It is all too easy to jump the gun, especially when the route out of lockdown was outlined by Downing Street in a week of balmy late-February sunshine. Spring was nigh, and with it, the dawn of a new Flat turf season. It was time to rejoice.
Or at least, that was the pretext of a visit to Charlie Hills. Come the appointed morning and the first task ahead of the drive to Lambourn was to clear the car of snow. So much for bidding farewell to the depths of winter.
And yet, and yet. On reaching Faringdon Place the springtime theme was manifest in a batch of two-year- olds. Simultaneously inquisitive and apprehensive, they pranced on tiptoes around the indoor school, setting one another off like a shoal of synchronised swimmers. In their wide-eyed expression was the essence of a new dawn.
Two-year-olds are dream factories: for owners who bought them, for stable staff who attend them, and for trainers like Hills who yearns for another Battaash. And there was optimism on other fronts. The slowing of the Covid tide promoted a feeling that the worst had come and gone. Owners frozen out of racecourses since January would soon be back on track.
All of the above is manifest in Hills’ demeanour as the two-year-olds circle around him. He identifies each one as they pass him. His own sense of optimism is evident in his asides. “There’s a colt by Highland Reel; I think he’ll do well as a sire.” And “That’s a filly by No Nay Never; let’s hope she’s as fast as him.”
A positive vibe also emanates from his staff. The shift away from the all- weather winter rounds to the turf is a rite of passage still enacted in this corner of Lambourn. “We are never busy on the all-weather,” Hills says. “Quite a few of our owners prefer to see their horses winning on grass, so the traditional start to the season still means something here.”
Hills, 42, is embarking on his eleventh season from a stable established by his father Barry, who trained more than 3,000 winners before he retired in 2011. Barry left big shoes to fill but his son has not shirked the challenge.
Charlie has won two Irish Classics with Just The Judge and Phoenix Of Spain, and trained a pair of champion sprinters in Muhaarar and Battaash. His resume would have run deeper but for the cruel fate met by Chriselliam, the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies’ Turf heroine who succumbed to a bacterial infection soon after. Her memory is perpetuated by the garland wreath she wore as she entered the winner’s circle at Santa Anita, which hangs from a wall in the barn.
Nor did Hills have a silver spoon thrust into his young mouth. He started as a salaried employee within a business run by his father, and remains one to this day. In the intervening ten years his desire to manage his own affairs has grown stronger, although he will have to buy the 185-box property to take sole charge. As things stand any spare cash at the end of each year is swallowed up by school fees for his two sons, James and Eddie.
Indeed, the only thing Hills inherited when he started was his father’s owners. Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, the mainstay of the stable with 35 horses in Hills’ care, sadly passed away in March. The sheikh enjoyed rich pickings from Faringdon Place and the complement has been returned with two of the gallops on Hills’ private training grounds, spread over 180 adjacent acres, named after Haafhd and Muhaarar. His death aged 75 has hit the Hills family hard.
“Sheikh Hamdan has been a constant presence in my life and his death is very sad news,” Hills says. “He’s been a big supporter of mine since I took over from my father and we shared a lot of success together with some amazing horses.
“He was a very loyal man and had a lot of patience, which gives you great confidence as a trainer to let the horses mature as they should do. He was very firm and ambitious, had high standards and wanted to achieve the best results.
“It was a great privilege to train for him. This is usually the time of year he returns from Dubai to inspect all his horses. It’s terribly sad to think I won’t see him again.”
The importance of Sheikh Hamdan’s patronage is evident within Hills’ aspirations for the year ahead. Battaash returns for more this season while Mujbar is the stable’s hope for the 2,000 Guineas, having closed his juvenile campaign by winning the Horris Hill Stakes. “We’ll take him to one of the trials, possibly the Free Handicap,” Hills says. “His best form is on softish ground. We’ve always liked him, and a lot of Muhaarars seem to improve with age.”
Two unexposed three-year-olds also belonging to the late sheikh are high in their trainer’s estimation. Mutasaabeq, a colt by Invincible Spirit out of Ghanaati, was too immature mentally for more than his solitary outing at Newmarket, which he won decisively over seven furlongs. He will start in a novices’ race before his sights are raised.
“And there’s Tanmawwy, who won on his debut at Haydock,” Hills says. “He hasn’t been the soundest but if we can get him right he could be something special.”
