Friday 9th March 2012

TRAINER FILES – ALAN HILL

 

Alan Hill talks to Andrew Norman at Pointing South Midlands about his riding career, training set-up, Kingston Blount, and ambitions for the season.

 

“That’s a proper racehorse!” Hill remarks proudly, pointing to the cover of this season’s race planner, as we sit down at the kitchen table to begin the interview, “We always keep it facing upwards.” Start Royal - a prolific pointer trained by Hill - is pictured on the front of the book.

Hill was born and brought up on Woodway Farm, nestled at the foot of the Chilterns in the village of Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire.

His family have kept horses for several generations: “My grandfather rode in point-to-points when they wore original hunt kit. He actually beat the Prince of Wales one day in our Hunt race!”

Both of Hill’s parents and his sister rode numerous winners between the flags, so it was natural for him to get into the sport: “It was dead easy for me to get into. Although it was around me, I wouldn’t say I was driven into it at all. I loved it.”

“I always enjoyed hunting. Ponies didn’t seem to possess many brakes and they put the fear of god into me but I had two retired Pointers which were brilliant. You could slow them down or quicken them up and they jumped. I realised that horses were controllable and that’s when I really got the bug.”

Hill said he would set off in the evenings, around the 1,000 acres of land at Woodway on both the grass fields and gallops, pretending he was the hero jockey of the time, Ron Barry. After gaining experience schooling the old horses behind the ones his parents had in training, Hill had his first ride at the age of 16.

Hill went on to ride 98 Point-To-Point winners and 48 winners under rules in his career - no mean feat for someone well over 6ft tall and forced to keep below his normal weight.

“I was very fortunate to ride a lot of very good horses,” said Hill, who believes he would not have had the success he did as jockey had it not been for four trainers in particular. Hill said that each had influenced his riding career greatly at different stages:

“The first was Chris Loggin. He was retiring so offered me rides and suddenly I became South Midlands Area champion. He was the one who gave me the opportunity that I needed.”

“The second was Norman Mawle. He rang and asked me to ride a horse on May Bank Holiday Monday at Lowsonford. I had already committed to ride at Huntingdon that day in a Hunter Chase, having never ridden a winner under rules. The owner of the Hunter Chaser, who had booked me a month earlier, then decided to ride it himself so I quickly phoned Norman back and got the ride. I finished second on a horse called Ebor Lad. On the way home, I heard that the horse I was meant to ride in the Hunter Chase had won. I thought I was never going to get another chance to win a Hunter Chase but it turned out for the best because I had made the association with Norman Mawle, who I went onto ride some very good horses for.”

“The third was James Delahooke. When I won the Foxhunters on Elmboy (trained  by Norman Mawle) and beat Border Burg (trained by James Delahooke), he phoned me to ask if I could ride Jack Of All Trades – a horse who had fallen in all of his previous four races – at Towcester. I had to lose 7lb in the sauna the following day which I was stupid enough to do! It won, so that got me in the door with James. He had a serious team of Hunter Chasers.”

“The fourth was Bill Warner. He rang me one day and asked if I would ride a horse that was a bad jumper who had fallen or unseated in his last four runs, like Jack Of All Trades. I went to ride it and it won so that’s how I got my break with Bill.”

Three of Hill’s 48 winners under rules stay fresh in the memories of many race goers. The first was in 1985 when he won the Cheltenham Foxhunters aboard Elmboy. Two years later, Hill won the Aintree equivalent  with Border Burg, the horse second to Elmboy at Cheltenham.

Hill tasted Liverpool glory once more in 1995 on Sheer Jest, a horse he won a staggering 13 Hunter Chases with.

“All three were special because I won the amateur’s Grand National and amateur’s Gold Cup but Elmboy gave the greatest feel of talent.”

Norman Mawle’s gelding clocked a time just 1.8 seconds slower than the Gold Cup (won by Forgive And Forget), despite being eased down in the final strides.

“The whole week leading up to the race, I sat down with my Father and worked out a plan. We went through all the videos and form. Everything. The whole race went to plan – I wanted to be in the first two at the uphill ditch. I was. I wanted to kick off the hill. I did. It was the biggest thrill of my lifetime in terms of class. Elmboy was just pure class; that race gave me the best feeling I ever had from a horse.”

