ACCORDING to the most recent (2016) Australian census statistics, just under 75,000 Irish-born people live there. For both Irish expats living Down Under and their families here, it’s been two long years of Zoom and FaceTime second-bests after Australia battened down its hatches during the pandemic with some of the world’s strictest travel restrictions.

So when its Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in early February that the country was opening up to vaccinated tourists, Kildare couple Paul and Martine Hennessy were quick out of the starting gates to book their flights to Sydney.

Australia is now the base of their daughter Ellen, the apprentice jockey who has notched up 100+ winners since landing off a plane with travelling companion and fellow jockey Rob Dolan.

“It was four years since I’d seen my dad and three years since I’d seen Mum,” recalled Ellen, who has just finished her day at the Canterbury race meeting. Travelling home to the Hennessy household in Newtown, near the Curragh during lockdown wasn’t possible either, however she closely followed the progress of younger sister Lucy, selected last summer for the Irish Pony Club mounted games team at Bath & West Show.

And it was Ellen who posted on the personalised helmet covers for Lucy and her teammates: Emma Simmons, Lily and Max O’Reilly, E.J Queally and Aine Sharry.

A good luck gift from the former IPC games team member who has nothing but fond memories of her years with the Kildare Hunt Pony Club.

“You learn so much from anything to do with horses, for starters and then with the Pony Club games, you build up friendships, agility and fitness. A lot of being involved with games is the sportsmanship. It’s not an individual thing, it’s a team effort.

“I’d done a lot with ponies; show jumping, one-day events, hunter trials, cross-country and did games when I was 12 or 13. I really loved it and was very lucky because I went to Wales for one international and then Scotland in my second year. So it was great when my little sister started on the games teams too.”

A career crossroads came up for Ellen shortly after those Pony Club years.

“I just wasn’t ready to do my final year of exams. I said ‘I’ll go and do the RACE Academy and then I’ll go back to school.’ I applied, went on a week’s trial and just loved it, loved every bit of it. It was definitely the best thing I’ve ever done.”

While certain she’d found her career path, Paul and Martine took more convincing about Ellen’s decision to cut short her formal education.

“I fought with my mum and dad for about two months!”

The best thing

It took an outside opinion to convince her parents. Having spent her work placement with Kevin Prendergast, Ellen continued working there each Sunday to Friday. “And then I’d go in to do track work on a Saturday. So it was Jeremy Harley, one of the owners who helped out at the stables on gallop mornings, who dropped me home one Saturday and he had a cup of tea with my mum. He said the course would be good for me, so it was a little bit of gentle arm twisting that won my parents over!”

All smiles: Ellen Hennessy after her first Metro winner on Easy Campese at Royal Randwick Sydney \ Bradley Photos

Once she started the course in September 2014, it proved to be everything Ellen had hoped for.

“I learnt so much and made so many friends at RACE. Some of us had some experience, some people had never sat on a horse before. The first three months were spent at the stables every morning and then classes every afternoon; business, communications, the practical stuff you need to know. Then we’d have gym three nights a week, that’s your first three months.”

“After that, if you were ready for it, the first group went out on work placement. So it was the racing stable in the morning - mucking out, tacking up and riding out - then class in the afternoon and then for the final four months, you were working full-time.”

Once she’d graduated from the RACE Academy, Ellen returned to familiar surroundings.

“Kevin Prendergast signed me up as an apprentice and I worked there for under two years. Again, I learned so much there too. I was the only girl but all the other lads helped me so much. There was one horse I used to fall off every second day in the beginning but they taught me how to sit on!”

Crafty Codger in the Derek O’Sullivan Memorial Apprentice Handicap, ran at the Curragh, was her first racecourse appearance in 2015 and while she notched up a further eight race rides, Ellen found that opportunities were limited for a young apprentice.

“It’s tough in Ireland trying to get rides and I completely understand why. Why would you put an apprentice on when you could have a jockey with 30 years experience? And particularly for a flat jockey in winter when there was only one race meeting a week in Dundalk. There just wasn’t enough race meetings.”

Like thousands of young Irish, Ellen started to look towards opportunities in Australia, coincidentally the country where Kevin Prendergast, the trainer who had given her that first placement, was born.

Leaving his yard and her family proved a wrench. “When I was leaving to go to Australia, I cried for about a week.” On the same flight as her was another young jockey. “Robbie Dolan and I headed out as we had an opportunity to be apprentices in a yard.”

The initial move to Victoria was a steep learning curve. “It turned out to be a bit of a flop. We weren’t able to be apprentices in Victoria because of the rules that you had to be either a permanent resident or a citizen.”

Putting that disappointment aside, she then moved to Sydney.

“When I think back, I was a lot more braver then than I am now, for sure! I tried to be an apprentice but obviously you’ve got to start at the bottom. I moved down to Braidwood, which is three hours south of Sydney, for a while and took a break from racing for a year.

“I just worked, travelled around a bit, lived in the countryside. I loved it there.”


The racing bug never went away and Ellen found herself back in the saddle. “I started my apprenticeship with Mick Smith in Queanbeyan, he had just a handful of horses but that didn’t matter, it started me off to get on with my claim.”