Hills starts the campaign with around 120 horses, a string similar in size to 2020. Some of his owners opted out of the autumnal yearling sales but are now sufficiently encouraged by Covid’s regression to engage at the imminent breeze-ups. Encouragingly, and perhaps surprisingly, the ship has been stabilised by an unlikely source.
“We have some new British owners here,” Hills says. “It’s encouraging, because it hasn’t been easy selling on the yearlings without potential owners being able to come down and see them. We have owners who enjoy coming to watch their horses on the gallops as much as they enjoy going racing.
“From that perspective last year was a struggle,” Hills continues. “The owners got a bit fed up, everyone did, but they were very patient. I was fortunate to inherit a good few of dad’s owners, some of which were Arabs who aren’t getting any younger. We’ve been trying to bring in younger, ambitious, British owners, but it’s hard. People don’t tend to have funds to spare until their children finish their education.”
This is a problem blighting British racing as a whole. “There is no magic formula because it’s the same old story,” Hills says. “Prize-money levels really puts them off. That’s why the various bonus schemes are so important, especially the Great British Bonus [for GB-bred fillies and mares, which can reward connections with an extra £20,000 on top of the winner’s purse]. I look out for those races in the programme book all the time.”
Brexit, too, has taken a toll. “It created a lot of uncertainty for some of our owners,” Hills says. “Chris Wright has been a big supporter but he is sending horses over to race in France. It’s demoralising. We can’t afford to lose people like him to other nations. Especially when so much about British racing is up there or even better than what other countries have to offer.”
The only consolation is that the same constraints apply to every other trainer not fully attached to the middle- eastern umbilical cord. And as Hills acknowledges, the Covid interruption could have been a lot worse.
“When the [first] lockdown happened in March last year the bulk of the horses were here in the yard,” he says. “When racing stopped we were able to carry on doing our normal job, but had the lockdown happened in November half of the horses would have been out of the yard. We were fortunate there.”
The morning routine continued during lockdown but Hills put to good use idle afternoons that would normally have seen him go racing. More than 20 new cookbooks in the kitchen attest to his new-found hobby, together with a drawer overladen with Indian spices. Mary Berry has a new devotee.
Nothing culinary is off-limits; no dish too complex. Hills still cooks for the family most evenings: anything from salads to French cuisine, with something like orange drizzle cake to follow. He has improved apace from his early efforts, which were compromised when he returned from last year’s Cheltenham Festival with coronavirus. To the dismay of his two young sons, and a little consternation from his wife Philippa, his supressed sense of smell and taste saw him seriously over-spice his curries.
Needless to say, when his father gleaned of his new calling, he put his son to the test. “I had to cook a whole tongue which Dad got sent down from London,” Hills says. “It wasn’t straightforward: I had to soak it overnight, boil it for three hours and then rip the skin off it. It was amazingly tender, though – and Dad enjoyed it.”
But that’s not all. With supper in the oven, Hills turns his attention to painting for an hour. It’s an oil-painting-by-number hobby which helps to pass the time constructively. “You start by following the instructions but after a glass of red you start choosing your own colours,” he says.
Hills still exudes a youthful optimism even though he has been at Faringdon Place for 18 years – the last ten of them in the hot seat. That decade has raced by. “It’s true what they say: you learn something new every day,” he says.
“It’s a tough game, very competitive, with a lot of new young trainers coming through each year. It seems like only yesterday when I was fashionable for being the new young trainer, when everyone wants to support you. But I’ve certainly noticed I’m no longer in that category. I’m no longer flavour of the month.”
He has also come to realise how much about training racehorses is a team game. “It’s about the people around you,” he says. “Philippa has been great in helping to manage the staff, many of which have been here for a long time. And Dad running the business side of things leaves me free to concentrate on getting results.”
On that score, Hills is emboldened by the prospect of the imminent turf season. Most of his top earners from 2020 are back in training, among them star sprinters Battaash and Equilateral and Group 3-winning miler Tilsit. And he will not be alone in bidding good riddance to last year’s truncated campaign, with its Covid-induced uncertainties and the soullessness of empty racecourses.
Battaash’s mid-March return to Faringdon Place from his winter break has come to signify the starting gun. The natural electricity he emits courses through the yard, serving to remind that the turf resumption is imminent. And of course, there are those untested two-year-olds waiting in the wings.
“It’s a wonderful time of year,” Hills says. “A bit of sunshine soon puts a spring in the staff’s step.”
Perhaps more so this year than any other in recent memory.