A discernible air of contentment has settled over Barry Hills. You might think it hardly surprising of a man now in his seventy-ninth year, and with a treasure trove of memories to dwell on. Yet it will come as a surprise to those who knew Hills in his career pomp.

He was one of those whose mind never rested. Even when he took pre-racing refreshment with like-minded friends his conversation was sharp, sometimes prickly. He was always driven, never satisfied. He bristled loudly at perceived injustices. He was a hard man in the purest sense of the phrase.

One thing about Hills, though: he was always engaging company. And while that trait remains, he is now in the reflective stage of his life. But the best bit about Hills in semi-retirement is that he retains the ability to put people immediately at ease. His still delivers his mischievous-schoolboy smile with a twinkle in his eye.

There is plenty of that as he sits in his spectacular garden on a sun-kissed June morning. He lives just outside Lambourn, to where he moved from Newmarket in 1969, and where he settled but for four successful but ultimately frustrating years at Manton towards the end of Robert Sangster’s time as a big player in the late 1980s.

What hasn’t changed is Hills’ insistence that everything should be just so. A stickler for minutiae, he would have set his men daunting standards as a sergeant major. Instead he set those standards for his sons.

The career details are impressive enough: more than 3,000 winners and five British Classics to go with the Stayers’ (now World) Hurdle won by Nomadic Way in 1992. And unusually for a British trainer, he has a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe trophy on his mantelpiece, courtesy of Rheingold in 1973.

But the chapters of his life have been so absorbing that what would feature prominently in conversation with most others is relegated to mere vignettes. Hills delivers them in short, single sentences – invariably accompanied by a twinkle and a smile; like the time he nearly moved to France to train for the Wildenstein family.

Barry and Penny Hills

“I would have trained Allez France to win the [1974] Arc in my first season there,” he says. What stopped him was the Wildenstein insistence he had to train exclusively for them.

“I went over a couple of times to meet them,” he recalls. “It was a really tempting offer; I’d even have got paid for training their jumpers [the Wildensteins had several good ones] in the winter. But I’d just got going here at the time and didn’t want to give up the good horses I already had.

“I think I would have enjoyed living in Chantilly,” he continues. “There’s a good ambience about the place, but life’s a journey which you start with nothing and you go out with nothing. So no regrets.”

The Wildenstein story arises when Hills reminisces on the best horses he has trained, together with those he has seen. The Channel 4 documentary on Frankel had just aired – “I watched it with Peter Walwyn and he remembered how Henry Cecil hated losing so much he wasn’t particularly good at it” – but Hills was reluctant to look past one of his own in the ‘best horse you’ve ever seen’ stakes.

“I saw Tudor Minstrel win the [1947] 2,000 Guineas and he was every bit as impressive as Frankel,” he says. “Sea-Bird was a wonder-horse who won the [1965] Derby on the bridle, but I have always felt that on the day Rheingold won the Arc, no horse could have beaten him.

“He beat Allez France very easily [by 2½ lengths]. There was a long gap back to the third horse, there were a lot of runners [27] and Dahlia finished in the ruck.”

There is also favourable mention of Dibidale, whose slipping saddle cost her the 1975 Oaks before she rebounded to win the Irish and Yorkshire equivalents. But the horse that enchanted Hills was Further Flight, the charismatic grey stayer who won the Jockey Club Cup five times.

Further Flight was a metaphor for the way Hills trained. After three quiet runs when the closest he came to winning was his ninth place in a Chepstow maiden, the horse won a handicap at Ayr as the 2-1 favourite – off a mark of 59.

The following year he won the Ebor as the 7-1 joint favourite, and by the time he signed off he’d won 24 times from 79 starts. “That horse was a wonderful servant who was with us for a long time,” Hills says, “but I had one regret.

“He was owned and bred by Simon Wingfield Digby, who was the MP for West Dorset, and Simon wouldn’t let me take him over for the Melbourne Cup. I think he would have had a particularly good chance in 1990, the year he won the Ebor, but it would have cost fifty grand and Simon himself was beyond travelling by that stage.”

After 45 years with a licence Hills’ biggest lament is his absence from the Derby’s roll of honour. He could easily have won two: Rheingold was denied by a short-head in 1973, Hawaiian Sound by a head five years later.

“It was unfortunate when Rheingold was just beaten by Roberto because Ernie Johnson tried to keep him straight in the closing stages,” Hills recalls. “As Lester [Piggott, who rode Roberto] said to Ernie afterwards, he should have just hit him and argued it out in the stewards’ room. And of course, Lester wasn’t supposed to ride Roberto. He managed to get on him very late, but for which I think we would have won anyway.”

Barry with his young son Charlie, who now trains at Faringdon Place, and Robert Sangster

Hawaiian Sound, for his part, got mugged. Rejected as a Derby mount by Piggott, Johnson and Pat Eddery, the colt was partnered by US legend Bill Shoemaker, who was having his debut ride in Britain.

“Hawaiian Sound was bloody unlucky,” Hills ventures. “Shoemaker was leading when he moved the horse away from the rail to cover the challenge of Remainder Man and left a gap you could have driven a Double Decker bus through. Greville Starkey darted Shirley Heights into it and that was that.”

