Byzantium’s Double Life

By Julieanne Horsman

On Boxing Day, Byzantium galloped to a two-and-a-half length victory at Wellington Racecourse for Central Districts Trainer, Bob Howe. On 14th January he returned to Wellington Racecourse and won again. In between, the seven-year-old All Too Hard x Roman Treasure gelding was trotting gracefully around the show ring at the Thoroughbred Spring Fair under the guidance of Bob’s teenage daughter, Brooke.

They picked up a swag of ribbons in a variety of showing classes before taking their place in the main event – the Off The Track NSW/ACT Final. After qualifying at Mendooran Show, Byzantium and Brooke joined a classy lineup of competitors who had to walk, trot, canter, hand gallop and stand for judges, renowned dressage coach Mark Kiddle and jockey Alysha Collett.

“The hand gallop was definitely my favourite part, and I could tell Baz enjoyed it too,” Brooke said.

Brooke was over the moon when she and Byzantium were asked to step forward with the top five and overwhelmed when they were sashed as the runners up.

18-year-old equestrian Brooke Howe is enjoying plenty of success on active racehorse Byzantium, who is trained by her father Bob. Credit – Daryl Duckworth Photography

“I was really happy with the way he worked but it was a very strong line-up, so it was a shock,” she said. “I love the whole concept of the Thoroughbred Spring Fair. It’s great to see so many horses off the track and to have a place to promote life after racing. Thoroughbreds are underrated.”

As always, Dad Bob was on hand to help and naturally bursting with pride.

“It was great to see all her hard work and dedication rewarded,” he said. “She puts so much time and effort into this horse. It doesn’t just happen. The result is a real feather in her cap.”

The talented young equestrian has been riding Byzantium since the end of 2019 when she unexpectedly lost her previous horse, Ruby Hill, an off the track Thoroughbred also trained by her father. She had qualified the then 12-year-old gelding for the Off The Track NSW/ACT Final a couple of weeks earlier before that dream was cruelly snatched from her.

“She was obviously shattered so, with the support of Byzantium’s co-owners Eddy Norris, Chris Howe, Graham Clarke and Ross Murray, I suggested she give him a try,” Bob Howe said. “He had been very calm and trustworthy since he came into the stable and I thought he would make a good hack.”

Like all of Bob’s horses, Byzantium is trained out of the paddock at the family property at Rylstone in the NSW Central Tablelands. Brooke jumped on in the paddock and was impressed by how well behaved he was.

“He was really nice to ride, and I thought I can definitely work with this,” she said.

It wasn’t long before Brooke was taking Byzantium out to Mudgee Dressage Club and Rylstone Pony Club. They competed at Interschools in Tamworth as well as other events across the state. In between school and working for her Dad, Brooke would take Byzantium on trail rides through the bush or swimming in the river. She also sought lessons from equestrian coach Kirsty Nassis to refine her skills in the saddle.

Byzantium (Anthony Cavallo) notched the seventh win of his career at Wellington Racecourse on 26th December 2021. Credit – Janian McMillian

Brooke and Bob have no problem balancing Byzantium’s racing preparation with his equestrian schooling, in fact, his performance on the track improved with the extra training off it. Since Brooke started riding Byzantium, he has notched six race wins and five seconds.

“I think the equestrian disciplines help with his headspace and a happy horse is more likely to be a successful one,” Bob Howe said.

Bob has now enlisted Brooke’s assistance to ride some of his other racehorses in the hope it will help them in the same way it helped Byzantium. Now that she has graduated from high school, Brooke works for her Dad and plans to pursue a career in the racing industry. She loves caring for horses and taking them to the races, especially Byzantium who she often straps at the races. Regular jockey Anthony Cavallo, who has piloted Byzantium to all but one of his eight wins, takes an active interest in Byzantium’s adventures off the track.

There are no plans to retire Byzantium, but when the time eventually comes, he has already been promised to Brooke. For now, she has her sights set on this year’s Thoroughbred Spring Fair and hopes to go one better in the Off The Track Final.

“We’re going to come back and try and win it,” she said. “He’s got a lot more to offer.”

