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.”

The Rumour Too Good To Keep Secret

By Julieanne Horsman

As Nature Strip was blasting across the line to claim victory in The TAB Everest, cheers were erupting from the loungeroom of the Chapman home in the Hunter Region. They’re not connections of Nature Strip and they’re not punters either. They were simply thrilled for Chris Waller who also trained The Rumour File, the now-retired racehorse who has become a much-loved part of their family.

“I couldn’t believe it when he won,” seven-year-old Tahlia said. “It was so cool.”

Talia and The Rumour File have formed a special bond.

Tahlia has been riding since she was just four years old, and in July Mum Jodie made her dreams come true by buying her a horse of her own. Jodie wanted a horse big enough so she could ride too and turned to equestrian groups on facebook in her search for the perfect match.

“I put up a post saying I was looking for a riding horse that was quiet, gentle and liked cuddles and Emma from Belltrees replied saying she thought she had a horse at work that would be suitable,” Jodie said. “She put me in contact with LaToyah from Team Thoroughbred to start the process of adopting a horse by getting me to complete a questionnaire so she could find suitable matches.”

Belltrees, which is owned and operated by former Australian representative polo players Anto and Alec White, works in partnership with Team Thoroughbred NSW, Racing NSW’s equine welfare and rehoming division, to care for and retrain retired racehorse and those who didn’t make the track. The Rumour File retired into Team Thoroughbred NSW’s care in 2019 with a record of five wins, six places and earnings of almost a quarter of a million dollars. He was given a long spell and some retraining at another one of Racing NSW’s farms before being sent to Belltrees for some more intense training.

The Rumour File saluting at Rosehill Gardens in 2016. Credit – Bradley Photos.

“When we got to Belltrees there were several horses which had been handpicked for us to try,” Jodie said. “Tahlia rode The Rumour File and we knew straight away he was the one for us. He was so calm and friendly, not too big and a good age at 11.”

Tahlia rides The Rumour File whenever she gets the chance and also has regular lessons. She enjoys caring for, grooming and leading him and hopes to one day take him to Pony Club.

“I love trotting on him and when I am upset he knows and gives me cuddles,” Tahlia said. “He is my best friend.”

“He takes such good care of Tahlia,” Jodie said. “He so gentle and careful and I trust him with her life. We can’t imagine a world without him now!”

A New Event Beckons McCreery

By Julieanne Horsman

It was a phone call to wish her ten-year-old cousin a happy birthday that set Jen Lynch on the path to becoming a horse girl. She asked him about the best present he had received, and he said “a pony.”

“That flicked a switch in me and suddenly I wanted a pony too,” she said. “I pestered my parents until they relented and took me to Darkes Forest Riding Ranch for a lesson. I ended up working there until I was 18 and left home to go to university.”

Now aged 31, Jen is living her childhood dream with five horses in the paddocks beside her house on the outskirts of Sydney. Among them is former star Chris Waller galloper McCreery, a six-time winner and earner of more than $700,000 in prizemoney. He ran his last race in November 2019 and Jen adopted him soon after.

McCreery salutes in the 2016 Group 3 Kingston Town Stakes. Credit – Bradley Photos.

“A friend knew I was looking for a horse to train for eventing and the NSW Police Equestrian Games so she put me in touch with a lovely group of people who were looking for a home for McCreery,” Jen said. “He was a bit older than what I initially wanted but when I lunged him he kept looking back at me and he tried so hard. I thought I can work with this.”

Jen gave McCreery a month in the paddock to let down before beginning retraining. She treated him like an unbroken horse and worked through the basics to ensure they were established.

“He was a bit anxious at the start but the more time I spent with him the more he relaxed, and I soon realised if I could get him to relax I could teach him anything,” Jen said.

A couple of months later Jen took McCreery to his first eventing clinic at Canberra Equestrian Park. The nerves he showed on arrival were settled when he joined other horses in the yard, and once he got out onto the cross country course he relished the challenge. It gave Jen the confidence to take McCreery to his first competition, an EVA60 event at Berrima.

“We didn’t place in that one, but McCreery tried hard so I was happy,” Jen said. “We picked up a ribbon for 6th in our second competition. We were near the bottom in dressage but went double clear in showjumping and cross country.”

