The Derby: Downs and ups of Epsom nearly man

The veteran trainer Barry Hills has won many great races, but Derby success has eluded him by the narrowest of margins

In over half a century of trying, Barry Hills has had ample opportunity to imagine how it would feel to win the Derby. Indeed, for two or three deluded minutes in 1978, he knew exactly, being convinced that Hawaiian Sound had held the late challenge of Shirley Heights.

The colt's owner, the late Robert Sangster, never forgot how the colour drained from his trainer's face when the judge announced the result of the photo finish. They had watched from either side of the winning post. "Bad luck, Barry," Sangster said when they found each other. "Just beaten." Hills looked at him in astonishment. "Don't be silly," he said. "We've won."

Just as he was squeezing through the bars, then, he was ruthlessly dragged back into purgatory. Six years earlier, Hills had saddled Rheingold. This colt went on to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe the following year, but at Epsom he was foiled in another desperate finish. It took perhaps the most venomous ride of Lester Piggott's career to get Roberto home by a short-head.

Hills has since had two more colts finish second in the Derby, and several others finish third and fourth. Even in his very earliest days on the Turf, as a mere stableboy whose fancy to be a jockey yielded just nine apprentice winners, its greatest race had already singled him out for torment.

In 1955, he was groom to the Derby favourite. Running in a match at Newmarket, Acropolis was left on his own when his only rival ran off the track after a furlong. Anxious that his mount did not duck out, too, Doug Smith rode Acropolis so vigorously that the colt broke the track record - and jarred his shins. "So we couldn't work him before the Derby, and he came up short," Hills recalled this week.

He was seated in an elegant drawing room, spry and dapper. Now in his 70th year, he has never been a big man - his twin sons, Richard and Michael, have been able to carve out successful careers as Flat jockeys - but nor has he ever lacked presence, having for many years had gravel in his voice and brimstone in his temper.

This patriarch of the modern Turf might not be an obvious object of pity. Through the windows his neat gardens, with their balustrades and fountains, lead towards the primal sweep of the Lambourn Downs. The first winner he trained was La Dolce Vita, at Thirsk in April 1969, and nearly everything that has happened since has lent that name perfect aptness.

Yet Hills is well qualified for the support of neutrals when he returns to Epsom on Saturday. Horses being so unpredictable, racing is even more vulnerable than other sports to the deception that destiny will ultimately reveal some hidden, romantic pattern. The cruel likelihood is that Hills will just have to endure another near miss with Olympian Odyssey, who has already shown Classic calibre by finishing third in the 2,000 Guineas but must now discover the stamina for another half-mile. On the other hand, perhaps his infernal fortunes at Epsom will be relieved - just months after a blunt reminder of his mortality.

Hills has had throat problems for a couple of years now, but during the winter they became much more serious. The legacy of his treatment is not only an inability to bark but also, seemingly, a reduced propensity to bite. In fairness, much of that reputation was caricature: one of his Derby runners, a few years ago, was christened Mr Combustible. Equally, if his mellow side is nowadays more evident, there has been no erosion of his competitive steel. It is very rare to find such perennial consistency in an ageing trainer.

"Probably the result of being so miserable and grumpy," Hills said, with a half-hearted grunt. "I always believed you could do whatever you want if you want it badly enough. I have had 2,800 winners but the next one is always harder to get. And whatever the kids did, it wouldn't be good enough. There'll be a time when [my son] Charles will take it over and then I'll stay in the background. He has had a very good grounding. He gets a fairly rough time of it here, but he's quite laid-back. Don't know where he gets that from."

Hills followed his own father - apparently not terribly laid-back, either - into racing but it was only one of the most celebrated betting coups of modern times that enabled him to start training himself. He was working for John Oxley when he backed Frankincense to win £64,000 in the 1968 Lincoln Handicap. "A lot of money in those days," he mused. "We backed him from 66-1 to 5-1 favourite, though I think he drifted back to 8-1 on the day. He was a certainty. He worked on Side Hill in Newmarket one day and beat the others out of sight. You didn't need to see any more. We toured round bookmakers' shops putting small bets on everywhere."

