“Life is what happens to us, while we are making other plans”. That quote is credited to a man called Allen Saunders and aptly applies to Queensland jockey Michael Hellyer.
Jockey Hellyer must look back on his thirty one years, and wonder how he got to be where he is today. In the 2009/10 racing season he was crowned South Eastern Queensland’s champion metropolitan and provincial apprentice. This brought him the coveted Ken Russell Medal, an honour to which every successful apprentice will aspire in the future.
Last season (2017/18), Michael posted a career best seventy two winners, against a very strong group of jockeys. Pretty good going for a Wollongong kid, who fifteen years ago had no idea what he wanted to do in life.
His first brush with fate came when he went to buy his first car, at a dealership called McLeod Motors at Oak Flats near Shellharbour. He took elder brother Nathan along to help him select a vehicle and to handle the paperwork. His twin brother Jason and younger sibling Kane were not interested in the events of the day.
Michael found himself intrigued by the many racing photographs adorning the walls of the dealer’s office. That dealer happened to be Phil McLeod, a racing devotee and successful part time trainer. Young Michael was fascinated by the sight of thoroughbreds in full flight, with their gaily bedecked riders.
“You should give some thought to becoming an apprentice jockey”, said McLeod. “You’re the right size, and if you have any ability at all it can lead to a rewarding career”.
A quick discussion with his mother Birgit and father Alan, encouraged the youngster to immediately contact Malcolm Fitzgerald who was recruiting riding and horse management students for one of the Tafe/Racing NSW courses at Orange. “The two week course had just started and I got myself there in a heck of a hurry”, recalled Michael. “I enjoyed every minute of it. When it concluded, Malcolm Fitzgerald suggested I immediately do some work experience with a trainer”.
Peter Nestor was the trainer to give young Hellyer another fortnight’s work experience, at his Dubbo stables. “Peter’s full time apprentice was Kathy O’Hara, who was showing great promise. “I’ve followed her career very closely ever since, and I’m thrilled to see her do so well”, said Michael.
The youngster was very fortunate that his first full time indentureship was with Wade and Doreen Slinkard at Wilberforce. No fledgling apprentice could hope for a better family environment than the one provided by the Slinkards. They are warm and generous people who offer a brand of hospitality perhaps better known in a previous age. Doreen went to the trouble of introducing the youngster to the game of golf and organised the appropriate lessons. “I couldn’t have been in a better place so early in my career”, says Michael. “The Slinkards are special people”.
While young Hellyer was waiting for an indentureship to come up at Kembla, Malcolm Fitzgerald recommended a three month working stint with Orange trainer Pat Cass. Michael enjoyed his time there, but was thrilled when an opportunity came up close to his family at Kembla Grange, with Diane Poidevin Lane.
“I was with Diane and Carl for just over a year”, recalls Michael. “Diane was a great boss and Carl was a wonderful mentor who taught me a lot about riding technique. He convinced me to have more than my twenty compulsory trial rides. He watched my trials closely and offered great advice. It was a very valuable year for me”.
Michael Hellyer was nineteen when he had his first race ride on Melbourne Cup day 2006. “To give you an idea of my impatience, I took two rides - one in an early race at Nowra, the other in a late race at Kembla, recalled the jockey. “Both were beaten out of sight, but it didn’t matter. I was a jockey at last”.
More trackwork, more trials and more hope brought him into the New Year of 2007. The races were on at the Sapphire Coast and he noticed a horse called Another Adam didn’t have a rider in the Open Hcp. He was nervous as he rang trainer Chris Strickland to offer his services. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me I could ride the horse”, said Michael. “My 4kg claim was obviously a huge help, and we got home. It didn’t hit me until we’d gone thirty or forty metres past the post. What a massive thrill”.
Yes you’re quite right! Another Adam was a full brother to the grand little warrior Adam, who won just under two million dollars, and collected two Group 1’s.