Jen invested in regular lessons with renowned equestrian Nicky Lyle and McCreery continued to improve. She also attended more clinics and it wasn’t long before McCreery was easily jumping 80cm.

Dual Group 3 winner McCreery has taken to eventing with Jen like a duck to water. Credit – Melissa Goodson, Snapshot Australia.

“He’s come so far during the time I’ve had him,” Jen said. “Every time we do a cross country course I have to slow him down. He’s lightning fast away from jumps and doesn’t waste a second. I can ride him anywhere now too. We trail ride on the road. Cars, tractors and construction sites don’t faze him. He stops for people to pat him. I think he knows he’s special.

“Having him has been such a great experience. I’ve met heaps of people who worked with him as a racehorse and are interested in what he’s up to now. Charlotte Jenner cared for him as a stablehand and we’ve become friends. Sophie Baker from the Waller stable calls to see how we’re going.

“It’s great for my mental health too, especially in my line of work as a Police Officer. You have to be in control of your emotions around horses because they are like a mirror, whatever you project on them they project back on you. They can teach you a lot about yourself and if you give them the best of you, they will return the favour.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic halted all competitions and clinics, it hasn’t been all bad for Jen and McCreery. They took the chance to have a freshen up before continuing training at home.

“He was almost ready to step up to 95cm before covid hit but we’re working towards that again now,” Jen said. “I’m focused on restoring his competition fitness and his lateral work is really improving.”

Jen has recently added a new horse to her stable – an unraced 5-year-old Olympic Glory x Cubic Cat gelding she has named Bravo. She adopted him from Racing NSW’s equine welfare and rehoming division, Team Thoroughbred NSW.

Bravo and Jen in action at Camden Hunter Trials. Credit – Melissa Goodson, Snapshot Australia.

“When I headed up to the Belltrees property to meet the horses chosen for me, I hooked up my float just in case I really liked one. Bravo was the second horse I rode, and I told them to put the others away because I knew he was the horse for me.”

Jen has been working on retraining him as a showjumper and he’s already showing plenty of potential.

“He actually cleared a 1.2m fence and jumped out of his paddock the other day so he certainly has talent,” she said with a grin. “I’m looking forward to testing him over bigger jumps but I am happy to take it slowly. I’ve never paid more than $1000 for a horse but if you’re willing to put the time in to train them well you don’t need to. Regardless of which horse it is, the class is always in session. Every ride you are either improving them or undoing your work.”

This story was originally published in Racing NSW Magazine.

The Penzas’ New Pastime

By Julieanne Horsman

It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning, pitch black, freezing cold and most people are still fast asleep. Not Michelle and Jeff Penza. They’re busy loading up their horse float for a trip to a showjumping competition in Canberra and they couldn’t be happier.

“We’re like little kids excitedly heading off to school camp,” Michelle says. “The days where we set off early, spend the whole day together at a horse event and come home late, exhausted but satisfied, are the best days,” Jeff adds.

Both have been around horses for most of their lives but have taken up competitive showjumping more recently. Jeff, a veteran jockey with almost 2000 wins to his name, decided to give showjumping a crack four years ago “for something different.” He began schooling his off the track Thoroughbred, former Con Karakatsanis-trained gelding Stromaise, and sought lessons from Australian champion and renowned coach, Dave Cameron. He then took on another retired racehorse, former Jan Bowen-trained gelding Fireball, and as the jumps grew, so too did Jeff’s enthusiasm.

Jeff piloted Fireball to victory in two races and is now guiding him through his new career as a showjumper. Credit – Geosnapshot.

Michelle had initially adopted former Jason Coyle galloper, Sherzando, as a pleasure horse. The flashy black gelding had impressed Jeff with his lovely canter and quiet nature when he rode him in a race at Newcastle. He was a breeze to retrain, and Michelle was content riding him around at home, but the pull of the coloured poles was too strong.  

“Jeff had become really passionate about jumping and a young girl I was giving riding lessons to wanted to get into it as well, so I thought I had better learn,” Michelle said.  

