I enjoyed every minute of a long chat I had last week, with South Australian race driving ace Danielle Hill. It became clear during our long conversation, that Dani’s return to the track following a horror fall in 2010, was motivated largely by an unbridled passion for horses.
Her comments were peppered with expressions like “what a darling filly”, and what a lovely old horse”. She frequently referred to “ that beautiful old boy”, or “ what a wonderful animal”. I believe Dani would have had something nice to say about Il Sogno, the pacer that stomped on her face after she was catapulted from the cart in a fall at Globe Derby in May of 2010.
Race falls don’t come much worse than this one. Dani sustained a sunken eye socket, broken jaw, broken nose and fractured cheekbone. Her sight in the right eye was impaired, and Doctors were immediately doubtful that she would regain it. Operation after operation followed, and even that insidious old enemy pneumonia, decided to invade Dani’s lungs when she was at her lowest ebb.
The gallant little lady’s fight had only just begun. The physical ravages of the surgery, and the loss of sight in one eye, were the forerunners of the emotional upheaval she was about to face.She endured months of depression, totally convinced that life would never again even approach normality.
It took a long time, but slowly she reached a point of acceptance, and came to terms with the fact that she, and she alone held the key. She insisted on a long and arduous rehabilitation process, and with every passing day her resolve to return to race driving strengthened. At her own insistence, she drove in many trials, until the stewards were completely satisfied that she could participate safely.
With the exception of Chris Alford, no race driver in Australia has been more dominant than Danielle Hill over the past three seasons, and her third SA premiership beckons. “The loss of vision in my right eye has enhanced other senses”, said Dani this week. “The vision out of my left eye is sharp and clear, and I have the hearing of a fox. I can hear horses coming on my outside the second they make a move”. To watch her drive in races today, it’s impossible to pick that she has a problem.
Dani’s keenest rival is her slightly older brother Wayne, who also figures prominently on the driver’s ladder. “We don’t intend a sibling rivalry to exist, but it just happens”, said Dani. “If I happen to move up to challenge him in the latter stages of a race, I can see his body language change. He gets desperate if I look like beating him”.
Dani and Wayne were brought up on a 20 acre property at Penfield, on the northern outskirts of Adelaide. Their parents Gary and Sue were heavily into harness horses, as was grandfather Syd who died in 1993. In her early teens Dani was more interested in saddle horses, and became a very capable show rider, but the lure of the harness horse was never far away.
At 33 years of age she still works at the Penfield property, training her own team of pacers, and helping her father when needed. Despite rising to dizzy heights as a driver, Dani says her greatest passion is training the team. “There’s nothing like getting a horse ready, then driving it to victory”, said South Australia’s premier driver.
She has great affection for a 5 year old called Rocktellz, chronically unsound but the winner of 8 races from only 11 starts. He disappointed at Port Pirie last Friday night, but pulled up well. He’ll have one trial before being allowed to race again, and Dani is hoping for the best. “I just love this horse, and I’m hoping he can hold together for a while yet”.
What a bitter twist of fate it was, that brought David Harding’s brilliant driving career to a premature halt in 2015. After topping 150 winners for ten consecutive seasons, David dislocated a hip, and sustained multiple fractures of the opposite ankle, in a nasty fall at Globe Derby.
David is Dani Hill’s partner, and the father of seven year old Brooke, who has been a shining light for her parents during a very difficult period. David is a valuable asset to his father Les Harding, who is consistently among Adelaide’s top trainers.
Danielle Hill’s comeback, and relentless climb to the top of the mountain is one of the great success stories in Australian sport. Her journey was acknowledged in November of 2015 when she was the recipient of the Tanya Denver Award as South Australia’s top female sportsperson.
Danielle was obviously humbled from a personal point of view, but was even more thrilled that harness racing had been recognised.
Dani was equally chuffed to be the inaugural recipient of the Jim Hurley Medal after the 2015/16 season. She drove an amazing 209 winners and trained 33 of them. Dani actually had a few drives for the remarkable old horseman who died in 2015 at age 90. “To be honest it was something I was proud to achieve as a person, not as a female”, recalls Dani. “It was nice to be recognised as a woman, but it was even better to win the premiership as myself”.
She cherishes the memory of her win in the 2009 Australasian Young Drivers Championship in Queensland. She won the final race of the series, on the night Mr. Feelgood won the Inter Dom Grand Final on the Gold Coast.
In March of this year Dani dominated the Australian Female Drivers championship staged in Launceston, winning five of the nine races in the series.
In the same month she equalled the Australian driving record for most number of wins at an individual meeting. The meeting was at Port Pirie, and Dani became the 19th driver to pilot 6 winners on a programme. The all conquering Kerryn Manning has achieved this remarkable feat on a record three occasions.
Dani was thrilled to train and drive Passions Delight to win the SA Oaks this year, and she never fails to get a kick when a Country Cup comes her way. “I was thrilled to win Victor Harbour Cups on Our Jericho and Bettor Party”, Hill reflected. “It was a real buzz to go all the way to Whyalla for one of its rare harness meetings, and win the Cup with Mymatethomo".
For a driver who goes around with amazing regularity, and who obviously has a confidence advantage over most of her rivals, Dani admits to getting nervous. “If I have a big book of drives, and some of them are short in the market, I can get a little bit tense”, said the champion driver.
If there’s one thing that irritates Dani nowadays, it’s the fact that she “bumps” into things when she isn’t concentrating on her off side. “When I’m busy and rushing around a bit, I occasionally make contact with something, and it annoys the hell out of me”, said Dani.
That’s about all that annoys the hell out of her these days. She enjoys the love and devotion of a wonderful family, and the undying support of partner David, and adorable Brooke. She’s at the absolute pinnacle of her chosen profession, with the ball planted firmly at her feet.
The famous nineteenth century poet, essayist and lecturer Ralph Aldo Emerson may have had somebody like Danni Hill in mind, when he composed the following little gem.
“What lies behind you, and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside of you”.