Opportunities were not plentiful among Kembla trainers. It was Diane Poidevin Laine who recommended a “loan out” arrangement to Port Macquarie trainer Wayne Wilkes, a move destined to shape Michael’s future.
The pair combined with a quick, early winner but Michael still shudders when he thinks of the occasion. “It was a horse called Angina and he got stuck four wide throughout. Somehow he still won, but boy I was embarrassed”, recalls the jockey.
Michael had a wonderful run for the first half of 2007, quickly diminishing his 4kg claim.
He rode winners up and down the coast, including four in one day at a Bowraville meeting.
He’d been toying with the idea of working his way to Queensland, but was in no particular hurry. For now he was content to concentrate on the northern rivers circuit, where he was quickly establishing a name for himself.
One day at a Grafton meeting his focus was distracted by a lovely young lady called Linda Parker. Michael quickly learned that she lived in Port Macquarie, and was the daughter of Col Parker, who had a team of horses in work at Murwillumbah.
Once again the “Hellyer Papers” were in the transfer process, and before long Michael and Linda moved to Murwillumbah where the young jockey immediately linked up with the man destined to become his father in law. Michael was also acutely aware that Murwillumbah put him just that much closer to Queensland.
In September 2008, Col Parker asked Michael to ride his three year old filly Mymysherona at the Sunshine Coast. She won easily and before Michael’s feet hit the ground he was approached by respected trainer Pat Duff who had an interesting proposal.
Michael agreed to transfer his indentureship to Pat who trained his team at Deagon, and the much travelled Wollongong boy made his entry into Queensland with Linda at his side. “I had a wonderful twelve months with Pat, who was a joy to work with”, said Michael. “We had plenty of success, but riding work at Deagon was restricting my opportunities”.
It was Pat who arranged for Michael to ride out the last twelve months of his apprenticeship with the late Kelso Wood at Eagle Farm. “He was a wonderful trainer and a great judge, as his strike rate suggests”, says Hellyer. “I enjoyed every minute of my twelve months with one of racing’s great gentlemen”.
Since the termination of his apprenticeship, it’s been full steam ahead for Michael Hellyer. Almost 600 career winners, an apprentice’s premiership, and support from trainers like Rob Heathcote, David Vandyke, Stuart Kendrick, Barry Baldwin, John Morrisey, Liam Birchley, and Paul Butterworth.
He’s ridden talented horses like Tuskegee Hawk, Irish Constabulary, Zero Rock and the brilliant filly Baccarat Baby. He’d won four races on Baccarat Baby at home, but didn’t expect to retain the ride when she headed south for the Gr 1 Flight Stakes in the spring.
He was surprised and delighted when David Vandyke confirmed he would ride the filly at Randwick. She had little luck late in the race to finish fifth, less than a length from the winner. “She was very competitive against those top fillies “, said Michael. “It was a massive thrill that my very first Group 1 ride should be at Royal Randwick”.
Michael suffered a major setback three years ago when he lost his father Alan to cancer. From the day his son enrolled at the Orange Tafe course, Alan was his greatest supporter. “When I started riding in races we would talk almost every day”, reflected Michael. “He watched every race, and often saw things that others hadn’t. I miss our little chats very much”.
Most busy jockeys utilise the services of a manager, but Michael prefers to organise his own rides. He spends most Monday mornings doing his phone work. He enjoys chatting with trainers about the characteristics of certain horses, well before race day.
Michael and Linda Hellyer live with their three year old daughter Everly at Mango Bay, in Brisbane’s popular Moreton Bay district - a comfortable drive to Eagle Farm and Doomben trackwork sessions.
It’s full steam ahead for the “accidental” jockey. Had he not been drawn to those racing photos at McLeod Motors fifteen years ago, who knows what career path he would have taken.
He turns thirty one this week, his weight is constant at 55kgs, and he has a laid back nature which endears him to owners and trainers.
Like most jockeys, he hopes for that career changing horse to come along. If it doesn’t, Michael Hellyer has all the attributes to hold a place among Queensland’s best jockeys, for a long time to come.
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