Michelle and Jeff joined Sydney Showjumping Club which isn’t far from their home in the Hawkesbury region. Guided by friends and talented equestrians, Kathy O’Hara and Elaine Robl, Jeff and Michelle began going to the training and competition days there. Next, it was horse shows further afield. Now the Penzas are a familiar and friendly sight on the circuit. It’s a juggle with Jeff’s jockeying commitments, but they make it work.

“We often go to shows in separate cars,” Michelle said. “Jeff competes then heads off to the races and I bring the horses home in the float.”

They target the Thoroughbred-specific classes when they are available. Sherzando jumps up to 90cm, Stromaise 1.10m and Fireball has no problems with 1.20m and beyond.

“The increasing sponsorship of Thoroughbred classes has made it more enticing to own one,” Jeff said. “There’s always rugs and prizemoney across a variety of classes. Those without Thoroughbreds are getting jealous!”

“We’re happy if the horses jump clear rounds and we have a good day out,” Michelle said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in being pleased with your own efforts. Blue ribbons are a bonus.”

Michelle and Stromaise in full flight at Sydney Showjumping Club. Credit – Geosnapshot.

When pressed on who is the better rider, Jeff diplomatically declares he “has the more naturally talented horses.” “Michelle’s a better stablehand, she puts in the hard yards,” Jeff said. “I definitely brush my horses more.” Both agree Thoroughbreds are the ultimate equine athletes though and anyone who takes one off the track will reap the rewards.

 “They’re athletic and trainable with a great nature,” Jeff said. “They’re accustomed to travelling to the races, being walked around the parade ring, standing in the barriers, galloping flat out in front of screaming crowds. They’ve experienced it all.”

“They’re quick learners and agile, I love everything about them,” Michelle added. “We have had different breeds of horses over the years and keep coming back to the Thoroughbreds.”

The Penzas have recently added another off the track Thoroughbred to their jumping stable. Jeff rode Doug Gorrel-trained gelding Pheidippides in his final race and instantly liked him.

Couple goals – Jeff (on Stromaise) and Michelle (on Sherzando) enjoying a day out at the Canberra Showjumping Cup – Credit Rushe Photography.

“He jumped out, bowed his head down and gave me such a nice ride, especially for a young horse,” Jeff said. “He had no talent as a racehorse, but I liked him and asked If we could have him once he retired. We got the call about two months ago and we couldn’t be happier with him. He has a great attitude, is jumping well and has fitted in perfectly with our other horses. We’ve renamed him Bojack.”

For now, Michelle and Jeff don’t have any huge plans for their horses. They are simply looking forward to getting out and competing again. They are grateful to have their horses at home and couldn’t imagine a life without them.

“The horses give us life,” Michelle said. “They depend on you to care for them and that gives you worth. They bring a smile to my face every day.”

Kate’s Wingman Willing And Able

By Julieanne Horsman

Ping! Kate Clancy’s phone lit up with a facebook notification. One of her friends had tagged her in a post about an exciting new competition where talented horsewomen are given 100 days to transform a racehorse into a ranch horse. It sounded right up her alley and she was immediately interested. Ping! Another tag in the same post came through from a different friend who also knew Kate would be up to the challenge.

“There were two things that immediately stood out to me,” Kate said. “One, it’s for Thoroughbreds and I’ve always been a huge fan of the breed and two, it’s a 100-day challenge. It’s still not a great deal of time but it’s a lot longer than I normally have to prepare horses.”

Kate applied for the Race To Ranch Challenge at Cowgirls Gathering and was delighted when she was chosen as one of just ten finalists from across Australia. With her participation confirmed, Kate’s first task was to secure a horse to compete.

Kate Clancy and Wingman have formed a solid bond. Credit – Drew Ireland.

“I had to find a Thoroughbred that had raced in the past six months,” she said. “One of the other New South Wales representatives, Katie Tullia, actually suggested I contact Team Thoroughbred NSW. I knew of the organisation through social media but had a deeper look and got in touch.”

Team Thoroughbred NSW’s Rehoming Coordinator, LaToyah James, got straight to work poring over horse profiles to find the perfect match for Kate. There were several quality prospects but only one who had raced in the past six months – Wingman. The then three-year-old Deep Field x Fairies gelding had never even managed a place on the track, but he was well-built, easy to handle and enjoyed human interaction.

