TRAINER TALK: ALAN HILL

by Jake Exelby

THE WIZARD OF WOODWAY

Having had a share of a horse in training at Woodway Farm for the past three seasons, I’ve got to know Alan Hill, wife and professional trainer Lawney and their children Gaby and Joe – a leading point-to-point jockey – quite well. Indeed, when I first suggested a more formal interview for the Trainer Talk series, Alan dismissed the idea with the words: “You already know everything about me.” However, I persevered with the intention and a day spent on with them watching the horses enlightened me far more than I could have imagined.

As a regular racegoer at point-to-points for the past 25 years, my own early memories of Alan Hill were as a jockey long on elbows, effort and effectiveness and short on style. And that he gave up the inside to no one! Since his retirement in 1997, he and Lawney have gradually built up their yard into one of the most powerful establishments in the sport of point-to-pointing, culminating in his winning the National Trainers Championship for the first time last season, with a total of 27 wins.

But I didn’t get to know Alan Hill the man until three years ago and didn’t really delve into his background until my recent visit. Born in 1959 and brought up at Woodway Farm in the Oxfordshire village of Aston Rowant, he was the first Hill son in five generations not to be named Joe (something he rectified on the birth of his own son. All his family have ridden. “My grandfather used to ride in races in full hunting kit,” he recalled, “In the days when they really did ride from point to point. One year he beat the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII of Wallis Simpson renown) in the Hunt Race at long defunct Stoke Talmage.”

Alan’s father – Joe, obviously – and mother Sheila both rode in races in the 1950s and early 1960s. Their best horse was Alfalfa, named after the crop, on whom Sheila rode several winners and Joe rode to finish fourth in the Cheltenham Foxhunters. Apparently it was the horse, rather than his female jockey, who initially caught Joe’s eye! Elder sister Tina, who now lives in Devon, also rode winners – “like my daughter Gaby (who no longer race-rides but still events) she did it for a while then moved on” – but it was Alan who proved to be the most enduring and successful of the family jockeys.

Alan is well known in the sport for his three Foxhunters winners – at Cheltenham in 1985 on Elmboy and at Aintree in 1987 on Border Burg and 1995 on Sheer Jest – but how did it all start? “I was supposed to have my first ride in 1975 at the age of 15 – you could ride that young in those days,” he reminisces. “But the horse got injured, so I had to wait until 1976. I rode Dad’s horse Possett in a Mens Open at Tweseldown. There were 27 runners, something else you wouldn’t see nowadays. He gave me a nice safe ride and we pulled up two out. Chris King won the race – he’s ended up being one of my best mates.”

The fledgling jockey had three further outings on Possett that season, all in Mens Opens, with his best finish being second at Kimble. “There weren’t any novice riders races at the time, so we tended to ride in Opens, as it wasn’t a good idea to put an inexperienced jockey and a green horse together! Also, opportunities were limited. There were five-race cards, the season lasted from mid-February until the end of May and there was no Sunday racing.”

Which is probably why it took Alan until 1979to ride his first winner. “Dad wouldn’t let me even take an outside ride for two years. He wanted me to learn from the bottom – first leading up his horses, then riding them. He thought I’d give up and go and play rugby, but luckily I hated rugby.” That first winner came, but unfortunately he soon lost the ride. “The horse fell with me at Lockinge and I was blamed! But wouldn’t have won the race anyway – we were taking on Water Sport, who was one of the leading horses that season.

It was a gradual climb, rather than a meteoric rise, then, for the young Alan Hill. “I was stupid enough to take any spare ride going, but I gradually built up my contacts and started riding better horses,” he admits. Someone to whom he remains grateful is fellow trainer Chris Loggin. “It was 1981. Chris was due to ride Royal Roussel at Kimble but he fell in the first race so I took the mount. I started riding more and more for Chris and his father so not only was I riding more regularly, but I was winning and getting placed, so I was getting noticed more.”