Hills enjoyed some of his finest seasons at Manton, near Marlborough, where he trained from for four years from 1986. Sangster’s lavish training centre was on the market and Hills almost raised the money to meet the asking price.

Other trainers bought into Hills’ plan, which would have seen three of them based at Manton, each from separate yards. “I loved the place,” he reflects. “In the end I was less than half a million short of raising the money.”

The fact Hills came so close to buying one of Britain’s grandest training centres attests to his success story. He is entirely self-made. His father, who died when he was in his mid-30s, trained horses after spells as head lad to Tom Rimell before the war and George Colling after it.

Hills filled the same role for John Oxley for ten years from 1959, after which he took out his trainer’s licence. The money he made from betting helped him purchase his first yard, South Bank Stables in Lambourn. It had 16 boxes when he bought it and 80 by the time he moved to Manton 16 years later.

He had so many horses on his return to South Bank in 1990 that he rented three other yards to accommodate them all. Then, three years later, he bought a plot on the Lambourn fringe and built Faringdon House Stables, a 180-box, state-of-the-art complex which he passed on to Charlie, the fourth of his five sons, in 2011.

Needless to say, he has seen considerable change along the way. He is saddened by the disbanding of the old paddock at Ascot. “It was a special feature of the place,” he says. “People used to line the walk to see the Queen when she came to the paddock.

“I wrote to the Duke of Devonshire [formerly the Queen’s Representative at Ascot] asking him how he would feel if the Cascade at his Chatsworth House was done away with. I didn’t receive a reply.
“But we all have short memories and we’ll get over it,” he continues. “Everything changes with time. What the young people didn’t see before, they won’t miss.”

Nor is he sold on the delights of all-weather racing which, he points out, was only inaugurated to keep the show rolling in the depths of winter. “Funnily enough, we haven’t had a really bad winter since then,” he says. “I remember one winter when we went 13 weeks without racing.”

He is also guarded about the levy’s replacement by the so-called ‘racing right’, and feels the sport is now controlled by an axis of bookmakers and racecourses.

“Racing is no longer set up for the owner, the horse or the punter,” he avers. “The big meetings are moving towards the weekends and we have all this dross racing in mid-week, which interests nobody. How can anyone follow what is going on when there are seven meetings on a Saturday?”

Conversely, Hills nominates the Pattern system, and the sense of order it brought, as the most welcome addition to the scene. In the end, however, the part of it Hills is totally sold on is the horses.

“I love horses sincerely,” he says. “They have been a large part of my life and they mean an awful lot. The two best places to be are with your horses in the mornings and with them in the winner’s enclosure in the afternoons.”

Hills wasn’t able to savour that afternoon treat at Royal Ascot in June, where his Fadhayyil was just beaten by Dutch Connection in the Jersey Stakes. But this proud, competitive man will have taken succour from the fact Dutch Connection is trained by his son, Charlie.

It will please him greatly to reflect that the Hills family’s affiliation with the Turf has at least one more generation to run.

Family responsibility led to training return

Barry Hills’ return to the training ranks was prompted by the tragic death of his eldest son John, aged 53, from pancreatic cancer last year. John trained from a base at Kingwood Stud, adjacent to Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Kingwood House Stables, which Hills was overseeing after Marcus Tregoning left the property in 2013.

“It obviously wasn’t the intention to return to training,” says Hills, who retired in 2011 and passed on his string to his son, Charlie. “I’m terribly, terribly sad about what happened. It was only two and a half months after John was diagnosed with cancer that he died.”

John started training from Hills’ South Bank Stables when his father moved to Manton in 1986. He then had to relocate when Hills returned to Lambourn four years later.

“John married Fiona the year after he started and they had four daughters,” Hills reflects. “At that time I was still going strong, so it was quite difficult for John in the beginning. He had not long taken on Sheikh Hamdan’s horses at Kingwood House when he got cancer.”

Hills now has those horses under his wing but is not looking beyond the end of the season. Last year he took on Owen Burrows, who was assistant trainer to Sir Michael Stoute for 11 years, to work alongside him.

“Owen had about 600 rides over jumps,” Hills says. “He’d been with Josh Gifford, Martin Pipe and David Nicholson, and his father was head lad at Tim Forster’s. As for the future, I’m not yet sure what that holds. I’ll sit down towards the end of the season and think about it.”

Each of Hills’ five sons has made their living from racing. The twins, Richard and Michael, both enjoyed fruitful careers in the saddle. Richard was retained by Sheikh Hamdan and is now part of his management team, while Michael, who was his father’s stable jockey, is now instructing young riders. George, the youngest, works in the bloodstock insurance business in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Michael rode for me for 15 years,” Hills says. “He got the sack twice but managed to reinstate himself. I’m very proud of all of them, especially the fact that none of them have ever been in any trouble. They all kept their noses clean.”

The Hills family is a particularly close-knit unit. Asked for the secret, Hills says: “There is no secret to it. I suppose they always had a bit of respect, which is important. And they’d never do anything silly twice.”