“I really liked the fact he was a young horse,” Kate said. “I enjoy working with young horses because they are supple in the mind.”

Wingman was loaded onto the transport truck bound for Gunnedah where he was met by Kate who then transferred him onto her truck for the remainder of the journey to her farm at Narrabri. He travelled well and was so calm when he arrived that Kate couldn’t resist doing exactly what she teaches everyone else not to – have a ride straight away.

“He was just so chilled, so I did some groundwork, made sure he was listening and jumped on,” Kate said sheepishly. “We just did a walk, trot and canter left and right. Wingman had a general confidence. I could tell he had been well-handled and well-travelled. That’s one of many things to love about the Thoroughbred breed. Generally, they have been handled from a young age in preparation for the sales.”

As a professional horse trainer, breaker and entertainer, Kate began preparing Wingman in the same way she would a Stock Horse or show horse, working on lateral flexion, counter-bending, leg-yielding and collection. He breezed through that, hit all the base markers, and earned himself his first outing.

“I took him to Texas Star for a training day,” Kate said. “He had his first look at some buffalo, cows and a mechanical cow. He was so brave. Back home we had him towing poles and every time he wanted to get away from it, I made him walk over it and that gave him the confidence to continue towing it behind him.”

The real test will come on 1st October 2021 when the Race To Ranch Challenge gets underway at Cowgirls Gathering in Kilkivan, Queensland. Over three days, Kate and Wingman will participate in Western Trail, Working Cow Horse and Freestyle sections.

Despite being just four years old, Wingman has excelled in his training with Kate. Credit – Rachel Charles.

“I’m feeling pretty good about where we are but I’m just happy to be involved in this initiative,” Kate said. “I want to use the experience to help people recognise the Thoroughbred breed outside of racing. My Mum has had a stroke which has knocked her around, but she is often out there grooming Wingman and leading him around. He’s a big horse but not once has she felt intimidated and that speaks volumes.”

The trip is going to have to be a quick one though with Kate needing to get back to Narrabri to continue working with her other horses. As if that wasn’t enough, she is also planning her wedding.

“I will be coming home with a smile on my face regardless of the outcome,” she said.  

While Kate began riding horses at a young age and has fond memories of fanging her Quarab pony Keira bareback around the bush behind Morisset Hospital, she didn’t start competing until she was 18. Straight out of school she worked at Middlebrook Valley Lodge and Middlebrook Station and it was when she went to study at Tocal Agricultural College she realised working with horses was her true calling.

“I knew then horsemanship was something I wanted to master and began applying everything I was learning on my Thoroughbred mare, La Cugina,” Kate said. “She knows all the tricks and I still have her today.

“I would like to continue educating Wingman beyond Race To Ranch. I want to find out what he is supposed to do, be it Pony Club, eventing or making him a Show Hunter, and give him a solid base to set him up for success off the track. Although I’ve got half a mind to keep him for myself!”

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.

Blixam’s Found Her True Calling With Bella

By Julieanne Horsman

Isabella Marcellos loved growing up in the bustling Eastern suburbs of Sydney, but she also relished every trip to her Grandmother’s family farm at Tamworth. School holidays would see the car loaded to the brim and driven north for a week of outdoor fun and adventure. Isabella especially looked forward to riding Silver the Shetland Pony.

“It’s safe to say my love of horses blossomed on Silver’s back when I was 3 or 4,” Isabella said with a laugh.

By the age of 10, after much begging and many business case presentations to her parents, Isabella was finally given a pony of her own. Buttons was a Welsh Riding Pony Cross and the perfect starter, but it wasn’t long before she needed something more.

“A family friend gave me their retired racehorse, Spy High, and while I did a lot of work with him on the ground, he had a few quirks and was just too much to ride for a young girl,” Isabella said. “I still have him though. He’s 16 now.”

Isabella eventually got her first competition horse and several others after that. Dressage, showjumping, eventing, Interschools and gymkhanas. You name it, she did it, constantly developing her natural talent and improving the skills of her horses.

Blixam showing her scope and technique over the 95cm jump at Sydney Showjumping Club. Credit Geosnapshot.

Fast forward to 2020 and Isabella was looking for her next Thoroughbred to retrain as a showjumper. A fellow equestrian was enjoying success with a retired racehorse she had bought from Team Thoroughbred NSW, Racing NSW’s equine welfare and re-homing division, so Isabella decided to start her search there.

