HAVING opted to leave his Bogside home at the tender age of 18 years, Stephen Hillen refused to allow anything stand in the way of his dream.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
And now, aged 41, the Beechwood Street man has finally reached the pinnacle of his career having unearthed what’s considered the best two year-old race horse in Europe at the moment after “Bapak Chinta” claimed the Norfolk Stages at Royal Ascot a few weeks ago.
The eldest son of the late Charlie and Mairead Hillen, Stephen’s recent rise to prominence has followed a lengthy process from failing to become a jockey due to his growing stature, taking up an assistant trainer’s licence with the legendary Barry Hills, to now recommending the purchase of young racehorses with potential to leading owners and trainers.
He left Derry on January 1st, 1989, set on a career in the “Sport of Kings” and he was the first to appreciate the loyalty, support and sacrifices of his parents as he attempted to make the grade in what remains one of the world’s high profile industries.
“With my dad a local bookmakers in Derry, I travelled with him from no age to the weekly ‘flapping’ meetings and those under rules which were regularly held in Clonmany, Moville, Letterkenny, Newtown and Ballyarnett and my interest in the sport developed from there.
“I learned to ride when I was five or six and I always wanted to get involved in flat racing. As a student at St. Columb’s College, my career path never changed and I always remember the advice given to me by my Economics teacher, Mr. Gerry Rainey, when I opted to leave after ‘A’ Levels.
“He was aware of how interested I was in the equine trade but he warned me to be patient and insisted that I would be in the winners’ enclosure at Royal Ascot for quite some time,” laughed Stephen.
“Those days, of course, I had hoped to become a flat race jockey but having weighed around nine stone, I had to put that dream to bed during the early stages of my career.
“Thanks to contacts my father had, I was invited over to Barry Hills’ yard to work under him as pupil assistant trainer and I spent four years with him before moving on to join the Paul Cole team near Lambourn.
“I became Paul’s main assistant having been with him for 10 years and, I must admit, I spent may great years there involved with top class horses.”
“Cliftden led the way?
But Stephen had always harboured hopes of “going it alone” and while he felt training was his first love, his decision to purchase a young horse in a partnership suddenly changed all that.
“I paid very little money for a yearling colt named ‘Clifden,’ trained him up before selling him on and he went on to win the Group 3 Premio Primi Passi in Italy and it was that success which presented me with the idea to become a bloodstock agent.
“I started back in 2003 and the first good horse I purchased was in 2007 named ‘Benbaun’ which went on to win the Prix de l’Abbaye, the race staged prior to the Arc de Triomphe and I never looked back.”
An immediate move to reside in Newmarket followed - the centre-piece of top class English racing - and still based in that area, Stephen Hillen travels the world to top class horse sales in Australia, America and Europe on a regular basis.
He currently purchases horses for the clients of top northern trainer, Kevin Ryan, many of whom have gone on to enjoy great success.
“I would purchase quite a few horses for Kevin Ryan and, at the moment, I’ve probably bought the vast majority of his new stock for his own clients.
“In fact, he’s been flying this season with quite a big number of two year-old winners and he finished a close second in top class races such as the Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot recently with ‘Inetrobil’ and she will run again a Newmarket in the big July meeting in the Cherry Hinton Stakes.”
He’s also the first to acknowledge that luck has played no small part in his success. “Like everyone else, I’ve had my ups and downs but, to be fair, I’ve also enjoy quite a bit of luck in relation to purchasing the right horses. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many great people and I’m attracting the attention of top clients interested in purchasing young horses,” he continued.
“Benbaun” cost Stephen £10,000, the horse going on to win £850,000 in prizemoney and while purchasing horses for other clients, he still keeps his hand in buying a few himself and selling them on.
“The ‘Benbaun’ experience brought me great excitement and while my main work is as an agent, I still love to have a few horses myself but I’m more into breeding than actual racing.”
However, ‘Bapak Chinta’s’ success in the recent Norfolk Stakes appears to have opened yet another chapter for the Derry man. Owned by a member of the former Royal Family of Malaysia, Stephen purchased the horse for £46,000 and the win has certainly boosted his credentials as an individual with a keen eye for identifying top quality racehorses.
“It’s a tough business with quite a bit of travelling involved, but it’s always been my dream. It’s now my business but it also my hobby and I don’t think I could have asked for anything more,” he concluded.
In August, Stephen will focus his attentions on the annual bloodstock sales and that will keep him busy until mid-December. During that time he will travel to Kentucky, Deauville in France plus the usual sales at Newmarket, Doncaster and, indeed, in Ireland at Fairyhouse and Kildare hoping to identify horses with the potential to race at the top level.
He will also keep an eye on what’s happening in the Southern Hemisphere, checking on what may be on offer in Australia from foals to yearlings.