A move to Joe Cleary’s yard, “he had 20 to 30 horses in work,” followed next and as the opportunities increased, she made her city debut on Pecuniary Interest at Warwick Farm racecourse, on the Sydney outskirts, in October 2020.

Her first win in Australia took place the previous year on Destiny’s Dee Day at Queanbeyan. The date is easy to remember. “My old friend and mentor Rodney de Smet, he’s now 70 years old and used to be a jockey, often reminds me that it was on the 11th of the 11th (November 11th).”

Ellen is now based near the site of her metro district debut at Warwick Farm with multiple Group 1 winning trainer Annabel Neashem. “I was in the final year of my apprenticeship and just jumped at the opportunity to work for her.”

What does a typical non-racing day’s work involve? “I start at 3.30am, go in, tack up your first one and then ride all morning, go back and do the horses, brush them and put on their ice, care for them. You’d finish around 9am and I’d usually go back and do a couple of afternoons, from 1 to 3pm, each week.”

And how does the Australian racing scene vary from Ireland? “It starts in August, so the season runs all year round. There’s trial mornings, lots more races - sometimes five, six days a week, lots more driving. You’re always busy.”

In the middle of this hectic schedule, there was some time off to spend with her parents when they flew out before St. Patrick’s Day after two years of staying in touch via “FaceTime and Facebook Messenger” with them, Lucy and brothers Jack (22), a fourth-year Agriculture student at Cork IT and Leaving Certificate student Louis (18).

“When I now say out loud that we hadn’t seen her for three and four years, it sounds ‘inhumane’. When the plane was circling to land as we were arriving in Sydney, I was blubbering as I looked out the window. Then I glanced over at Paul and saw he was doing the same…the emotion was so high,” said Martine.

“Then we got out of Immigration and she wasn’t there, still on the road from Newcastle races! It was the best feeling ever when she did arrive to give her that hug.”

“My parents went to all my race meetings and toured around while I was working, I think they had a ball here!” said their daughter.

Two more highlights for Paul and Martine were watching Ellen ride a winner during their visit and meeting up with two more Irish jockeys who have made a name for themselves in Australia: Tom Sherry and Robbie Dolan, her original travelling companion.

“Seeing her ride was great, but seeing her win was something else. It was like being in a fairytale dream and it all working out like it was meant to! Especially that day in Goulburn when she won on the Robert Quinn-trained Sallypops.”

Robbie’s Voice

“Just seeing all those young [Irish] ‘kids’ working their asses off and doing it for themselves and being so successful and supportive of each other, it was lovely to witness,” added her proud mother about the great support network amongst the Irish jockeys.

“Me and Tom were in the apprentice school the same year, he’s flying out here. We’ve been friends for a long time. Same with Robbie who I knew from back home and the two of us came over here at the same time.

High note: Robbie Dolan celebrates on Shelby Sixtysix after their win in the Group 1 Furphy Galaxy Handicap at Rosehill in March 2022 \ Steve Hart

“When you see them riding a winner, it’s like you did. And if I won, they’d be just as happy for me. There’s a great team spirit amongst jockeys. I had a fall at Canberra recently, there were jockeys there even before the ambulance to see if me and the other jockey were okay.”

The phenomenal Rachael Blackmore is another role model. “To see her winning on the big stage is inspiring and especially as we don’t have it easy. It is a tough gig, doing the weights for both lads and girls and everything else that’s part of a jockey’s life. So someone like Rachael is an inspiration.”

It’s all happening right now too for Robbie and partner Christine Duffy with the recent arrival of daughter Maisie and his appearance on the Australia’s The Voice.

“It sure is, he’s going to be very popular after The Voice! Robbie moved to Sydney and just took off. He won a couple of apprentice titles, he’s still riding well but I think he’ll be putting his foot towards the singing now.”

Robbie’s audition on the hit TV show, screened on April 25th, has now been viewed over one million times. With all four judges bidding to be his mentor, he opted for British singer-songwriter Rita Ora and this week, sailed through to the next round.

There’s been another milestone for Ellen since her parents visit after she recorded her 100th winner on board Hemmerle at Goulburn on April 2nd.

Plans for the next 12 months? “Definitely stay here. I’ve applied for an extension on my apprenticeship at Annabels and to just keep riding winners.”

Covid-19 and the calendar running out foiled plans for meeting at the races or the Sydney Royal Easter Show while I was there. Instead it was a substitute WhatsApp call to Ellen, who is now back racing after her recent brush with Covid. “I wouldn’t even know I had Covid only that we get tested before races. I’m fine, I was lucky.”

What was the Australian racing scene like during the pandemic? “Racing pretty much continued here, not much changed with the number of meetings. It was constant tests, we had to wear masks when we were riding, owners couldn’t go to the race meetings. It was very restricted.”

A touch of the Aussie singsong twang is now mixed in with her Kildare accent. Ireland or Australia, which is now home? “Half and half! When I’m in Ireland, I call Australia home and when I’m in Australia, I call Ireland home.”

One racing boot in Australia, the other in Ireland - like many emigrants, there’s been ups and downs, dry spells and slower times since an 18-year-old Ellen Hennessy left for Australia but now it’s full speed ahead to the next 100th winner and beyond.