“Being a welfare centre, Team Thoroughbred is solely focussed on the best outcome for the horse so I knew they would be open and honest about its history to ensure an appropriate home,” Isabella said. “I wanted a sound horse no older than six with a great temperament, so I reached out to one of the staff members, filled in the paperwork and got the ball rolling.”

Isabella booked in an inspection of several horses which met her criteria at Bart’s Farm, one of four properties owned by Racing NSW where retired racehorses and Thoroughbreds who didn’t make the track can go to be cared for, re-trained and re-homed.  Isabella tried a couple of different horses but wasn’t sold any of them. Then she tried Blixam, a five-year-old Strada x Teens mare who had finished last in all but one of her five starts. She wasn’t overly pretty and quite green under saddle, but when jumped on the lunge she had a nice shape over the fence.

“There was no love at first sight,” Isabella said. “It wasn’t until I went home and reflected on her qualities that I decided to adopt her. Even when she got off the truck I wasn’t certain I had made the right choice, but she was so quiet and calm. I lunged her in an open arena, and she was responding to my voice commands and working in a 20m circle. Her basics were very good.”

Isabella continued Blixam’s re-education and by February this year, they were ready for their first outing. They scored 64% in their dressage test at Sydney International Equestrian Centre and while that was a solid result, Isabella was most impressed with Blixam’s behaviour on the day.

The following month they tackled their first EVA80 one day event, also at SIEC.

Isabella and Blixam have formed a powerful jumping combination. Credit Ray Watson – Snapshot Australia.

“She wasn’t an instant superstar, but she tried hard, and it was a good opportunity to see where she was doing well and which areas needed work,” Isabella said.

The greatest challenge and most successful day so far came at Sydney Showjumping Club at the end of Autumn. It was Isabella’s first time attending a competition on her own, but she need not have worried. Blixam did not put a hoof wrong and went double clear in both her classes, one of which was her first attempt at 95cm.

“I was ecstatic that day,” Isabella said. “It gave me a little insight into what might be possible. I think Blix has plenty of talent and a lot more to give. I would like to see her in the 1.10m showjumping classes in the coming months and improve her eventing.”

Having Blixam has also opened the door to the racing industry for Isabella, now 22.

“I’ve made a group of girlfriends who also own off the track Thoroughbreds and most of them either work in the racing industry or are involved in some way,” she said. “I recently attended my first Young Professionals in Racing event which was a lot of fun and a great chance to meet new people.”

Just a few weeks ago Isabella made a surprise addition to her stable. Blixam’s two-year-old half-brother by Panzer Division, Blue Poison, had been suspended from racing for being uncompetitive and was looking for a new home. Isabella wasn’t looking for another horse but went to inspect him anyway, and this time it was love at first sight.

“He’s a big horse and he’s only two so I think he will mature nicely,” Isabella said. “As a two-year-old, only weeks off the track he was even better than Blixam. I rode him for the first time at Centennial Park where there are a lot of other things going on and I was blown away by how sensible he was. He has gone up to the farm at Tamworth for a long spell to grow and mature. Eventually, we will work out which disciplines he is most suited to and go from there.

“I really love how versatile and trainable Thoroughbreds are and I’m sure I will enjoy working with the breed for many years to come.”

Retired Racehorses Keeping Light Horse Legend Alive

By Julieanne Horsman

Sitting astride seasoned Wagga galloper Zarlu, Brad Clark’s heart is pounding. It’s something he has done literally hundreds of times before, but this time is different. It is their first ANZAC Day Dawn Service together as part of the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop and Brad is determined to nail it. They had practiced from sunup ‘til sundown the day before, leaving nothing to chance.

To his right is Troop President Wes Leseberg on former David Blundell-trained galloper Hovell Street. On his left is Wes’ wife Danielle on former Michelle Borserio-trained gelding Badraan. Retired racehorses Aussie James, Bang Bang, and Urbane Valour are also among the formation.

It was the first of four services the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop would take part in that day. After the Gundagai dawn service, they raced up to Tumblong’s morning service, then it was back to Gundagai for the march, and finally onto Jugiong for its afternoon service. Brad need not have worried. They all went off with military precision.

