Racing: Jock Ewing of racing dynasty out to prove you're never too old for a Classic winner

The Interview - Barry Hills: A grand equine master still thrills to the main chance. Nick Townsend talks to a top trainer 25 years after his last taste of Guineas glory
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The Independent Online

A roofer sits astride a new stable block under construction at Faringdon Place, applying finishing touches. Amid the undulating contours, just outside Lambourn in Berkshire, the scene is slightly reminiscent of a homestead in the old Wild West. From below, Barry Hills, who still retains the exuberance of a pioneer despite having recently turned 67, surveys the scene approvingly. In a few days' time the construction will provide accommodation for another 17 horses. When full, it will be an addition to the three existing American barns, bringing the total of equine charges in Hills' establishment to well over 180, a number which only Sir Michael Stoute in Newmarket, Mark Johnston in Middleham and Mick Channon at West Ilsley can compete against.

It is evidence of Hills' enduring success. While others of his generation may be indulging themselves in retirement, Hills is intent on expanding his kingdom. Not only is he the, albeit early, leader of the trainers' table in prize money, Hills can boast one of the home-trained favourites for Saturday's 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, in the Sheik Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned Haafhd, the five-length Craven Stakes victor on the same course 10 days ago.

The showy chestnut colt in question, the equine equivalent of a rippling-muscled, six-packed, gym-hardened athlete, is led out of his box by his lad, "Snowy" Oulten. That is one of the enchanting facets of racing: that they still call you a lad when you are in your late seventies. "He's 79, I believe, and he still comes in, mornings and evenings, to help out and leads up runners at the races," says Hills of the loyal retainer. "He went to Newmarket with Haafhd and thinks the world of him. It would be a great feather in his cap if the horse can go on to win the Guineas."

So it would be for Hills if this son of Al Bahathri - that gutsy filly defeated by a nostril in the 1985 1,000 Guineas - could emulate Hills' previous 2,000 winner, Tap On Wood, a quarter of century ago when, at 20-1 and partnered by Steve Cauthen, he beat the exceptional Kris. A belief permeates the yard that this could be Hills' year again in the first colts' Classic, not least because of the trainer's post-Craven observation that Haafhd is the "best miler I have trained".

However, the years have also taught him to be circumspect. "You see, horses have days when they peak. It's like flowers in the garden," says Hills, who is something of an Alan Titchmarsh in his spare hours. "Some years, a plant will have its best year ever and it'll never be the same again. It's like when Rheingold won the Arc [in 1973, under Lester Piggott] for me. Rheingold was a good horse on any day. He was simply unbeatable on that particular day."

Some potential backers have contended that the Craven may have already been Haafhd's day. That the Guineas trial was run to suit him. That the pace was too slow. Hills has an indignant retort. "People write a lot of rubbish. No, it was a solid performance. I'd be the first to admit that he had an easy lead for three furlongs, but after that they quickened the pace up gradually and nothing could go with him. He had 'em flat and that was because he was so much better than they were. I don't think there was any fluke."

He adds: "When he first started doing fast work last year, we knew he was good. But they've actually got to do it on the racecourse. They have to have the heart and want to do it on the day - like my good horses, Rheingold and Further Flight and Distant Relative. Haafhd would have an excellent chance in the Guineas. But this is such an unpredictable game."

The 2,000 Guineas is now worth £300,000 to the winner, and potentially millions in stud value. This year's renewal appears particularly fiercely contested, with Aidan O'Brien's ante-post favourite, One Cool Cat, Dermot Weld's Grey Swallow, Godolphin's Snow Ridge, and David Elsworth's unbeaten Salford City in the field; along, of course, with Haafhd.

The colt's name - apparently Arabic for "protector" - is not the easiest name to get your tongue round. Hills' wife, Penny, refers to him as "Haffy", although you are not entirely certain whether she is referring to the Guineas horse or her husband, a man acknowledged, notably by himself, as being somewhat mercurial. One of his many stalwart owners, Dick Bonnycastle, named one of the stable's 1991 Derby runners, Mr Combustible, after him.

