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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

The Racing Life of Donna Hills

Donna Hills, 45, was always at the races, shadowing the runners of Champion trainer Paul Nicholls as well as managing the kit and logistical organisation of a busy, successful racing yard. There were multiple meetings to organise, as well as the horses and people. Since 1998, she has been a colossal part of the Ditcheat yard and still rides out there today. Originally from Bath, Donna is married to Paul, and has a three-and-a-half-year-old son called Henry. They live five minutes away from Ditcheat in Somerset with Molly the dog, Thomas the cat and six Bantams.

Did you have a horsey childhood? I was riding before I could walk due to my very horsy family, spending all my spare time on ponies and horses.

How did you get into racing? I found myself in racing after deciding to take a break from hairdressing (I worked in a salon for nearly seven years) I had always said I would not work full time with horses as it would take away the passion for my own horses and competing.

Sadly, injury side-lined my horses for a while and I went to ride out part time in Ditcheat. That is how it began and I have been on the payroll until this day and for many more no doubt!

My position developed quickly into travelling.

Do you remember the first ever winner you led up? The first winner I led up was Andrew James at the lovely Newton Abbot, a racecourse I have always loved attending. He was ridden that day by a young Joe Tizzard.

During your time at PFN’s, which days stand out for you personally? Over the years I have travelled many, many miles, attended countless meetings and been honoured to lead in hundreds of winners for Paul, in the UK, Ireland and France.

I have experienced intense emotions, elation, disappointment and relief with staff, owners and Paul himself.

To pinpoint any experiences that stand out is difficult; as many know, I worked with the golden boys Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, Big Bucks and Neptune Collonges to name a few! There have been many lovely memories made. A fantastic era.

A day that brought me to tears before a race was when Kauto headed off to the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park. This race, in which, should he not have performed, would have been his last, so the thoughts of what might have happen were running through my head…what if he falls? What if he isn’t ok after? Everything you normally think about before a race was intensifying.

As we walked into the paddock the late Rose Loxton, a close friend and colleague and I were simply overwhelmed by the sight on the other side of the Kauto scarfs and hats. Everyone was there to see him that day from race day crowds, officials, jockeys and staff from other yards. Everyone started cheering, clapping and waving their scarves as he walked around the paddock; the atmosphere was incredible...this horse had the people’s hearts as well as ours. He was just awesome to be around.

Words simply cannot describe how the laps of the paddock felt, so proud. A very emotional experience. Kauto walked around in his normal manner, unfazed and ready to do his job even with all the claps and cheers. As I let him go, I was overwhelmed to say the very least! He won again but, most importantly, he was safe coming home to Ditcheat.

Winning the Grand National was also the most incredible day, Nipper (Neptune Collonges) was always top class but Kauto and Denman were around and he was slightly shadowed by their triumphs but this was his day! The wait for the photo finish seemed like an eternity and I couldn’t stop shaking. What a day it was for him; greatly deserved. The drive home with his name on the lorry saying ‘Grand National Winner’ was an interesting drive...toots from everyone and people waving out of their windows, not to mention the reception at the yard when we arrived back. Clare, who looked after him and I floated home in the two-box with him; the four-and-a-half-hour drive home was a short one that day, for sure! An incredible day for the team.

I could write for days about the horses I work with and the stories.

What’s your favourite horse(s)? Over the years I have had my favourites, plenty...too many to name and would make a long read!

So, I shall name the two horses I have ridden out daily for the last couple of seasons. They get my full attention for their individual needs on the gallops…they all have very different characters!

They are very big horses, which I prefer; both are winners and progressive: Southfield Harvest and Danny Kirwan.

What’s your favourite racecourse? My favourite racecourse is Newton Abbott, a friendly and relaxed track.

What was your favourite overnighter? Should I be staying away overnight in the UK, without question I would say Ayr; a very welcoming racecourse with great accommodation for the staff and a fantastic two days of racing with the Scottish national meeting, and, of course, a great social scene in which to unwind after racing.

In Ireland, I would have to say the Galway Festival is my favourite overnight. The whole of Galway is geared up for the racing. It was an amazing experience every time especially when we won the Galway Plate with Oslot, a horse I rode at home daily.

I will also have mention racing in France as a fantastic away trip; so different to how we do things here in the UK and Ireland. It was incredibly easy to get to with the Euro Tunnel. Riding out in Maison-Laffitte, where we stabled for racing at Auteuil, was good fun and different. Seeing all the yards and horses there was terrific. The horses always ran very well and enjoyed the trip!

What made you feel like stepping down from the Head of Travelling at Paul Nicholls’? I stopped travelling with the horses when I was eight months pregnant for obvious reasons, the hard work then began!

I returned to ride out for the first time five weeks after my son was born which felt amazing; the time away from the saddle was too long.

I have ridden out daily since.

How has life been since you left? My life since becoming a mum is very different to the days travelling up and down the country daily. However, I very much have the perfect measures now, I have an amazing husband, son and a job doing what I love and many stories to tell. I have the experience to share with all as there are not many questions I can’t answer!

What does racing mean to you? It goes without saying that racing to me is a lifestyle and anyone who has worked for any length of time in the industry will understand this; the passion takes over.

I am a long serving member of a fabulous team and lucky to work alongside some outstanding people and horses, past and present.

I have always felt proud to work for Paul and alongside head lad Clifford Baker; two great and hugely committed men.

I genuinely feel lucky to do a job that I want to do every day and I can’t imagine how it must feel to dislike you job…rubbish, I guess!

I still use my hairdressing skills and have a regular client, which I fit in around the yard and family. I have never stopped using this skill alongside racing.

What is your favourite meal? In fear of being really boring I shall state that my favour food is cereal…Weetabix! But I do like chocolate (of course) and I am a great cake baker to those who sample it.

What is your favourite drink? Nothing beats a good cup of tea! However, there’s also wine, gin and champagne!!

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