Richard Hills may be the reigning Meydan Masters champion, but he is hardly acting as an ambassador for the two-day competition for jockeys at the Dubai racecourse.
Jockey Richard Hills doesn't expect a repeat victory in Meydan Masters
Richard Hills may be the reigning Meydan Masters champion, but he is hardly acting as an ambassador for the two-day competition for jockeys that starts at the Dubai racecourse this evening.
Hills rode a winner, a second and a third in last year's inaugural series to defeat some of the world's best riders. This year, however, he feels he will be lucky to steer a horse into a place.
Having scanned the final declarations and looked at each horse's form in detail, the 48-year-old's synopsis of his chances bordered on the unprintable.
"To be brutally honest, I think the horses that I'm on are rubbish in comparison to the ones I could be on," was his paraphrased response. "Frankie Dettori has not been given a great bunch, either. We've talked about it and we both think we are well out of it."
Hills has always been a pragmatic character, a trait which is often borne out in his riding.
The Meydan Masters has assembled 12 top jockeys, including Calvin Borel, the multiple Kentucky Derby-winning rider; Hiroyuki Uchida, the Japanese champion; Tiago Pereira, the Brazilian who won the Dubai World Cup in March aboard Gloria de Campeao; plus Hills, Dettori and seven other European riders.
One of them, Hills is certain, will take his crown over the next two days.
"William Buick has the pick of the rides," he said of the 22-year-old, who returns to the saddle tonight after suffering concussion in December. "He's picked up a great ride in the first leg on Godolphin's Quick Wit, and he's got another great ride on the [Sheikh] Hamdan [bin Rashid] horse in the second leg, Pallodio.
"The Japanese jockey has ridden a lot of winners, but I've never met him before.
"That Calvin Borel is a bit of a character. Whenever I've met him either at the Breeders' Cup or the Arlington Million he's always come across as a very nice guy. He's on Haatheq, one of Sheikh Hamdan's. It's a nice ride.
"As for Johnny Murtagh, I teamed up with him years ago to win a jockey competition out here before the Dubai World Cup began, I think it was in 1995."
The Masters series ran into a problem yesterday when only eight horses were declared for tomorrow's third leg, the turf handicap, which leaves the series with just three races.
"They should have switched the race really," Hills said, suggesting the jockeys could have ridden in another contest on the card. "It is a shame that four jockeys have to sit out."
If Hills seems outspoken, it is because he has earned the right to be. He has ridden in the UAE for 18 years and has held his retainer with Sheikh Hamdan since 1997 when Willie Carson, the British jockey, retired.
He has been a cog in the machine that has driven the emergence of racing in the region, and watched the sport grow from humble beginnings to what Dandy Nicholls, the British trainer, recently called, "the centre of the racing world".
And it could have been so different. Nineteen years ago, Hills was working for Tom Jones, the British trainer who at one point handled 80 horses for Sheikh Hamdan. Out of the blue one cold January morning, Hills took a phone call from Sheikh Hamdan.
"He told me he had a horse running in Abu Dhabi. There was a plane that left England at 1.45pm and would I come out and ride it the next day? I jumped at the chance.
"The horse won, and when I saw Sheikh Hamdan that night he told me it would run in two weeks' time and would I ride it again. I stayed out for two and a half months."
The next year Hills beat Lester Piggott, the nine-time Epsom Derby-winning jockey, in a race that made the front page of the Racing Post, the racing paper in Britain set up by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Buoyed by the coverage, Sheikh Mohammed was keen to continue to develop racing and decided to erect floodlights at Nad al Sheba to facilitate night meetings. "We all pitched up there under floodlights, jockeys, trainers, Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikh Hamdan, the whole royal family was there," Hills said. "Us jockeys went down to the mile-and-a-quarter start for the second race. Sheikh Mohammed wanted to watch the race up close so got into his jeep behind us.
"When we reached two furlongs into the race the lights went out. So we are cantering down the back straight in the dark with Sheikh Mohammed's lights behind us on full beam. It was brilliant."
Such scenes are virtually unthinkable now in the glitzy world of international racing, and Hills harks back to the days of "gentlemen jockeys" in what seems a long-lost era.
Racing is now a multi-billion dirham sport, and one which has gone a long way to placing Dubai, and its neighbouring emirates, on the world stage.
Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation has won races at 129 tracks in 16 different countries.
While Godolphin often acts as a vehicle for UAE culture, Hills's boss races purely for the pursuit of champions.
Sheikh Hamdan secured the purchase of Height of Fashion, Britain's champion juvenile filly, from Queen Elizabeth II in 1982. The mare became the bedrock of the Sheikh's breeding operation, and subsequently produced two outstanding colts, Unfuwain and Nashwan, the English 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner.
The mare also produced Nayef, who won the Dubai Sheema Classic in 2002 and who remains Hills's favourite horse. "For me, it is very important to win Classics, because of the Sheikh's breeding operation. My best achievement, though, was to ride Nayef.
"He was an exceptional racehorse. I used to ride him out virtually every day when in Dubai. He would have won the Dubai World Cup, but we had Sakhee in the race in 2002.
"A year later, he ran in the Dubai World Cup and finished third to Moon Ballad."
The list of stunning racehorses related to Height of Fashion goes on.
In 2009 Hills partnered Ghanaati, who counted the great mare as her grand-dam, to victory in the English 1000 Guineas and the Group 1 Coronation Cup. Hills also won the Queen Mary at Royal Ascot last season on Maqaasid, also from the same family.
It is no wonder that Sheikh Hamdan demands special attention from his jockey when he rides horses from this distinguished line; pressure which Hills relishes.
"I am paid to ride the best horses in the world … there is pressure in my job, but no more pressure than for anyone else.
"Of course it is a big responsibility, but when you are a sportsman at the top you've got to just go out there, put your horse in the right position and do your job.
"The Meydan Masters is a competition that everyone knows is about the luck of the draw. You tend to be more relaxed and enjoy these jockeys series, rather than the pressures that come with a Group 1 race. It makes it more fun."