Ryley returns in a blaze of glory

18 February 2020 | Jamie Cockshutt for Tasracing

The Ryley Major story started back in 2007 when Rohan Hiller went to the Melbourne Yearling Sales with a few mates for a boy’s weekend. As can often be the case after a few drinks, an impulse decision was made, and the rest is history.

A yearling from a mare called Rosary entered the sales ring which Hillier recalled racing in Tasmania a few years earlier, showing some ability. When she only went to $5,000 Hillier decided to put his hand up and purchase the filly out of the stallion Totally Western which wasn’t that well known at the time. Hillier not only took a gamble on the purchase but also in making the call to his wife Katrina who wondered where the money for the horse was going to come from!

The filly went onto be named Shez Ryleymak and was named after Hillier’s children Ryley and Makenna. When she made her racetrack debut there was a lot of excitement for the whole family.

“When she debuted (20 January 2008) you could say there was a bit of excitement with all involved as she had shown plenty of ability at home and as time went on the wrap I had on her was vindicated,” recalled Hillier.

She went on to win eight out her 10 two-year-old starts but by far and away the biggest win of the season came in the $100,000 Vicbred two-year-old fillies final at Melton. ‘Group One’ Gavin Lang was in the sulky and she proved too classy for her rivals.

“It’s a night we will never forget as it was a life changing experience for the family,” said Hillier.

She continued to race for a few more seasons before her career came to an end. The final tally $270,000 in career prize money and 23 wins from 50 starts. The next chapter for Shez Ryleymak was a breeding career.

“We made the decision to get her in foal and decided on top stallion Art Major,” explained Hillier,

On 23 October 2012 she produced a beautiful colt which turned out to be Ryley Major.

“We put him in the Tasmanian Yearling Sales with a reserve on him of $25,000 but failed to get a buyer, so we decided to take him back home and break him in and get him ready for the upcoming two-year-old season,” Hillier said on the initial sale attempt.

In 2015 he showed more than enough ability as a youngster to tell Hillier that the bar needed to be aimed reasonably high.

“I set him for the yearling sales classic race first-up which he won but I realised he still had plenty to learn and would definitely be better with age,” Hillier said.

Ryley had another five runs as a freshman which resulted in four third placings with three of them behind the state’s best juvenile of that season Hillview Jake, and the other coming behind another top youngster at the time Origin Cronk.

After a good break Hillier felt that Ryley had matured and was in for a big season, a prediction that would quickly prove to be accurate.

He was first-up in Devonport when winning impressively and that was the start of a three-year winning streak of eight in a row including the Tasmanian Derby where he beat a quality field featuring El Major and Code Black.

“It was a huge thrill for me to win my first Derby and I thought this is the horse I’ve been waiting all my life for,” said the trainer on that Derby win which was just the tip of the iceberg.

Two months later Ryley was a dominant winner of the Globe Derby Sire Stakes beating his archrival Hillview Jake. After his dominant local performances, he was set for the three-year-old Breeders Crown Series at the end of the season at Melton, a race for which he was well in the market at around $6.00. Unfortunately, two weeks before the semi-final Hillier noticed some heat in Ryley’s tendon so that trip never came to fruition and it was the end of his season.

He was given 6 months out in preparation for another campaign before another setback occurred.

“I couldn’t believe it, I noticed heat in his other tendon so went back to have another scan and he had injured his good tendon.

“To say I was devastated when leaving the clinic was an understatement and I just didn’t know what to do so we decided on another 12 months in the paddock,” Hillier said on the character-building experience that showed how fickle the racing game can be.

Another year down the track and Ryley Major was ready to go again, preparing to trial but Hillier suspected that something wasn’t quite right with his star pacer, so it was back to the vet for another precautionary scan.

“This time the clinic scanning machine wasn’t working and the vet suggested we inject his tendon to see if that would help in any way.

“The initial thoughts weren’t positive as his leg blew up like a balloon and got infected. I was told by someone that he would never race again and in fact he could be fighting for his life,” Hillier said on one of the hardest times of his training career.

But as time went by, thanks to plenty of time at the beach and some adoration from Hillier’s daughter Makenna, he could see that Ryley was feeling much better in himself and the swelling was beginning to pass.