Since then Hills has won Classics at home and abroad. He has produced champion sprinters and champion stayers. He won the Jockey Club Cup five years running with the same horse, Further Flight. He salvaged Sangster's historic training estate at Manton before, already in his sixties, building a state-of-the-art complex of his own back in Lambourn. There remains just that one glaring omission, but he remains bewitched, rather than exasperated, by the Derby.

"It has always been an ambition to win it before I pack up," he said. "We should probably have won it already. We were unlucky with Rheingold, when Piggott beat us after the usual rider had been jocked off. On his day he was probably the best I have ever trained. And when Bill Shoemaker rode Hawaiian Sound - well, the horse didn't quite stay the trip, but he came off the rails to block Remainder Man and that let Shirley Heights through on the inside. I thought we'd won. I knew Rheingold had got beat, but I thought we had won that time. It wasn't the plan to make the running, and I'm not sure the jockey could hold him."

Olympian Odyssey's owner, Bill Gredley, is not a reticent man and is tempted by the alternative of the French Derby, which is run over a shorter distance on Sunday. But it would be cruel indeed to deprive Hills of the chance to bring his own odyssey to an end. Having said that, Hills is grateful that Gredley favoured the Guineas instead of a Derby trial at York.

"If I had had my way, he'd have run in the Dante Stakes instead but as things turned out the ground was awful at York, so I'm glad he didn't," Hills said. "He has had a very good preparation - touch wood, he hasn't missed a day all year - and looks magnificent. He does have this wonderfully laid-back attitude. I'm sure he'll get the trip. He gives himself every chance of doing so, because he'll always help you, he's never against you. He'll be able to get his spot in the race. You never know, he could be the shot."

If Hills belongs to the old school - lamenting how stable workers were better in the old days, how betting was better, how life at the races was more fun - nobody should forget that his is a story of breakthrough. He joined the Establishment by changing it. Having been a nameless grafter 51 years ago, leading a Derby favourite through the popular chaos on the Downs, he will leave an indelible dynastic mark. The twins, from his first marriage, have both ridden Classic winners; John, from his second, is already training and Charles is to follow, with young George also in the wings.

"There are times when only the plants in the garden and a glass of wine will keep you sane," he said. "But if I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it. I've set the kids standards, and left them to do it. You've got to lead from the front. It's been a good life. I wouldn't swap it for the world. You would be hard pushed to name the big races I've not won. I haven't been very lucky at Epsom.

"But it's gone. Under the bridge. Might write a book some day. I'd call it Climbing The Hill. Be a few stories to tell, but I haven't the time just yet."

Barry Hills' four near misses in the Derby

Rheingold (1972)

Lester Piggott, on Roberto, rode one of his strongest finishes to beat Rheingold by a nostril. With Rheingold hanging badly, Ernie Johnson pushed his mount with hands and heels only while Piggott used his whip fiercely to force Roberto ahead in the final strides. Had Rheingold won, he might have been disqualified for bumping Roberto 300 yards out.

Hawaiian Sound (1978)

Bill Shoemaker, riding in his first Derby, made the running and was caught only on the line by Shirley Heights. Though his tactics were improvised, the American champion was widely hailed for judging the pace perfectly and his mount only just failed for stamina. On the other hand the winner gained a clear run only because Hawaiian Sound was pulled off the rail.

Glacial Storm (1988)

Beaten in both his trials that spring, Glacial Storm was sent off at 14-1 but he was always prominent and took up the lead halfway down the straight. Ridden by the trainer's son, Michael Hills, he was collared inside the final furlong by Kahyasi - but the winner was well on top at the line, winning by a length and a half.

Blue Stag (1990)

His trainer's fourth Derby runner-up - owned, like Hawaiian Sound and Glacial Storm, by Robert Sangster - could hardly be described as unfortunate, as Quest For Fame beat him by three lengths. But his rider, Cash Asmussen, did set him a lot to do, being anchored at the back as the field rounded Tattenham Corner, over six lengths behind the eventual winner.

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