Six days from now Richard Hills, one of flat racing's iconic figures, will bid adieu to a sport that has been a fundamental part of his life for the past 33 years.
A winner of over 500 races in the UAE, 49-year-old Hills will also bring to an end an illustrious 15-year career as stable jockey to Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance.
Statistics do not do justice to a talent that first surfaced when he landed his maiden winner at Doncaster in October 1979 on Border Patrol and secured his first Group One success on Ashal in the 1990 Gold Cup at Ascot. Known for his clean, front-running style, a skill that he honed over the years, Hills enjoyed a unique role riding in Shaikh Hamdan's blue and white silks at all the major racecourses around the world.
He scored major victories with Nayef in the 2001 Champion Stakes, the 2002 Dubai Sheema Classic, the Juddmonte International and the 2003 Prince of Wales's Stakes.
His forays on the international stage were also marked by success. He won the 2000 Deutschland-Preis in Germany aboard Mutafaweq, the 2001 Canadian International Stakes with Mutamam, the 2003 Gran Premio de Jockey Club in Italy with Ekraar and the Prix Morny and Prix du Moulin de Longchamp in 2009 with Arcano and Aqlaam respectively.
In Dubai he scored his biggest win in the 1999 Dubai World Cup aboard Shaikh Hamdan's Almutawakel, and also won the Dubai Duty Free with Altibr on the same card. Three years later he would win the Dubai Sheema Classic with Nayef.
During an interview with Gulf News yesterday, Hills talked about the challenges of his sport, his favourite horses and what it was like to be stable jockey to Shaikh Hamdan.
Gulf News: Given the fact that he is one of the most powerful and influential men in horse racing, what sort of an experience was it riding for Shaikh Hamdan?
Richard Hills: It's been fantastic. Shaikh Hamdan has invested so much money into horse racing, it's his hobby and his passion.
I was very fortunate to be his number one rider for so many years and I've enjoyed every minute of it.
To work with such a knowledgeable man has made my job easy, really. The hardest part was finding the good horses and hopefully placing them in the right races and Inshallah to get lucky in running. But it's been a terrific job.
Shaikh Hamdan's hands-on approach to racing has been well documented. How involved has he been with you, was it only during select races?
Any race. Obviously the big ones are more important but if it was a particular horse that Shaikh Hamdan bred himself, then he was always very interested how to ride the horse.
It's important that I gave Shaikh Hamdan the respect to do that because for him to get as much enjoyment as he can, he needed to be involved. It's been a team and we've all worked very closely together and hopefully we'll still continue.
What led to you retiring. Was it a difficult decision to make?
I'm 49 so the age factor played a big part, I guess. But yes, it is very hard to know when to retire. I spoke to Shaikh Hamdan in July and told him about my decision and he was kind enough to say to me to ride until World Cup night. It sort of fitted in with me.
What's going to be a typical day for you after your retirement? Do you plan to stay involved with racing?
Absolutely, one hundred per cent involved in racing. Look, I've worked in racing for 30 plus years you just can't switch off. Riding work in the morning has been very important for me and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Sitting on young horses and trying to predict what they can be and trying to help the trainers and everybody to guide them in the right direction, is so much fun.
I still do that I'm still fit and go racing and enjoy it. But there comes a time when you just can't do the riding any more. But like I said having been in racing for 30 years you just can't walk away. I'll be around.
After all these years of jumping out of bed the minute the alarm clock starts ringing will you be looking forward to catching up on some sleep?
There won't be much sleeping in for me.
I enjoy getting up in the morning and workingwith horses. Horses are my life.
And I'm not one for sleeping in.
You've been fortunate to win some of the biggest races in the UK, including six Classic. Do you have any particular favourites?
They all have been. Obviously Ghanati for Shaikh Hamdan and Haafhd for my father, but they're all very special.
It's important to ride Classic winners and Group One winners as that's what you strive for.
That I was able to win five for Shaikh Hamdan is pretty satisfying.
Among the 500 winners that you have ridden in the UAE what would be the highlight for you?
Winning the Dubai World Cup with Almutawakel in 1999 would definitely be a highlight. Having said that, I think I pretty much won most of the major races in the UAE and some nice ones with Arabians as well.
To ride good horses in good races, there's no better feeling. Almutawakel is the one to pick out but I've enjoyed every one of them.
Perhaps you are the best man to answer this question: What makes certain horses special? What would be your special horse?
Well obviously Nayef is special, because of his breeding. He is by Height of Fashion who was bred and raced by the Queen before Tom Jones brought the mare for Shaikh Hamdan at the end of her three-year-career to stand at Shadwell.
So there's a lot of history there and I was involved in that so for me to be able to ride Nayef and win five Group Ones on him was a great honour. Obviously he was one of my favourites but like I said I've ridden a lot of good horses and they all have a spot in my heart.
What is the fondest memory you will take with you?
I've got a lot of good memories and to be honest with you to pick out one is hard.
Winning all the Classics are great memories and so were the build ups before hand.
I remember Eswarah in particular who won the Epsom Oaks (2005). She did a bit of work the week before and I rang Shaikh Hamdan, who had bred the filly, and said to him that this is probably the best chance I have of winning the Oaks as she looked to be in very good form.
Shaikh Hamdan hadn't led in a horse at Epsom for quite a long time so I was really keen to win this Oaks in particular. It was just a great feeling that Eswarah went on to prove me right.
What's gone is gone, but do you have any regrets about your sport? Was there any race that you wanted to win, but didn't?
No, none whatsoever. It's a sport. We all make mistakes or make good choices but you can't dwell on them. When you ride a bad race there's always a next race, you must have that attitude. You move on. I'm a very positive person and I enjoy my work and my life and hopefully will continue to do so.
Given the fact that horse racing is a rather tough sport, what advice would you give to any aspiring youngster out there?
First to really look after yourself and keep yourself fit. To concentrate the whole time, at the races, during the races, and to respect the owners, they pay the bills and pay your wages.
Sometimes I think youngsters don't quite have the respect that jockeys had in the past and I think that's very important.
Factfile: Richard Hills
Born: January 22, 1963.
First winner: Border Dawn, at Doncaster Racecourse on October 26, 1979.
First Group One winner: Ashal, in the Ascot Gold Cup in 1990.
- 1992: Finished second in the Spanish Jockeys championship.
- 1993: Made his Dubai debut and rode 14 winners.
- 1995: Appointed second jockey to Shaikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
- 1997: Promoted to first jockey following the retirement of Willie Carson.
- 2000: Most successful season in Britain with 81 domestic winners and 14 Group winners.
- 2012: Rode his 500th UAE winner aboard Mutahare at Jebel Ali on March 9.
Classic wins in Great Britain
- 1,000 Guineas: Harayir (1995), Lahan (2000), Ghanaati (2009)
- 2,000 Guineas: Haafhd (2004)
- Oaks: Eswarah (2005)
- St Leger: Mutafaweq (1999)
Notable international wins
- Canadian International Stakes: Mutamam (2001)
- Prix Morny: Arcano (2009)
- Prix du Moulin de Longchamp: Aqlaam (2009)
- Aral-Pokal: Wind in Her Hair (1995)
- Deutschland-Preis: Mutafaweq (2000)
- Preis der Diana: Salve Regina (2002)
- Gran Premio del Jockey Club: Ekraar (2003)
- Gran Premio di Milano: Leadership (2003)
- Dubai Duty Free Stakes: Altibr (1999)
- Dubai Sheema Classic: Nayef (2002)
- Dubai World Cup: Almutawakel (1999)