After being kept in cotton wool it was time to see if Ryley would stand up to getting back to the races so Hillier started putting the work into him and Ryley would pass his tests with flying colours.

After over 900 days away from the racetrack Ryley returned to test whether he could produce the goods on race day and on 17 March 2019 he made his long awaited comeback showing he had lost none of his ability by proving too good for a handy field in Launceston.

“The feeling for myself and all involved was one of joy and satisfaction as it had been a long gut wrenching and agonising 33 months away from the track,” Hillier said looking back on a day of relief for the family.

Understanding the previous setbacks Ryley had, Hillier was keen to strike while the iron was hot and a week later took him across to Melton, a race where he would win with ease.

Upon returning to Tasmania the Launceston Mile was the next target which would see Ryley pitted against against a quality field including the state’s two best pacers at that stage in Harjeet and Scooterwillrev. It was built up as a great contest which eventually saw Ryley hold on to beat Harjeet in a slick time of 1:56 which told Hillier that he was back and could continue to race on.

Ryley then went through the Easter Cup series where he ran second in his heat and you could argue he was a bit unlucky in the final when he flashed home late for third.

He has now been up for nearly twelve months with a few little freshens along the way. He has had 22 starts for 17 wins and five placings amassing more than $130,000 in prize money, winning many of the state’s feature races including the Tassie Golden Apple and the Group 3 Triple M Hobart Pacing Cup.

In coming months Ryley has the state’s two biggest races the Tasmania Cup and the Easter Cup on his radar where he is sure to be a leading contender despite being handicapped to the very best of his ability.

Looking back on Ryley’s journey, Hillier credits the team effort it has taken to get the Dally’s Farm operation to where it is today.

“My brother Troy has been a crucial cog in the wheel. He’s always there to give a helping hand despite running his own business (the local bakery),” Hillier said.

Troy decided to follow the family tradition and take out his concession driver’s license at age 35, following in the footsteps of the successful Craig Hayes in getting his concession drivers licence at an older age compared to most others.

Troy is an accomplished horseman in his own right and in recent years has taken out his own trainers’ licence where he has enjoyed plenty of success, including with his first horse Robyn Scherbotsky winning nine races.

Rohan Hillier has taken great pride in seeing the work his daughter Makenna has done with Ryley Major and she may continue the family name in Tasmanian harness racing.

“She could of been a young driver but has decided to apply for her trainers’ licence and has just recently leased former quality open class horse Dapper Dana who is also returning from a tendon injury,” explained the proud father on his daughter’s budding training career.

Hillier’s wife Katrina has always supported him with everything he’s wanted to do, especially when he decided to become a full-time trainer.

“That’s something no amount of money can buy,” said the trainer on the support from his wife.

In recent times Conor Crook has joined the stables and the impact has been noteworthy. Crook has shown that he has a future in the industry as he’s prepared to work hard and most importantly willing to listen and learn as much as possible.

“His driving has improved so much that I’m happy to put him on and sit on the sidelines,” said Hillier on Crook who has also recently taken out his trainer’s licence and won the St. Mary’s Cup with Koolaz Elvis.

Rohan’s brother Troy joked about Conor getting a rare chance to drive the stable star Ryley Major.

“Talking to the boys around the stables they did mention that Ryley is untouchable so when Conor was able to drive in a race a few weeks ago it was a chance of lifetime,” laughed Troy Hillier.

Both Hillier’s reserve their greatest thanks to their parents for the guidance they’ve received.

“The biggest thanks of all goes to my late father Brian and my beautiful mother Geraldine as without their guidance I wouldn’t be the man I am today and along with my brother Jerome and Troy it has held us in good stead later in life.

“It was Dad’s passion that got me into the harness racing game as he loved the industry and competitive nature and that’s something I will cherish forever,” said Rohan Hillier.

Personally, I have not seen a story like the Ryley Major one in my time in the industry. To have a star three-year-old breakdown at the peak of his powers and to return after three tendon injuries in three years would be an achievement in itself.

To then have the record of 22 starts for 17 wins and five placings is a testament to his ability and now 11 wins in succession is something I haven’t seen in my time in the game.