Retired Racehorses Raising The Bar

By Julieanne Horsman

Australia’s highest-earning racehorse of all time, Winx may have had a limited-edition beer can produced in her honour, but Inverell class 1 winner Military Duke and five-start maiden Bold Rush can top that. The retired racehorses have their very own ale.

“Thoroughbred Mosaic India Pale Ale is our ode to these very special horses and I’m sure it’s going to be popular,” Deepwater Brewing Owner Isaac Zietek says.

Military Duke and Bold Rush, who are now affectionately known as Duke and Duchess, are much-loved members of the Zietek family. Isaac had always liked horses, but never had any of his own until he got talking to one of his regular customers, Patrick Herde. Patrick owns and operates Ballyoch Horses, a horse-breaking and training facility also located in Deepwater. He partners with Team Thoroughbred NSW and Backtrack Youth Works to retrain retired racehorses for new careers off the track.

Atticus loves riding and caring for his off the track Thoroughbred mare, Bold Rush.

“I thought my son Atticus might enjoy learning to ride so I took him to a clinic at Ballyoch,” Isaac said. “He absolutely loved it, so he continued with lessons.”

Like most eight-year-olds, Atticus has no fear and it wasn’t long before this brave little boy was fanging around the wide-open paddocks under the guidance of Ballyoch Trainer, Nora Eranpalo. With each lesson Dad Isaac felt the feeling of FOMO bubbling so he decided to join in.

“I hoped it would be a nice father and son bonding activity for us,” Isaac said. “I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun either!”

Isaac connected quickly with a lightly raced chestnut gelding named Military Duke and decided to take the exciting step of adopting him. They were willing to wait as long as necessary to find the perfect horse for Atticus and she came along a few months later in the form of a five-year-old mare named Bold Rush.

“She has been absolutely wonderful from the start,” Isaac said. “Being a young mare, I thought she would have a lot more go in her, but she is just so calm and gentle with Atticus. He loves Duke too and calls him his big giraffe. He just has to talk to either horse and they do what he asks. They will stand still while you saddle them up. They’re so comfortable with being handled.”

Once a week Nora, who hails from Finland and has showjumped competitively around the world, comes to the Zietek house to ride with the family and give lessons. Atticus has taken to jumping like a duck to water and Bold Rush has picked it up quickly too.

“Pat and Nora chose really well for us as first-time owners and to have that ongoing support makes the experience that much better,” Isaac said.

Isaac and Atticus spend as much time as possible riding around their property and are aiming to venture further afield as they get more confident. They’re limited by the Covid Lockdown now, but they don’t mind. They’re just happy to have the horses around.

Trail riding is the perfect father and son bonding activity for Isaac and Atticus.

“I love how affectionate the horses have become,” Isaac said. “They got to know us quickly and became very aware of where we are. If we are outside, the horses come straight over. They follow us around and put their heads on our shoulders. It’s really special.”

Both Duke and Duchess get their fair share of attention from visitors to Deepwater Brewing too. They are sometimes in the paddock next door to the brewery so customers can say hello and pat them over the fence.

“It was actually a customer who suggested we do a beer to honour the horses,” Isaac said. “We already had a beer dedicated to our dog and he said we should do one for the horses as well. How could we not. They bring us so much joy.”

Courtney’s Driven In A New Direction

By Julieanne Horsman

It was somewhere along the Hunter Expressway Courtney Van Der Werf pulled the pin on her career as a jockey. The one-time Hunter North West Apprentice Premiership winner had just returned from four weeks in America and had spent most of the morning sitting in a near-scalding bath, desperately trying to sweat off the evidence of an indulgent holiday. She still had another two hours of driving ahead of her just to get to Quirindi Racecourse and at that moment she made a life-changing decision.

“I just thought to myself I don’t want to do this anymore,” Courtney said. “So I turned around and that was that.”

With a Thoroughbred racehorse trainer for a grandfather, a trackwork rider for a mother and a trotting driver as a father, New Zealand-born Courtney was odds on to be bitten by the equine bug. She did all the things little horse-loving girls do including Pony Club and holiday equestrian camps and by the age of 15 she was riding trackwork before school.

“I thought it was great,” Courtney said. “I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to ride horses!”

