The current focus on the racecourse is rightly on the Cheltenham Festival, which starts three weeks tomorrow, and beyond that the Grand National. But between the two great jumping meetings comes the start of the domestic Flat turf season, and one familiar weighing-room name will be absent this year. Richard Hills, first jockey to Hamdan al-Maktoum, yesterday confirmed his retirement, intending to end his 33-year career after the Dubai World Cup at the end of next month.
Hills, 49, started his career as an apprentice with the late Tom Jones in Newmarket in 1979. His first Group One win came in the 1990 Ascot Gold Cup on Ashal and those that followed worldwide included successes on such as Nayef, Mutafaweq, Haafhd and Almutawakel, in the 1999 Dubai World Cup.
The best horse he rode, though, was Mtoto, on whom he won the 1987 Prince Of Wales's Stakes, then a Group Two contest. As far as punters were concerned, he was something of a Marmite rider, with a sharp division of opinion over his skills. He was, though, a regularly effective judge of pace from the front, notably demonstrated by his trailblazing Queen Elizabeth II Stakes victories on Maroof and Summoner.
He notched 1,895 domestic winners, but was never champion; numerically, his best season was 98 three years ago, which put him 15th in the table and was his best total since 85 in 1997, the year he took over from Willie Carson as Hamdan's No 1. The last of his six Classic winners came three years ago in the 1,000 Guineas on his boss's Ghanaati, trained by his now-retired father, Barry.
Hills, whose twin Michael remains a jockey, is to stay with the sheikh's Shadwell operation, as an adviser on the bloodstock side. "No jockey could have ridden for a more loyal or supportive owner," he said. Silvestre De Sousa, with strong Maktoum family connections through the Mark Johnston yard, was easily the best-backed yesterday to replace him in the saddle.
At Navan yesterday, neither of the novice chase winners, Donnas Palm nor Lion Na Bernai, were judged Festival contenders by connections. In the Boyne Hurdle Mourad beat his better-fancied Willie Mullins stablemate Mikael d'Haguenet under a more positive ride than usual from Paul Townend.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Cats Eyes (5.00 Wolverhampton)
Took her maiden cosily from a subsequent winner, starts off in handicaps on a very fair mark.
Next best: Willie Hall (4.45 Carlisle)
Has switched between hurdling and chasing this season and has shown a better level of form so far over the smaller obstacles.
One to watch: Bumper winner Be All Man (Sheena West), who failed to get home over three miles last time, may yet have a profitable spring over hurdles, given a sharper test.