“It’s an important day in Australia’s history and it was honour to be part of the commemorations,”
 Brad said. “My pop on my mum’s side, Thomas Patrick Hampton, was a light horseman so that made it even more special.”

Joseph Roberts on Bang Bang, Danielle Leseberg on Badraan, Brad Clark on Zarlu, Sandra McMillan on Urbane Valour, Wes Leseberg on Hovell Street and Kerrie Stewart on Aussie James lead the Gundagai ANZAC Day Parade down Sheridan Street,

Since retiring from race riding after more than 20 years as a professional jockey, Brad has been an active member of the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop which performs historical re-enactments to keep the traditions of the Australian Light Horse alive. The troop was co-founded by Brad’s friend, popular Gundagai horseman Luke Dowell and his father Ronnie in 2012. He had been working with Harden-Murrumburrah’s Light Horse Troop and wanted to form one in Gundagai so he teamed up with former Police Officer Wes Leseberg and a handful others to make it happen.

Tragically, Luke was killed in a road accident in 2017. He was travelling home from work near Wanterbadgery when his ute rolled off the road. Luke left behind a heartbroken wife, devastated twin children and countless shattered family members and friends. Brad had always helped organise the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop performances, particularly at the races, and had intended to become more involved but this provided stronger motivation than ever. He made a promise to Luke’s wife Kerrie Stewart he would help foster and support Luke’s dream. Kerrie remains a committed member of the troop as the Treasurer.

Currently there are 20 members of the troop including a handful of non-riders who participate in the re-enactments. They range in age from Wes’ daughter Olivia who is eight to Wes’ father Paul who is 74. The Jugiong service marked a special milestone for the Leseberg family as it was the first time Wes, his wife, their daughter and Wes’ father had all performed together.

“Having three generations from one family doing something we love together is really special,” Wes said.

Paul, Olivia, Wes and Danielle make up three generations of Lesebergs riding together at the Jugiong ANZAC Day service.

The breed of choice for the troop is the Thoroughbred with almost all of the mounts coming off the track from around the Southern Districts. Owners often approach troop members to adopt their retired racehorses because they want them to be part of something meaningful.

“Most of the troop is connected to racing somehow,” Wes said. “Dad has always had horses and we’ve bred and raced our own. The Thoroughbred is such a versatile breed and it’s important to give them a quality life after racing. Besides, why have a Mini Moke when you can have a Ferrari!”

Once they come into the troop the horses do a lot of desensitisation to get them ready for large, noisy crowds and the sounds that come with re-enactments including gunfire. Leading into an event, preparation starts a minimum of six weeks in advance.  The horses are worked at least every second day and intensive training sessions are held on weekends. Wes’ horses are used daily for cattle work at his family farm in Jugiong so they are always ready to go.

Brad has ridden several horses in the troop in a race but none are more special to him than Zarlu. He rode him in track work daily and was in the saddle for seven of his nine race wins. As he was nearing the end of his racing career, Brad reached out to owner Bill Prigg and asked if he could adopt him when he retired.

“When I told Bill what I wanted to do with him he was thrilled and agreed straight away,” Brad said. “Zarlu was always a dream to ride. I would let the apprentices ride him for confidence. It’s no surprise he has been such a delight to retrain. He lives at a friend’s property on the outskirts of Wagga and I ride him every weekend. Even my 14-year-old daughter likes to ride him.”

Zarlu and Brad Clark notch their final win together at the Murrumbidgee Turf Club. Credit – Kylie Shaw, Trackpix Racing Photography.

The 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop can be booked for almost any event and while commemorative services like ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day are done for free, they do charge a small fee for re-enactments and other performances to help cover their costs. They have a collection of uniforms ranging from the 1620s to WWI and also have the corresponding replica weapons.

“It’s not about us, it’s about helping people remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us,” Wes said.

Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, the troop was due to travel to South Africa to help train the anti-poaching rangers who patrol the national parks. While they can’t take their horses with them, they are hoping to go there next year and continue with the program as planned.

“I’m proud of our horsemanship and everything the troop continues to achieve,” Wes said.

This story originally appeared in the June issue of Racing NSW Magazine.