. I knew that that made being a jockey tricky. His career had shifted to England during my teens and all I ever saw was the winners he rode on Channel 4 after school.

The book is regarded by many as one of the best sports books ever written. Its honesty is shocking and unlike anything you will ever read. The opening chapter is a shocking account of him taking a dozen diuretic pills with two bottles of champagne in an effort to dehydrate his body enough to make the weight required for a race at Ascot.

Despite collapsing in a portable toilet as the pills took effect, he gathers himself and still rides in the race. In gruesome detail the book explains that racing didn’t make him an alcoholic, it gave him a way of explaining it away.

His rise and fall and rise again is more inspiring than anything you will ever hear. His achievements in life, just as in sport, are incredible. His best friend texted me on his phone number and I arranged to meet him.

More than 28 years from the time when he was just the guy who lived next door, Richard Hughes, the reigning British flat racing champion jockey since 2012, the man responsible for more than 2,000 winners and considered one of the most stylish jockeys ever, sat down with me.

In his car at Kempton racecourse we had a conversation about how cunning and despicable alcoholism is as an addiction, how he survived it and how he knows that it’s still inside him.  He told me about the conversation he had with a friend in a London pub that changed everything and made him get help, and how his wife Lizzie stuck by him through it all.

Most people fight this battle in private. Richard chose to share it so that it might give others hope or the courage to get help. Have a listen to it first-hand. It feels like we all have a responsibility to hear it.

Listen to Richard Hughes on An Irishman Abroad, available for free on iTunes