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.
“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
“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.
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