Another Notch In Elsa’s Belt

By Julieanne Horsman

A cross country course with deep ditches, water obstacles and 1.05m fences, 1.10m showjumping course and a complicated dressage test with scores of exercises to memorise. Preparing for a new horse’s maiden attempt at a 1* eventing program would have even the most experienced equestrian’s stomach in knots. But not Elsa Vigneau-Ribal. She has every faith in her off the track Thoroughbred Kuiper Belt.

“I knew if we ran into any trouble, he would be fine,” Elsa said. “I’ve never had a horse who is so safe on his feet.”

Despite the driving rain and soggy ground, Elsa and Kuiper Belt blitzed their first 1* event at Quirindi without so much as a slip. It’s another achievement on a long list of goals the pair has accomplished since Elsa adopted the Dansili (GB) x Lindelaan (USA) gelding from Team Thoroughbred NSW two years ago.

Elsa and Kuiper Belt have formed an impressive eventing partnership. Credit – Melissa Goodson – Snapshotaustralia

Elsa was looking for a new eventing horse to replace Judge Smails, an off the track Thoroughbred previously trained at Dubbo by Gary Lunn. She had educated him from scratch and worked up the grades to 1* but he had started to slow down due to his age. Elsa completed a questionnaire and was given a list of horses that met her criteria. Among them was former John Thompson-trained galloper Kuiper Belt, and from the moment Elsa laid eyes on him in a video she liked him. She booked in to visit him and several other horses at Bart’s Farm, Racing NSW’s Sydney equine welfare and rehoming property, but after just ten minutes of riding she knew she knew Kuiper Belt was the one.

“He was very well balanced,” she said. “There weren’t any proper jumps on hand, so we rolled two big blue barrels onto their side, and he flew straight over them. He didn’t hesitate, he wasn’t scared, I was really impressed. “

Elsa picked Kuiper Belt up on a Saturday and took him home to her property at Somersby on the Central Coast. Less than 24 hours later they were at their first cross country clinic at Christine Bates Equestrian. She trotted him around, guided him through the water and popped him over some small jumps. Kuiper Belt took it all in his stride. The following week, they went to Central Coast Showjumping Club where he was an angel from the warm-up to the trip home.

“He was amazing,” Elsa said. “He wasn’t fazed by the other horses and was so cool for a horse in a new environment. He is the same horse wherever he goes.”

Kuiper Belt notched the second and final win of his career at Hawkesbury on 21st June 2018 – Credit Bradley Photos.

Retraining off the track Thoroughbreds has been a passion project for Elsa since arriving in Australia from France twelve years ago. Her method is always the same – ride them five times per week including one outing, and once they are confidently jumping 60cm, take them to their first competition. Kuiper Belt was ready for his first competition after just a month with Elsa and in EVA60 at Tamworth, they came 2nd.

“He is one of the most trainable horses I have ever owned,” Elsa said. “I love starting a horse as a blank canvas and taking them as far as I can. It’s very satisfying. In eventing especially, you are creating a horse as a whole.”

Despite her extensive experience, Elsa still gets weekly lessons with renowned equestrians Andrew Barnett, James Mooney and Peter Shaw to continue fine-tuning her skills. She already has her sights set on competing at 2* level with Kuiper Belt and hopes to reach that goal in this year.

“If we make it to 2* then I will aim for 3*. I’m sure Kuiper Belt will handle it, but I will need some extra training with my coaches,” Elsa said with a laugh.

Elsa also has a couple of new recruits in training – The Pilbarafox, a six-year-old gelding who came through Team Thoroughbred’s rehoming program and Double Magnum, who was suspended at his last race start for finishing 50 lengths last. She has high hopes for them both.

“My partner Joel (Funnell – a 4* eventer) is riding The Pilbarafox,” she said. “He moves beautifully and has a lovely jump. I think I might have lost him! Double Magnum is showing a lot of potential as an eventer. I’m going to have three very good horses in my backyard soon!”

Most of Elsa’s friends also compete on Thoroughbreds and she is fortunate to have several connections to the racing industry.

“Thoroughbreds make such great sporthorses and for cross country that’s what you want,” she said. “They are so athletic and reactive over jumps. All the best horses I have ridden cross country are Thoroughbreds. My partner’s parents breed racehorses and my best friend Rachel Hunt is a former jockey and they are always on the look out for potential new sporthorses for me.”