So how did the connection with Elmboy come about? “His owner-trainer Norman Mawle had a horse called Ebor Lad, who would run on concrete. I was riding it one baking hot day at the old course at Lowsonford and we finished second – Norman and the other owners were delighted, as they’d had a huge bet on me to finish second to the favourite!” As a result of that, Alan was given the ride on another Mawle horse, Just Once, and was then told about “a young horse for you to take hunting”. That young horse was, of course, Elmboy. The pair won three Hunter Chases in 1984, including the Audi Grand Prix de Chasse at Sandown, in preparation for their tilt at Cheltenham in 1985 where, as Alan indelicately puts it, “we pissed up!”

Border Burg was owned by bloodstock agent James Delahooke, who bought the brilliant Dancing Brave for Khalid Abdullah. To draw a parallel for younger pointing fans, he was the 1980s equivalent of John Ferguson, with a stable full of top-class point-to-pointers to go with the flat race blue-bloods he paid vast sums for. “I first rode for James in 1984 on Jack Of All Trades,” recalls Alan. “I was supposed to ride the horse at eleven stone – in those days you had to weigh out with everything, including a body protector – and even eleven and a half was a struggle. I spent the whole morning in the sauna and lost eleven pounds. I couldn’t see clearly, everything was cloudy, but I still won the race.”

“He was the best trainer I ever rode for,” continues Alan. “His horses were the fittest and best-presented. A lot of what we do now – lots of fast, short galloping – is based on what I learnt from James.”

And what about his second winner over the Grand National course, Sheer Jest? “My first ride for owner Bill Warner was a ‘spare’ at Cottenham,” he admits. “I used to get asked to ride a lot of bad jumpers as I had the reputation as someone who could get them jumping properly. My technique was to let the fence come to the horse, doing things quietly, without frightening my mount.” But his first outing on Sheer Jest caused a rift with his wife. “We were meant to go to David Loder’s wedding that day,” Alan confesses, “but I was always going to go to the Oakley to ride Sheer Jest and Wall Game, so Lawney went on her own!”

The end of a successful career came at Mollington in 1997, after Alan finished second on Radical Views and Run For Free. “I told Lawney on the way to the course that I’d been thinking about it and was going to give up that day. Basically, I’d run out of good horses to ride.” There’s certainly some false modesty there – as Radical Views was a high-class pointer and Run For Free had won the Scottish Grand National for Martin Pipe!

Alan, as far as he remembers, finished on 98 wins in point to points and 48 in Hunter Chases, but was never tempted by the obvious landmarks of 100 and 50. “I never set myself goals – I remember poor old Bob Woolley, he was on 99 winners when he fell and was paralysed, ending up in Stoke Mandeville hospital. I didn’t want to finish that way.”

THE FIRST ELEVEN

The Aston Rowant maestro updates us on his plans for the rest of the season for some of his string.

Consigliere

“I’d like to take him to the Bonhams Mens Open Final at Cheltenham on April 29th if the ground is right. Otherwise he’ll stay pointing.”

Harbour Court

“The four-miler at the Cheltenham Hunter Chase evening is a definite objective and he’s being trained for that. He may have lost some of his speed at nine, but his Newbury run shows that he stays.”

Start Royal

 “He’ll go for another Ladies Open, maybe at Fakenham on Sunday. The big aim for this winner of 21 races is the three and a half mile Hunter Chase at Fontwell on May 14th that he won last year.”

Sharp Suit

 “He’ll stick to Ladies Opens then may go for the AGA Ladies Race at Stratford on May 29th if the ground comes up good.”

Ravethebrave

“Also qualified for the Bonhams at Cheltenham and may go there if Consigliere doesn’t. He’s still looking for his ground and we’ll target a late season Hunter Chase.”

Done A Runner

“He’ll be entered for the Connollys Intermediate Final at Cheltenham, a hard act to follow as we’ve won it for the last two years with Harbour Court and Sharp Suit. If he runs, Lucy Wheeler will keep the ride.”

Broken Eagle

“Been on the easy list since his Larkhill second but is being aimed at the Maiden Hunter Chase at the Fontwell evening meeting.”

Brians Well

“We’ve got a million and one ideas for him. He’ll stay pointing this season and will go for an Intermediate or Club Race next.”

Alpha Native

“Goes to Kingston Blount on Saturday then owner Susannah Gill will make her Hunter Chase debut at Fontwell. She works for ARC and would love to ride at one of her courses.”

