Hills strikes blow for uphill triers

The jockey who realised a Derby dream has an impressive string of rides for Ascot this week. Sue Montgomery reports
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The Independent Online
By winning the Derby last weekend, Michael Hills struck a blow for the grafters. Not every jockey is attached to a glamour stable with top horses to ride as of right, and Hills, like other freelances, has to work as hard at putting himself about as he does at actually getting his mounts to the finish line in front.

On the William Haggas-trained Shaamit at Epsom, he not only fulfilled his own dream, but kept one running for others. He said: "The people in the weighing-room who were really thrilled were the ones like me. It was success in the greatest race, the one everyone wants to win, by a horse from a small yard ridden by someone who is not one of the superstars. I've had ups and downs in my career, and got on with it, just like them. And they've realised if I can do it, so can they. It was a real boost for the middle order."

Despite being the son of a successful trainer, Hills, 33, has never had his career handed to him. Sixteen years ago his father, Barry, sent him and his twin brother, Richard, to serve their apprenticeships in Newmarket rather than at the family stables in Lambourn. Under the guidance of the late Jeremy Hindley, Hills became champion apprentice in 1983. He later left Newmarket to ride as stable jockey to his father at Manton, but after three years suffered the ignominy of being sacked. "It was a difficult situation, with pressure all round, particularly from owners. I did feel hard done by, but Dad has since said it was the making of me, and when I look back over what has happened I suppose I must agree."

Hills Snr, who has had five horses placed in the Derby without winning it, was one of the first to congratulate his son. "He doesn't say much," the jockey said, "but he didn't need to. He knew how I was feeling, and I knew he was so proud that one of us had finally done it."

After leaving Manton, Hills returned to the place that is the heart of racing, and began to rebuild his career. And in Newmarket he has forged two links - with Haggas and with Geoff Wragg - that have brought him his most prestigious moments. His friendship with Haggas goes back a long way; on his first morning with Hindley the new routine had him flustered and Haggas, the assistant trainer, volunteered to muck out one of his horses to get him back on schedule. Eight years later Hills repaid the favour by riding Haggas's first winner, Tricky Note. If the Derby is racing's showpiece, then Royal Ascot is the meeting where every jockey wants to shine. Hills and Wragg have teamed up to great effect over the past few years, winning a Gold Cup with Arcadian Heights, a Cork and Orrery with Owington, a Queen Anne with Nicolotte, and two King Edward VIIs with Beneficial and Pentire.

A week like this one, where no quarter is given on the track or behind the scenes, puts pressure on the men without retainers. In the wake of a colleague suffering accident - as Frankie Dettori did on Thursday - or suspension, the scramble to fill empty saddles would not disgrace the opening day of Harrods' sale. Hills said: "As a freelance, you tend to feel like a bit of a vulture, homing in on someone's misfortune. But you have to take advantage, it's business. I was suspended at York when Shaamit was going to run, and if he'd won the Dante with someone else on board, I probably would have lost the ride. We all feel for Frankie, but it could happen to me tomorrow. Which is one reason I feel so strongly about winning the Derby. It can't be taken away."

Hills has an enviable book of Royal Ascot rides, including the fancied Wragg pair of First Island (Prince of Wales Stakes) and Prize Giving (King Edward VII Stakes), and Royal Applause (King's Stand Stakes) for his father. Apart from the intense personal satisfaction his Derby tri- umph gave him, Hills has found it has given him a new level of respect. "I like to think I was already established, though of course the win makes me the man of the moment and puts me in peoples' minds. But there's more to it. Since the race I've spoken to a lot of extremely good jockeys, some retired, some still riding, people I really admire, who have never won it. They've asked me what it was like. And for men like them to ask me has really been quite humbling."