Some may think it strange for Hill, who had his final rides between the flags at Mollington on 18th May 1997, to end his racing career two short of his century and half centuries of Point and rules winners respectively. He says that reaching such milestones was unimportant to him: “I was 37 and I had gone through what I felt were my class horses. It’s a young man’s game. I didn’t want to go through trying to chase targets; it wouldn’t have been fair on my family.”

The ratio of riding nearly half the number of Hunter Chase winners as Point-To-Point winners is something of a rarity for a jockey. James Tudor, for example, has ridden 190 Point-To-Point winners and just 25 under rules (a 13% ratio).

Hill explains why he rode so many Hunter Chase winners: “My view was always loyalty. Nowadays it’s all governed by agents but if I was riding for someone’s yard then I was riding for their yard. James Delahooke would often send me to ride one horse in a Hunter Chase on a Saturday when I could have ridden four or five in a local Point-To-Point. Also, they’ve doubled the number of days racing now with Sundays so there are more opportunities to ride Point-To-Point winners. I wasn’t one who would chase rides; I wouldn’t say I was picky and choosy but I preferred quality to quantity.”

“At one stage, I was riding four of the top six rated horses in the country according to Mackenzie and Selby. It was an honour. That’s another reason why I had so many winners under rules.”

Hill calls on the skills of James Tudor, the National Point-To-Point Champion Jockey in 2007, whenever possible and praises the rider for taking a leaf out of his book: “I found that it paid to stay and ride for the people you rode for regularly in the long-term. That’s why James Tudor is great. We know that Evan Williams is his boss but he works on the same principles as I worked on and has stayed very loyal to me. There’s not enough of it nowadays.”

Taking the advice of his good friend, a certain Tim Vaughan (who rode out for Hill), Tudor contacted Hill on moving to Reading to embark on a university land management course. Hill comments that Tudor virtually slept on the sofa at Woodway Farm, working there for three years.

“Lawney (Hill’s wife) said early on that she thought he was going to be special. You could tell he was a very good horseman straight away.”

Tudor’s first ride for the yard was a winning one: “At the time, we were using Julian Pritchard and Rowan Cope. Rowan couldn’t ride Bolide Du Aunay for us at Mollington (February 2003) as he had committed to ride for Caroline Bailey. We rang the owners and asked their permission for James to ride. James won the race and funnily enough, Rowan was second.”

When Tudor left university, he became an assistant trainer with Evan Williams, where he rode out on each summer vacation. He still loyally travels long distances to ride for Hill throughout the Point-To-Point season.

“Evan and James have great respect for each other and they’re a great team. He’s been a great loss to our yard because he’s got the talent to just spark a horse up again. However, through the success of Lawney’s yard, the void has been filled as now professional jockeys come in to school.”

Hill became interested in the different methods of developing and training horses during his riding days as he observed the contrasting approaches of the trainers he rode for: “Norman Mawle was very old-fashioned, cantering along over 2 miles then quickening whereas Delahooke was modern with short, sharp work over 3 or 4 furlongs and worked them hard. Both fed their horses differently too but they always produced fit horses for me to ride.”

In partnership with Lawney, Hill dabbled in horse training: “We started by playing around with a horse called Lurgie, who was a winner, in the late 80s. That was as big a stepping stone as we’ve ever had.”

In 2001, just as they gained momentum - earning more horses in their yard through their training success in the Point-To-Point field - the foot and mouth outbreak hit hard. “We lost four or five good horses to professional trainers. The owners were quite right as they had got fit horses ready to run. We weren’t forward enough, sharp enough or probably big enough to go and get a professional license. It hurt a lot and it took a couple of years to get going again.”

After rebuilding the business, all changed again with the 2004 hunting ban at a time when Hill was a Master of Foxhounds. The search for a new way forward sparked the decision for Lawney to take out a training licence in 2005 - a wise one as her yard continues to build a strong reputation.

“I said let’s give it 5 years and see where we are. It was hard work but now we’re full, she’s got horses ready to come in. We now have two yards on the farm.”

While Lawney trains horses to run under rules, Hill consistently has around fifteen Pointers in for each season. He’s unable to decide on the best Pointer he has ever trained: “Two very similar horses, both winning at Cheltenham and second in the Foxhunters – Bon Accord and Mid Div and Creep. I would struggle to split hairs out of those two.”

