Donn's Articles » Ellmarie Holden

Ellmarie Holden

Ellmarie Holden grew up around horses.  Hailing from Ballyhale, deep in the heart of Kilkenny, she grew up around hurling too, but it was mainly about horses.  Riding ponies when she was four, hunting when she was five, that kind of thing.

Yet, even as a child, it was the handling of horses more than the riding of them that fascinated her.  She is bred for it too, on both sides of her family, her mother’s and her father’s families were both involved.  So when her father Paul bought this cross-country facility just outside Ballyhale and mulled over its potential, his daughter put her hand up: she wanted to give training a go.

“There were always horses around at home,” she says.  “You’d always be messing around on horses.  But I always had it in my head that I would love to train.  I studied business in WIT and went into the family plant hire business, but when this opportunity came up, it was too good to miss.”

The initial intention was that this would be a facility that racehorse trainers could rent.  Individual trainers would be able to rent out a barn or two each, that was the thinking, and the facilities, the gallops and the schooling grounds, would be communal.  There is space for more barns to be built but, at the moment, there is only one, which has 16 boxes in it and 14 horses, and Ellmarie Holden trains the lot.

The surroundings are basic but the facilities are top notch.  An all-weather gallop that stretches for six furlongs up the hill in front of you and levels off up at the top.  The intention is to add another two furlongs, the space is there, so that the horses will have a little bit more of a run on the level before pulling up.  A three-furlong all-weather circle, a stream that can act as a natural equine foot spa, a schooling strip with three Easyfix hurdles and three Easyfix fences.

“The main thing is to keep the horses healthy and happy,” says Ellmarie.  “We are a very small team.  There’s me and my assistant Ray Cody, and Ray’s nephew, who is also Ray, we ride out every morning.  Just the three of us.  And Rachael (Blackmore) comes in to ride out sometimes.  We could have four or five lots every morning.  And it’s very peaceful here in the afternoons, so the horses can get some quiet time, and they seem to appreciate that.  The barn is well aired, we made sure that there was good ventilation.  It’s a lovely relaxed environment for the horses, and they seem to thrive on it.”

Abolitionist looks well.  Second at Wexford on his first run for Ellmarie last October, he ran a cracker to finish second to Empire Of Dirt in the Troytown Chase at Navan in November.  Then, after a break that saw him sit out the deep winter months, he stepped forward again on his return at Naas last month to win the Leinster National.

“He’s not a real winter ground horse.  We were worried that the ground would be a little soft for him at Naas.  We were still very hopeful that he would run a big race, but to win it was unbelievable.”

Since then, tomorrow’s Irish Grand National has been the plan.

“He got an 8lb penalty for winning the Leinster National, but he continues to improve, and I am hopeful that he will be capable of running a big race even off his new mark.  As long as he doesn’t get brought down or anything.  It’s a big field, you need a lot of luck to win an Irish National.  But the better ground will be a big help to him, and he’s in great form.”

In the box next door to Abolitionist is Ex Patriot, who runs in the Grade 2 juvenile hurdle tomorrow.  Ray Cody takes the rug off him and gives him a pat on the neck.

“This fellow’s in rare form.”

The Elusive Pimpernel gelding won on his debut over hurdles at Fairyhouse in January, and was unlucky to be disqualified after passing the post first in a Grade 3 race at Fairyhouse in February. 

They took him to the sales at Cheltenham last month, but they took him back out, unsold, at £200,000.  It wasn’t enough.  That’s how highly the Holdens rate Ex Patriot.  Then the following day, he finished fourth behind Defi Du Seuil in the Triumph Hurdle.

He is built for chasing, so it is remarkable that he has been able to achieve so much over hurdles.  He could go chasing next season, and that is exciting.  More immediately, he is a worthy favourite for tomorrow’s Grade 2 contest.

Paul and Catherine Holden have had horses in training with other trainers for years but, once their daughter took out her licence, all the horses came back to Ballyhale. 

“It was a big deal at the time,” says Ellmarie, “to be taking these good horses from these good trainers.  Thankfully it has worked out okay so far.”

Abolitionist came from Shark Hanlon’s, Swantykay came from Eoin Doyle’s, Sir Jack Yeats came from Eoin Doyle’s, Coolmeen Hill came from Eoin Doyle’s.  And they bought young horses off the flat, Lachares and Look Closer and Ex Patriot.  All the horses here are owned by the Holdens.  Catherine’s race in the green and white of the Ballyhale Shamrocks, Paul’s race in the black and white of Mullinavat, as the links to GAA remain strong.

Ellmarie completed the trainers’ course at the Turf Club last May, the same course that Joseph O’Brien and Robbie McNamara completed, at the same time.  She has her full trainer’s licence now, she can take in outside owners, but she is hesitant.

“It’s working well now, with a small team of horses.  We may take in other owners in time, and we have had plenty of enquiries, but things are going well now.  I like to be able to give every horse the individual attention that he or she needs.  If it ain’t broke.”

It is a small team of people too.  Ray Cody, who worked with Joe Crowley and Eoin Doyle before, is a key cog in the wheel, Paul Holden provides direction, agent Michael Shefflin provides the expertise at the sales.  But the horses are key, happy and healthy horses.

This is a big weekend for Ellmarie Holden.  Her two stable stars run tomorrow, and she has three runners at Cork today, Look Closer, Static Jack and Lachares.

“I’ll be nervous all right,” says Ellmarie.  “It’s a big weekend, Monday is a big day.  A runner in the Irish National.  But as long as he runs his race and comes home safely, I’ll be happy.”


© The Sunday Times, 16th April 2017