Fiddleesticks

“Won his Maiden at Kimble recently for Brentford fanatic Bob Groves so will go for a Restricted next.”

The Crumpet Mine

“A maiden I train for Lawney. He was meant to run last month but had a small niggle and we hope to run at Kingston Blount this weekend. The long preparation will have benefitted him.”

It is at this appropriate point in our conversation that Lawney enters the kitchen at Woodway Farm. Lawney was a successful rider in her own right before turning her hand to training. She took out a professional licence in 2005 and now trains successfully under rules, known best for improving modest horses and for a high win and place strike rate. Until then, the pointers and hunter chasers in the yard ran in her name, but it was very much a joint operation. Alan explains how he and his wife met.

“It was at a housewarming party for my good friends Ian and Tocky McKie. I arrived late and hung over the day after the National Point-to-Point Dinner, where I’d won leading Hunter Chase rider. Tocky told me I could sit next to her new secretary or Jenny Pidgeon – no offence Jenny, but I chose the secretary!”

Alan proposed to that secretary on Christmas Day 1985 – “I asked him to give me 48 hours to think about it,” chips in Lawney – and they were married on October 31st the next year. As we got married on Halloween and you’ve named Alan the Wizard of Woodway,” chimed in Lawney again, “Does that make me a witch?”

On a more serious note, their relationship coincided with Lawney’s mother – Sally Gill, who owned and trained Midlands Grand National winner Mr Mole – suffering a serious hunting accident. “We did most of our courting at Stoke Mandeville,” laughs Alan ruefully. “The circumstances were unfortunate, but it was a great social gathering. We’d have a party until we’d be thrown out late at night.”

The Hill’s started training while they were both still climbing and – like Alan’s riding career – they took time to reach the lofty heights they now occupy. “We used to have just two or three horses of our own,” explained Alan. “Our first owners were Malcolm and Dale Dickens, who now act as Clerks of the Scales in the South Midlands area. They bought a horse called Lurgie for their son Jamie to ride – and all it managed to win for us was a Hunt Race in 1989!”

Their breakthrough horses were the aforementioned Green Archer – who won ten Opens and a Hunter Chase – and multiple Hunter Chase winner Mr Snowman. “They put us on the map,” said Lawney with relief. “Suddenly we went from winning Members Races to taking Opens. And it’s so much easier and more fun training good horses. They’re more consistent, don’t have to give 100% all the time to win and are less likely to go wrong.”

They learnt their trade, according to Alan, by picking up tips from the trainers they rode for, as well as by their attention to detail. On feeding from the example – Lawney explains: “Now you buy complete food for your horses, it’s already balanced and contains the right amount of oils and vitamins. But when we started training, you had to mix it all yourself. And horses are like humans – they all react to food differently. (Cheltenham winner) Mr Splodge, for example, couldn’t digest starch, so we had to give him food based on soya oil rather than protein.”

The same individual approach that the Hills apply to feeding goes for their training regime. “Every horse likes to be trained differently,” confirmed Alan. “It’s mental as well as physical. If our horses don’t eat up after a race, it can mean that they’ve had a hard race and that their stomach muscles have contracted, so we can’t run them for a while.” I comment on the large amounts of water that are thrown over the Hill horses after a race. “It’s not to hide the whip marks,” jokes Alan. “It’s to reduce their body temperature and get the oxygen flowing into their blood.” And while we’re on the subject of water, the Hills take their own water when their horses have an overnight stay anywhere, to ensure they keep drinking and don’t dehydrate (the horses, that is!)

As champion trainer, Alan has access to top jockeys, and is best known for his long-standing association with James Tudor. His links with the yard date back to 2002, when he was a student at Reading University. “James was mates with (jockey turned trainer) Tim Vaughan, who recommended him to us. He spent so much time here that he ended up living with us in his final year rather than paying for student accommodation.” Like the youthful Alan, James was always up for a challenge and, in the trainer’s words, “was like Martini – he’d ride anything, anywhere, anytime.”

Lawney takes over the story: “I said to Alan ‘this kid’s going to be alright’ but the first time we saw him ride at Larkhill, he lost his irons at the first and pulled up before the second. I’d never seen anyone so disappointed in my life. Alan was not sympathetic.” James’ first winner for the yard was Bolide D’Aunay. “Rowan Cope was supposed to ride,” continued Lawney, “but he decided to ride one for Caroline Bailey. James won and Rowan was second.”