In owning some of the horses that he trains, Hill has his own set of racing colours – red with a yellow cap. He laughs as he tells the story of how these colours were adopted: “My father and mother had racing colours. My father decided he wanted to run a horse called Possett in a Ladies race. The girl that was going to ride was ‘well-endowed.’ They had an old set of flat colours and there was no way she’d get into them!”

“I had been given a red polo-neck sweater for Christmas so I got it out of the cupboard. She wore it and the colours were red with a white cap. They were our colours for a few years.”

“I bought a horse called Hipster Lad. He won a Point-to-Point and was going to run in a Hunter Chase. When I tried to register colours, red with a white cap was taken and a yellow cap was the nearest I could get. The older I get, the more I appreciate that they are so visible! I don’t think anyone needs a pair of binoculars to see them! If I sold them, they’d probably be worth a fortune being a plain jacket and cap!”

Despite the demands of his land and business, Hill still finds time to care for his beloved Kingston Blount course.

“I spend far too many hours up there working on the course. Kingston Blount is not the best racecourse in the country but it’s a mile from home and has given this family a lot of fun. Of course we all want to win but the most important thing is fun.”

Hill explains the process that goes on at the track throughout the year:

“A racecourse isn’t like Christmas lights; it shouldn’t be put away then brought out of the cupboard for a month. The operation is 12 months of the year.”

“Within three days of the last meeting, the whole course has been taken down. It goes from what you see at the Berks and Bucks meeting back to a farmer’s field.”

“Straight away, as the fences are removed, we reseed all the bends, takeoffs and landings. The whole course is spiked, rolled and harrowed to get it dead level. It is given a light application of fertilizer and is properly sprayed to make sure all the weeds are removed. Throughout the summer, we constantly cut and top the grass to make it grow thick. In the autumn, it has more fertilizer and has a light spiking and roll. By November it goes into the dormancy stage.”

“In February we start putting the course up and more fertilizer is applied. That isn’t to make it look good for the first race day, after the first meeting the grass will be more resilient so it grows back quicker after the meeting.”

Hill walks the course at least once a day and it requires a large team effort to keep the track in the condition it’s in every year.

“It has full TLC. There is a nucleus of about eight of us and we all have varying roles. We’ve got a new numbers board this year. One of the team’s new members, Gordon, who was a civil engineer, has taken great pride this winter in replacing the old one that was falling to pieces. I think we might have to crack a bottle of champagne against the new creation on Saturday!”

 

Hill gives some detail on the horses he currently has in training:

 

BALLADEER     (14-y-o gelding)

 

“He didn’t come in until Christmas. He’s 14 now and he won four chases for Lawney earlier in his career so we owe him a massive amount. He loves running with 11st in Ladies races and won Emily Harbour the Leading Lady award in the South Midlands Area last season. He’s as enthusiastic as ever at home and hopefully he’ll run in April.”

 

BON ACCORD     (12-y-o gelding)

 

“He ran at Charing and was disappointing. We think it probably wasn’t quite his course and he came home with an overstretched back which we’ve put right now. He goes to Kingston at the weekend. When he was second in the Foxhunters, he may have taken a lot out of himself as he’s never recaptured that form. He’s been a great servant but he’s not getting any younger and how much more racing he does, we’ll see. Hopefully he will win again.”

 

DESCRIPTION     (10-y-o gelding)

 

“I was very, very impressed with him at Larkhill in one of the best Ladies races for years. Pleased with him at Haydock in the respect he did everything bar win. I haven’t thought further than the Foxhunters at Cheltenham. He’s worked seriously well recently. It’s the best he’s ever worked. We’re getting quite excited; he goes there with a fighting chance.”

 

FLY DIRECT     (9-y-o gelding)

 

“He’s been tubed. The horse was given to me after the owner lost patience and confidence with him. We took him to Charing the other day where he was second. He is a quirky horse but he’s learning to breathe with the tube. He’s no world beater but hopefully he’ll win a Maiden.”

 

HARBOUR COURT     (6-y-o gelding)

 

“He came to us with the thought of running in a bumper or going Pointing. He’s won two Points now and it’s been a pleasure to have him in the yard. He’s by Karinga Bay so he does have an opinion on life but he possesses a lot of speed.”