At 16 she dropped out of school to begin her jockey apprenticeship with leading Canterbury trainer Michael Pitman. Her first race ride delivered her first win, with the young hoop piloting Kimberley Boy to victory at Riverton Turf Club during the 2010 Easter Carnival. From that day, the triumphs kept coming. Courtney booted home four winners on one day at Omakau in her first year of riding and was named runner up in the South Island Apprentice Jockey Premiership for 2010/11. She wanted more though so at the tender age of 18, this plucky pocket rocket packed her bags and headed across the ditch.

“I don’t know what I thought I was packing for, but I ended up getting slugged $600 in excess baggage!”

Courtney had already secured a job with then Scone trainer Greg Bennett, so she moved straight to the horse capital where she was welcomed with open arms.

“Greg and Wendy treated me like one of their own kids and the girls in the jockey room made it so easy to settle in,” Courtney says. “There was no homesickness.”

In her first year in Australia, Courtney took out the 2012/2013 Hunter North West Apprentice Jockey Premiership. After outriding her country claim, she was sent to David Payne at Rosehill Gardens for three months before transferring to Steven O’Dea’s Brisbane stables. She spent a year there before deciding to give her body a break and focus on trackwork riding. After another two years, Courtney returned to Sydney to continue trackwork at Snowden Racing’s Randwick stables, before resuming her jockey apprenticeship. She completed the last few months of her apprenticeship at Lee Curtis’ Rosehill stables because of the flexibility offered to her.

“If I was riding in races in the country, I could stay out there and not have to rush back to Sydney for trackwork the next morning and then back out to a country racetrack again the next day,” Courtney said.

Courtney rode in her final race as an apprentice at Scone on Dec 15, 2017 and was legged aboard as a senior jockey for the first time three days later at Narromine. The tracks are more than three hours apart and represent what Courtney found hardest about being a jockey clawing their way up the ranks – the extensive travel.

“Being a jockey is both physically and mentally challenging,” Courtney said. “You really have to want it because if your heart isn’t in it, it’s a miserable job.”

Courtney persisted for another 14.5 months before taking a much-needed holiday to the United States. When she came home and tried to return to jockeying, she realised it was no longer the dream she had once chased so fiercely. Her passion for trackwork was stronger than ever though so she took a job at Hawkes Racing at Rosehill Gardens and has only glanced back a handful of times.

“At the time I thought I was just having a break but the hunger to be a jockey isn’t there anymore,” Courtney said. “Every now and again I miss the adrenalin rush, but I don’t think about it all the time.”

The dramatic reduction in travel afforded Courtney more time to spend on her other passion – retraining her retired racehorses as showjumpers. First was former Stephen Farley-trained gelding Mr Smart – a horse Courtney had ridden in five races.

“I loved him from the day I met him and asked the Farleys if I could have him once he retired from racing,” she said.

Next was Mediterranean. Courtney had worked with him when he was an unnamed yearling at Snowden Racing.

Courtney and Mediterranean setting the bar high at Stonewall Showjumping Championships. Credit – Geosnapshot

“I had my eye on him since he was a baby,” Courtney said. “From the start he was miles ahead of the horses in the stable. He was so intelligent and level-headed. I rode him in trackwork until he went to Matthew Dunn’s Murwillumbah stable. I picked him up the day after his last race in a TAB Highway at Randwick in October 2018.”

Courtney has since gifted Mr Smart to one of her best friends, Charlotte Jenner, so she can focus on continuing Mediterranean’s education. They are now competing in 1.15m showjumping rounds and schooling 1.20m

Courtney is helping prepare retired racehorses for life off the track as a retrainer/rider at Team Thoroughbred NSW.

“He has picked up his new job so quickly,” Courtney said. “He is very careful and puts so much effort in. He rarely knocks a rail. Every day is a good day with him, and he never disappoints me.”

Courtney has also recently taken on a second job as a rider and retrainer for Team Thoroughbred NSW, Racing NSW’s equine welfare and rehoming division. Based at Bart’s Farm (formerly Princes Farm) Courtney first works with the horses on the ground doing flatwork, lunging and long reining before beginning their education under saddle. She also helps with veterinary treatments and other jobs around the farm including feeding the horses.

“The day I first walked into Bart’s Farm I was blown away but how beautiful it is,” Courtney said. “I love putting new arrivals into the big paddocks and watching them run around enjoying their freedom. I am passionate about rehoming Thoroughbreds after racing and making the most of their athletic ability, and while you do get attached to the horses, it’s satisfying to see them go off to their new homes and careers. I am proud to be a part of that.”

This story was originally published in the August issue of Racing NSW Magazine.