On this particular morning, there is maybe a slight world-weariness about Hills, but you are entitled to that when you attain his stature in racing. His ascendancy was not exactly silver-spoon stuff, either. Son of a head lad, he rode nine winners as an apprentice, then was head lad himself for 10 years at John Oxley's stables. In 1968 Oxley trained Frankincense, owned by Lady Halifax, to carry 9st 5lb to victory in the Lincoln. Hills could not let such an opportunity pass. He did what many would love to do: won a reported £40,000 on the race, sufficient to establish himself as a trainer in 1969. During 17 years at his former Lambourn base, South Bank, few major prizes escaped his grasp, except the Derby, which remains a frustration; he has had four runners-up.

Haafhd could possibly be a contender for the Epsom Classic. His breeding would tend to dictate against him possessing the required stamina, though Hills declares that "it's not out of the question".

He adds: "If all goes well and he wins on Saturday, I'd think it would be either the Derby, if Sheik Hamdan wanted to go that route, or the St James's Palace Stakes [over one mile at Royal Ascot]. If it was Epsom, this horse has a very laid-back, relaxed attitude, so that should help him get slightly further than he's bred to."

The name B W Hills soon became a formidable one on any racecard. In the mid-Eighties, he was lured to Robert Sangster's magnificent training centre near Marlborough, Manton, but returned to Lambourn in 1990 and, at Faringdon Place, set about creating one of the most impressive yards in the country. "Frankly, it was do this or pack up."

The place where it all began should perhaps have been named Southfork, given that Hills is the Jock Ewing of a remarkable racing dynasty, having sired five sons - by two wives - all thoroughbred racing men. The only difference is that flowing equine limbs, not oil, are their stock-in-trade.

Eldest son John is a trainer, also in Lambourn. The twins, Richard and Michael, are Classic-winning jockeys, with the former - retained by Sheik Hamdan - due to partner Haafhd on Saturday. Charles, Hills' elder son by Penny, is his assistant, together with Kevin Mooney, the former jump jockey who rode for the Queen Mother. George, at 21, is learning the stud business with the Coolmore operation.

"I've always said that they should do whatever they wish," Hills says. "There's been no pressure from me." But as they have followed him into the industry, he is well positioned to proffer advice. "I usually give them a bollocking. Never mind advice. They've got to do it right."

Hills likes to use a football analogy about his present role: the occasion when Brian Clough and Peter Taylor bought Dave Mackay from Spurs. It was said that the Scot was too old and couldn't run. It didn't matter. They just wanted someone in midfield to tell the others what to do.

"I'm the Dave Mackay, who gives the orders and make sure the job gets done," Hills says with a rueful smile. "I shall retire eventually - when I feel like it. Hopefully, Charles might be able to take it on. But I don't know. It's too early to say. I've still got a healthy appetite for the game. Although it doesn't get easier as you get older. It's still the survival of the fittest. It was like that when I started. It's still the same."

Earlier this week, Hills attended the funeral of his great friend and patron Robert Sangster, who died of cancer aged 67. "I knew him for 30-odd years and I trained more Group winners in England for him than anyone else did, including the Gold Cup twice with Gildoran," he recalls. "But we also had a lot of fun together. They don't produce people like him these days. He knew how to live - and he lived well. He liked to bet, he liked his horses and he liked all the people who went with it all."

Hills is renowned in the racing world, too, for his gambling prowess over the years. "I still bet, yes. Not often, but occasionally. Further Flight in the [1990] Ebor would be the last really big win I had. It's about the only thing left that's tax-free. I've got all these horses, and I know more about them than most people. So I have a slight edge. Why not make use of it and earn some pocket money?"

Like many trainers, he is chary about the genesis of betting exchanges. "I don't like their development, and I think it's unhealthy for the sport in general. I like to back a winner. I don't think anyone should be laying horses to lose." And one thing is for certain: that will be the last thing on his mind come Saturday.

BIOGRAPHY: Barrington (Barry) William Hills

Born: 2 April 1937.

Family: married to Penny, five sons from two marriages - John, Michael and Richard (twins), Charles and George.

Training career: started at South Bank, Lambourn, in 1969. Moved to Manton in 1986. Returned to Lambourn in 1990.

Career wins: estimated 2,400.

Classic wins: (8) - Irish Derby, 2,000 Guineas, Irish Oaks (x 2), 1,000 Guineas, Irish 1,000 Guineas (x 2), St Leger.

Other major wins include: Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, French St Leger, Ascot Gold Cup (x 2), Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Dubai Champion Stakes (x 2), Yorkshire Oaks, St James's Palace Stakes, Haydock Sprint Cup, Prix Ganay, Dewhurst Stakes (x 3), William Hill Sprint Championship.