While James may only have been National Champion point-to-point jockey once, in 2007, he is widely regarded as the best in the business and his record round tracks such as Cottenham and Kingston Blount is second to none. The Hills also use top female rider Gina Andrews, who they gave her breakthrough on the popular mare Mid Div And Creep and who rides the prolific Start Royal for the yard. So, with access to the top riders, what – in Alan’s opinion – makes the ideal jockey?

“The first thing is that they’ve got a brain,” he confirms, “but most importantly, they must have talent. James and Gina are totally natural. And without wishing to blow smoke up my son’s arse,” he goes on (blowing smoke…), “Joe is very good over a fence. It’s his hunting background. He’s learnt a lot from James, Gina and professional riders like Aidan Coleman and Nick Scholfield. He’s been lucky so far, but you have to make the best of your luck.”

He’s on a roll now. “We’re spoilt with James and Gina riding for us, but I always like to think we have the best jockey in the race, with novices like Albert Chandler and Lucy Wheeler. Lucy is a natural on a horse, plus she listens, which is important.” And one to watch from outside the stable? “I tipped Ciaran Gethings as one to follow at the start of the season,” he claims proudly, “And everyone knows about him now.”

With the Hill opinion on jockeys made clear, I ask him what makes the ideal owner, a subject on which I have a vested interest! “Someone who’s a good payer,” he laughs before pointing out that “Owners come to us, we don’t network.” (Which is certainly true in my case). To answer my question, he contrasts two very different, but longstanding, owners in the yard.

“Rodney Mann has had horses with use since the 1990s with Arble March and Rivers End and is a real old-school owner,” he tells me. He’s loved hunting and racing all his life, rode in races himself and likes to have pointers in training. He still rides out on Sharp Suit and smiles as much after that as he does when he’s had a winner.” As well as his current horses Sharp Suit and Brians Well, Rodney has had a number of good winners, including Gray Knight, More Trouble and Cheltenham Foxhunters second Bon Accord, who is possibly Alan’s best ever horse.

On the other hand, there is Michael Avery – commonly know as “the Jap” – part owner of Start Royal, the Hills’ winningmost horse. “He’s had a horse, or at least a leg of one, every year since 1989.” An accountant by trade, he lives in West London – a totally different background – and is known for being particular about where he runs his horses. “In what other sport would you find Rodney and Michael on the same playing field?” asks Alan rhetorically.

So where does Alan find the horses for his owners to buy and his jockeys to ride? “Mostly at public sales,” confirms the trainer, “Although no avenues are closed to us. I like the horses I buy to have a bit of National Hunt form, ideally that they’ve been placed over at least two and a half miles, so I know they stay and have ability.” It’s fashionable at the moment to buy Irish point-to-pointers, but not for Alan as “I don’t know so much about the form.” And you don’t often see am unraced pointer from Woodway, because “Store horses can be costly and time-consuming. If you get a good one, they look cheap but if not, they seem very expensive…”

Alan’s comments about his owners and horses lead nicely on to his views on the state of the sport. As mentioned before, the Hills run a dual-purpose yard, with Alan training the pointers and Lawney holding a professional licence. Alan uses an analogy to explain the basic difference between point-to-point and National Hunt yards.

“Here at Woodway, we’ve won prize money at Royal Ascot and we’ve been champion point-to-point trainer. What you get if you have a horse with us the best of both worlds, as well as our enthusiasm and the chance to get involved.” I can vouch for that.

“Most of my owners want grass,” Alan continues. “Most National Hunt owners want tarmac. What we offer here is both – we even run horses on the all-weather!” He clarifies the separation between the operations: “We run two yards. We keep our horses in different barns and have two feed rooms and two horse walkers. We just work our horses together. I think having two yards is good for the sport of pointing – and if we can get just one owner into either yard, that’s a positive. Every owner, to me, is a good owner – because if we don’t have the owners, we don’t have the sport.”