“He was very pleasing last year at Kingston. He won a Restricted at Charing with a time equal to the Mens and Ladies Opens and is very exciting. He’s entered on Saturday and the plan is probably another couple of Points and then he may go to Lawney’s yard to run in a bumper.”

“We’ve also got his full sister, who is unraced. She’s coming along in a very similar sort of way and is a year younger. Hopefully she’ll run in April but she may go straight home and not run.”

 

MONEY TREE     (6-y-o gelding)

 

“He’s been roughed off. He won a Maiden but then picked up an injury at home schooling and needs a few months off. The idea was to go summer racing with him but that is looking very unlikely. James likes him a lot because he can jump.”

 

MORE TROUBLE     (11-y-o gelding)

 

“He was getting ready to go early but had a training setback. He’s back in full work now and loves the top of the ground. His owner, Rodney, is a Point-to-Point fanatic. He’ll run between the flags. The highlight of his career was when third in the John Corbet. He’s won a Hunter Chase and 7 Points. He has to run in blinkers. If you’re out riding him and there is a tractor ploughing four fields away, he will watch it. He’s interested in everything.”

 

OCEAN DU MOULIN     (10-y-o gelding)

 

“He was brilliant fun last year and will run on Easter Saturday. We bought him from Ascot sales and he’s underrated. Gaby (Hill’s daughter) isn’t half as competitive as Joe (Hill’s son) but she loves the horse and rides him in an extraordinary relaxed way. Lawney’s desperate to get him into her yard but he’ll run in Points for Gaby to ride.”

 

RAVETHEBRAVE     (8-y-o gelding)

 

“He’s running in Points by mistake. The idea was for Lawney to have him in her yard but Joe didn’t have anything to ride and he’s fallen in love with him. He’s a lovely horse and jumping the smaller fences is doing him the world of good. He may go back into Lawney’s yard next year and all I’ll say is Joe is a lucky boy!

"He won well at Black Forest then got beaten fair and square by a serious machine (Earth Dream) at Cottenham. That’s Rhythm then beat him the other day, who won again at the weekend but I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of Ravethebrave yet.”

 

SADDLERS MELODY     (9-y-o gelding)

 

“We ran him at the weekend at Llanfrynach chasing the softer ground. He ran and jumped really well until five out but then went out like a light. We haven’t found out the problem. His jumping was very pleasing but we are disappointed he didn’t finish his race.”

 

SARAHS GIFT     (9-y-o gelding)

 

“He was a brilliant handicap chaser in Lawney’s yard, winning six. The handicapper got hold of him so I bought out my half share owner so that Joe can ride him. He’s had two thirds and will run in the South Midlands and adjacent areas. Hopefully, at some stage, we’ll win a race. He may run on Saturday in the Open.”

 

START ROYAL     (8-y-o gelding)

 

“When he was fourth at Barbury, we had one or two in the yard with a bit of a bug and he may have been one of them. Still, getting beat by Offshore Account giving 7lbs isn’t bad form on what he’s done since. His run at Leicester was brilliant, we were over the moon.”

“At Folkestone, once James came off the last bend and got to the rail, our horse quickened. The two took off together at the second last and Session or Ression unseating obviously made our cause easier but in James’s opinion, we’d have won anyway."

"We’ll probably go to Ascot on April 1st next. We could go for the John Corbet at the end of the season but it is 3m4f and he is slightly better going right-handed. It would be a bit of fun to go there.”

 

‘TARA’ (stable name)

 

“She’s a lovely big mare who hunted before she came here. She’s a fair way off a run but she’s tiggling along steadily.”

 

VIEL GLUCK     (9-y-o gelding)           (FOR SALE)

 

“He’s a definite winner and is for sale. Last year he was awarded a race at Cottenham in the steward’s room and then was beaten in a good Restricted by Findlay’s Find. He then beat Caught In Time so he’s run in two good races. He’s entered on Saturday. I would like to run him in a couple of Points and then he’ll probably go novice handicapping under Rules. His jumping, a big issue when he got here, has been sorted out through Pointing.”

 

WHAT’S UP DOC     (11-y-o gelding)

 

“He’s going to be a bit of an experiment. He won five flat, two hurdles and one chase for Lawney. He took off two strides too early at the open ditch at Stratford last year and wrenched his back. It took three to four months to get him right so we’re going to run him in Points to see if he can get his confidence back. He may then go back chasing. He’s entered in the Ladies Open on Saturday.”