Racing: 215th Derby: Wind of change blows in from Hills: Greg Wood meets a trainer shaking off aged stereotypes

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LOOK through the drawings and cartoons inspired by more than 200 years of Derbys on the Epsom Downs, and one image remains constant. Monarchs and fashions rise and fall around him, but the winning trainer remains oblivious, with his military posture, superior tweeds and the paunch of late middle-age. Yet as racing approaches the 21st century, its most enduring stereotype could finally be under threat.

The recent Derby victories for Peter Chapple-Hyam and Roger Charlton were the first gusts of the wind of change. Both are young, articulate and unaffected. Mark Johnston's success with Mister Baileys in the 2,000 Guineas was the latest important strike for the emerging generation of trainers, and another blow for the Newmarket establishment - all three handlers are based away from Headquarters.

The trend may gain further momentum this afternoon. Chapple-Hyam and Johnston both saddle fancied runners, but neither will arrive at Epsom with more youthful optimism than John Hills, who trains Broadway Flyer in the National Hunt heartland of Lambourn. Broadway Flyer has been near the top of the Derby market since his easy five-length success in the Chester Vase four weeks ago, while his stable also houses Wind In Her Hair, third- favourite for Saturday's Oaks. After just seven years with a licence, and from a muster of just 45 horses, Hills is five minutes away from greatness.

The pressure and scrutiny which attach to a serious Derby contender can be an irritant for more established trainers, but as he watched his Classic runners at exercise last week, Hills was clearly enjoying every moment. 'You've got to, because you don't get in this position very often,' he said. 'You train away with moderate horses going here, there and everywhere, and then you have two good ones, with all the build-up and excitement. It's like a tennis player getting to the final. If you're Martina Navratilova and you get to the final now and don't win, you're disappointed, but the first time you ever get to the final you're delighted just to be there.'

When Hills took out his licence in 1987, his father Barry had been training with great success for almost 20 years and his younger twin brothers, Michael and Richard, were established jockeys. Yet this was not cosy, nepotistic baton-passing from one generation to another, and the 26- year-old had to struggle like any other new handler.

'It's certainly a bonus to start off with a name that people can associate with,' he said, 'but you have to go at your own pace, tell yourself not to panic and stick with it. My father's philosophy is that he had to do it the hard way, so he's always tended to leave us to our own devices. If you rang up with some silly question, you'd get the short answer. It's the right way really, you have to find out for yourself.'

After an apprenticeship which included experience on three continents - with John Gosden in California, Colin Hayes in Australia and his father and Tom Jones in Britain - Hills began with a mixture of handicappers and maidens, and one lame reject from his father's new yard at Manton, a filly called Guest Performer. 'I left her in the box for two weeks, she came out and never stepped lame again in her life.' Later that year, Guest Performer won Hills his first Group race, the Kiveton Park Stakes at Doncaster, in his first season in charge.

There was to be no meteoric rise to the top, however, and Hills appreciates the long-term benefits of careful progress and consolidation. 'You can put too much pressure on yourself too early but there's no hurry, and if you expand too quickly you can't build up the infrastructure, like the lads, which makes the whole thing tick. You end up with strangers working around you.'

The emphasis on familiarity extends to the riding arrangements, and Hills will give his brother Michael the leg-up in the paddock this afternoon. 'I've got a lot of confidence in him and I can read between the lines when he's talking to me,' Hills said. 'There's going to be a big field and a strong gallop, and the outsiders will try for their moment of glory, so the danger is you get stuck behind one of them.'

The Derby and Oaks are notable omissions from Barry Hills's big-race collection - he has saddled four runners- up, but does not have any entries this year. Should his son succeed at the first attempt, 'I don't think there'd be anyone more pleased,' but the obvious irony has not been discussed.

Nor has Hills - who admits to about 10 bets each season - taken the 33-1 on offer about his runners for the Derby-Oaks double. To a young trainer with a scent of the big time, some things are more important than money. 'I just couldn't have enough on,' Hills says, 'to make it in any way equal to what it would mean to me personally.'

(Photograph omitted)

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