Alan was recently appointed to the Point-to-Point Race Planning Committee, a body comprising various luminaries from different areas of the sport to suggest improvements to the cards to encourage more runners. He’s happy to share his own views. ‘I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this – jockeys, fellow trainers, owners, bookies, racegoers in the bar… and most people agree that it’s difficult to win a race at the moment – the standard of competition is high. It’s a challenge just thumbing through the Race Planner to find a suitable contest.” But what does he think might work?

“We've been talking about including one shorter race at each meeting, not just two and a half mile Maiden Races, but Opens and Conditions Races.” In the past, point-to-pointing was for hunters, but modern thoroughbreds are smaller and speedier. With more of them around, shorter races would give more people the chance to buy a winner. We want to get more owners and horses into the sport and anything to help that should be encouraged.”

Hunt Races, it seems, are a dying breed – disappearing from the race programme at a rate of knots. Alan, however, is all in favour of them. “They’re brilliant and they’ve got to stay,” he enthuses, while qualifying this with: “But as a seventh race on the card.” He explains his reasons. “Neither hunting nor pointing would survive without the other. At Kimble on Easter Saturday there were over 150 volunteers, nearly all of whom came from the hunt. How else would you find people willing to give up their Easter Saturday for no money?” He’s on a roll now! “The jockeys are passionate about hunting too, and people come to watch their mates ride in the Hunt Races, which boosts the gate. We should encourage that”.

And what about Novice Riders races, on which opinions seem divided? “I was apprehensive when they came in, but now I think they’re great. They’re good for youngsters starting out and also for owner-riders. The increase in the eligibility from three to five winners is a good thing, as some of the riders have a bit more experience. People say that field sizes are too large, but there haven’t been any major incidents, so why change?”

Alan is also a fan of Conditions Races. “Every meeting that hosts one can set their own conditions. For example, there’s one at Kingston Blount for horses that haven’t won for three years. Races like this are ideal for horses that have lost their way.”

Before you start thinking that he hasn’t got a bad word to say, Alan makes his views on certain subjects quite clear. “There’s an idea to let Flat Race winners run in Maidens. That’s just wrong – a maiden is a horse that’s never won a race, any race.” He’s equally vehement about the possibility of rotating dates, so that more hunts can benefit from the big crowds at Bank Holiday meetings. “There’s a historical precedent. Courses like Kimble and Lockinge volunteered for their dates when other tracks didn’t want them – why should they suffer now Easter racing has become more popular?” The same goes for sharing revenues. “What would be the incentive for a point-to-point with a February date to try to promote the meeting, if they now they’d get the money anyway? And it would get far too complicated.”

As well as training “about 20” pointers and sitting on committees, Alan makes his living farming 1,000 acres of arable land around Aston Rowant. “Of course machinery helps, but the farm fits in well with the horses,” Alan confirmed. “Busy time on the farm is between July – when pointing has finished – and October, when hunting starts.” We mustn’t forget that Alan has a long association with the Vale of Aylesbury Hunt – to see him in action alongside that well-known hunt support Ali G, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3c45T1hc3k

Alan’s farm stretches to the neighbouring village of Crowell, the site of the former point-to-point course created by his grandfather in 1944. “He set up the track in one of his fields and put in eight fences. He told the local Hunt that he’s sponsor the first for £500, give the Hunt any profit and swallow any losses. He wanted to make sure that the sport of point-to-pointing survived after the war. Crowell finally closed in 1970, to be replaced by Kingston Blount, a course with which Alan is closely associated. While he doesn’t currently have an official role there, those of us who do are in no doubt who is responsible for the ground and the track!

Before I go, I ask him the obvious questions – what does he like most about the sport? “I love it that point-to-pointing is at the grass roots of sport. As we stand in the middle of a field in our wellies watching the talent of the future – human and equine – we could be rubbing shoulders with Lords or with office workers. It’s competitive, and we all want to win, but the commiserations are just as heartfelt as the celebration – it’s all about the camaraderie.”

He cites the example of the superb mare Lady Myfanwy, who cost just £500, retired last year after 37 victories (CHECK TOTAL) and who has just had her first foal. “It’s an amateur sport and open to everyone, no matter what they have to spend.” As someone who came to Woodway on a recommendation with a limited budget, and who has now stood in the winner’s enclosure on three occasions, I wholeheartedly agree.