Chelsea Hillier happy to have taken road less travelled

Chelsea Hillier rode a winning double at Armidale on Tuesday. Photo: Bradley Photos.

Chelsea Hillier has undoubtedly taken the road less travelled in terms of becoming a jockey, spending stints as a trackwork rider in Sydney and an amateur jockey before taking up her apprenticeship. 

Now 27, the Barraba product, who spent much of her childhood near Glen Innes, is indentured to Rod Northam in Scone, and she is 28 wins into her burgeoning career. 

“I’ve definitely done things a little differently, but I’m a little older and more mature, and I think that’s a good thing,” Hillier said. 

The apprentice hoop kicked off her career, riding work as a fresh-faced 18-year-old for Paddy Cunningham in Glen Innes before spending time in Coffs Harbour, but she soon found herself in Sydney. 

“I was working at Warwick Farm and Randwick, and I guess I’ve been here, there and everywhere,” Hillier laughed. 

“I was always too heavy to be a jockey, and after working at Glen Innes and Coffs Harbour, I was resigned to never being a jockey, so then I moved to Sydney to ride better horses, and when I was at Warwick Farm, I decided to go to the picnics.” 

Hillier’s career at the picnics kicked off in early 2021, and it was short and sweet as she took ten rides across programs at Wellington, Goulburn, Boorowa, and Moree; she rode her first winner on the Cheryl Grouse-trained Louis The Great at Goulburn. 

This foray into picnic racing led Hillier to her apprenticeship and a chance to work for leading trainer and well-respected Master, Mark Newnham. 

“Covid hit, and that stopped me riding at the picnics, and then I went to Randwick and worked for Mark Newnham as a trackwork rider,” Hillier said. 

“During Covid, I was one of very few that actually lost a lot of weight, and Mark suggested I could do my apprenticeship, but I was only going to do it if he would take me on.

“I have a lot of respect for him, and he said he would, and he was the one that got me going and got me on my way.”

Hillier started trialling in March of last year, and by August, she was on loan to Northam and riding at the professionals. 

In September, she scored her first win as an apprentice on the Northam-trained Gold Lunar at Tamworth. 

Since then, she’s knocked her claim down to two kilograms, riding regular winners, including a treble at Deepwater in January before doubles at Tamworth, Walcha, Moree, and most recently at Armidale on Tuesday. 

“It was through Reece Jones that the opportunity came up with Rod, and Mark thought it was a good option, and I was on loan to him for three months, and now I’m indentured to him, but I keep in touch with Mark, who is very much a mentor,” Hillier said. 

“Rod and Rachel are really supportive and helpful, and it’s a nice work environment.

“It’s obviously a much smaller team than Mark’s, but it’s good, and they run a really good show, and they do a really good job with what they’ve got, and I have been fortunate with bosses to go from Mark to Rod.”

Trainers are now taking advantage of Hillier’s good riding skills and country claim, and she was very thankful for the opportunities. 

“It’s taken time, and it takes a lot of work and perseverance, but it’s slowly coming together,” Hillier said.

“I’ve had good support; Sue Grills has supported me a lot, and so have plenty of trainers, and I’m really grateful because that’s what you need at the end of the day, a chance to prove yourself.” 

The in-form hoop isn’t taking anything for granted, with Hillier explaining that she is focused on being the best possible jockey. 

“I still feel like every time I go to the races, I learn something new, and that’s a good thing; it means I’m still learning,” Hillier said. 

Chelsea Hillier was all smiles after riding a winning treble at Deepwater earlier this year. Photo: Ellen Dunger.

“It makes it frustrating because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t like to do stuff half-heartedly, and I’m my own hardest critic as well, but I’ll keep turning up and trying to be the best jockey I can be.”

Hillier looks set for a successful career in the saddle, and she said it all came back to her support network. 

“Mark, Rod, my manager Alison, my friends, my partner; they all make it possible,” she said. 

“It’s me out there, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without those people around me because you need those people pushing you. 

Alison Dyson (nee Threadwell), my manager, has been an enormous blessing for me; she’s hard on me but fair, and she is in my corner and wants me to do well.”

The Scone jockey will look to chase more success when venturing to Binnaway on Saturday with a book of four rides. 

“I’ve never been to Binnaway, but it should be a good day,” Hillier said. 

“I actually love going to the non-TABs; when I went to Deepwater and rode the treble there, all my friends and family were there, and it was the best day.

“At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about; enjoying it and having people there you want to share it with.” 

For Binnaway fields, click here.