Why do the Irish excel in the horse racing industry?

Working Abroad: Sara Rose, Gai Waterhouse finishing school, Sydney

Sara Rose with Australian horse trainer Gai Waterhouse in Sydney.

As a young Irish person living abroad, you might expect me to say I work in finance, or that I'm a recently qualified teacher unable to find work in Ireland. But actually I work in the horse racing industry, first in the UK and now in Australia. It is a sector which is still thriving in Ireland, so why did I emigrate?

Many people I come across during my travels are keen to know why I would leave a country so synonymous with successful trainers like Willie Mullins and Aidan O'Brien, and quality stud farms and industry bodies. Surely there is plenty of work at home, they ask?

Yes, I reply, there is work, but unlike most industries where there is a well beaten path of required qualifications and experience to facilitate career progression progress, horse racing is an anomaly. There is no standard formula for achieving your goals within the industry, no average timescale, and you have to battle hard to stay at the top if you’re lucky enough to get there.

“It’s all about being in the right place at the right time and you have to learn to get good at that,” was the most important piece of advice anyone ever gave me, though I am still trying to master that. The unpredictability of the industry and the surprises it can throw up are what attracts me I think; there is a story behind every racehorse.


They may be tales of woe about horses bred in the purple, costing millions, with outstanding looks yet devoid of any talent. The triumph of the underdogs keep us all humble, yet simultaneously dreaming big. I think anyone involved with a racehorse thrives on the adrenalin; whether they are riding, training, betting, buying or breeding horses, it certainly gets your heart racing at the very least.

I wasn’t brought up in a “horsey”’ family so I had to work very hard to build connections in an industry where the old adage “it’s who you know, not what you know” rings very true.

I knew travel would be very important to my career and would help me further expand my professional network. Immediately after graduating from UCD I was accepted on a graduate programme run by the British Horseracing Authority, the governing body of horse racing in the UK. I moved to Newmarket in Suffolk, affectionately known as horse racing HQ in Britain.

I was placed in an events management role within an industry body, which was not exactly the route I wanted to go down but gave me a brilliant start, allowing me to see the industry from an alternative angle.

Once my placement was complete I moved to Gloucestershire to work for a British Bloodstock Agent who managed the global racing and bloodstock interests of a Qatari Sheikh. My role was to be a jack of all trades. It was a fantastic experience and I gained invaluable knowledge by doing such a variety of work. The insight this job gave me into foreign horse racing and bloodstock is what ultimately opened doors abroad for me.

I am, for now, based in Australia; continued wanderlust, coupled with the possibility of even more opportunities, brought me here. I began my Aussie adventure on the Gold Coast working as a groom for a leading stud farm at the Magic Millions Yearling Sale, which it was a fabulous introduction to the industry "down under".

It was here I first met the even more fabulous Gai Waterhouse. Gai is a trailblazer in the horse racing industry, her father TJ Smith was a record breaking trainer and Gai has continued where he left off. She has battled hard, first to get her trainer’s license and subsequently to be seen as an equal in an industry completely dominated by men.

She works extremely hard, is always immaculately presented and has an exceptional eye for detail. She not only trains her horses like no one else but she runs her business like this industry has never seen, to say she is ahead of the game doesn’t even come close. She has a fantastic team of people in the office and in the yard and it is no surprise some of the key members of the team are Irish.

It is abundantly clear how influential the Irish are in this industry worldwide, valued for their affinity with the horse, hard work, extensive knowledge and of course, for always being good craic.

I think one of the best things about the Irish in horse racing is the amount of characters you meet. Racing is character-building I suppose, as there is a lot of joy, a lot of heartbreak and a lot of everything in between.

There are many Irish accents at the track each morning and at the sales. A lot of stud farms have an Irish person as their front of house representative, and if that’s not the case, at least one of their employees will be Irish. As a nation it is something to be both proud of and lament; we are successful everywhere, yet we export some of our best young talent, many of whom are unlikely to return.

Gai is a huge advocate for young people in the industry. She has produced almost as many successful people as racehorses in her time as a trainer. Her passion for racing and her absolute perfectionism is infectious and if you can last six months of your working holiday visa at Tulloch Lodge you will leave a very well-rounded individual.

Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to attend the Gai Waterhouse finishing school and it is the best thing I ever did. They say variety is the spice of life and no two days here are the same. I have been exposed to every aspect of the business from working directly with the horses, communicating with the owners, organising race day hospitality, inspecting horses at the sales, attending race meetings and everything in between. It is a fast paced, sink or swim environment and I think I am managing to tread water.

My six months are drawing to a close and I will be sad to leave such an endearing place and a remarkable group of people. I am about to turn 25 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but hopefully in time, my name will be added to the list of successful graduates of Gai Waterhouse Racing. Next stop…. USA.