The return of a long-lost friend has reignited a passion for riding in Laura Gatecliffe.

The 29-year-old recently ended a 10-year hiatus from the saddle after being reunited with her best friend, a cheeky 10-year-old gelding affectionately known as Lewie.

Better known in racing circles as C’est La Guerre, Lewie burst on to the Australian racing scene in late 2008 having been plucked from New Zealand by leviathan owner Lloyd Williams. The striking son of Shinko King would run a fast-finishing third behind Viewed and Bauer in that year’s Emirates Melbourne Cup before taking out the Group 3 Craven Plate, his sole Australian victory, at Randwick two years later.

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C’est La Guerre

These days life is a little slower for Lewie. The mischievous gelding has found his way back to Gatecliffe, who worked as his personal strapper while at Macedon Lodge.

“He was one of the first horses I strapped when I was working at Lloyds,” Gatecliffe said. “He’s a very cheeky character, it didn’t take him long to come out of his shell.

“He has so much personality and as we bonded that personality just grew and grew. He was the only horse I had to look after at Lloyd’s and I spent 12 hours a day with him so fair to say we got pretty close. It was like he was my own horse, we spent so much time together we ended up best friends.”

Lewie would continue to race for Macedon Lodge with moderate success until mid 2012 when he was on-sold to Hawkes Racing via the 2012 Melbourne Select Racehorse Sale. The then eight-year-old would have just two starts for his new training team before being retired in early 2013 having lost interest in the racing caper.

Knowing Gatecliffe’s enduring love for Lewie, new owners Gilian and Geoffrey Coady made immediate contact with the former stablehand to inquire whether she was interested in re-homing the million-dollar earner.

“It was really great, but also pretty scary at the same time,” Gatecliffe said of the news Lewie was hers to keep.

“I had just bought my first house, I had a mortgage and I hadn’t had a horse in 10 years. I’d given up riding when I first took a job in the racing industry. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it work but I just couldn’t let him go.

“Now I work two jobs to try and make ends meet and support myself and a horse, but he’s certainly worth it, that’s for sure.”

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C’est La Guerre enjoying some well deserved down-time

Determined to give Lewie the proper post-race education he deserved, Gatecliffe engaged the help of renowned thoroughbred re-trainer Clint Bilson to give Lewie a crash course in the equestrian life.

“I really wanted someone to get back to basics with him,” she said.

“Because I hadn’t ridden in so long I wanted someone to give Lewie the right start to his new career and for someone to tell me where we’re at with him. Given he’s such a high-class horse, I wanted to know whether he was the right horse for that new career.”

Lewie was a star pupil in his time with Bilson, taking to his new life in equestrian like a duck to water.  Gatecliffe credits Lewie’s relaxed manner as the key to his successful re-education for the showing and dressage worlds.

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C’est La Guerre and racday pilot Steven Arnold

“He just takes everything in his side, he’s a very well behaved horse and he just loves to learn,” she said.

“He’s currently doing and has done a couple of low grade adult HRCAV dressage and showjumping clinics. For me though it’s not so much about the equestrian world, I’ll take him as far as I can but I’m more interested in making sure that he’s happy  and sound.

“He’s a horse that deserves a happy retirement and he’s definitely got it. He’s my best buddy; he’s a rather spoilt old boy. I do sometimes have to remind him that I don’t get paid to look after him anymore. But really, none of that matters. I just want to make sure he’s happy because in the end that’s all that really matters.”

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Article by Daniel Miles at Racing Victoria. This article was first published in the November issue of Inside Racing.

Victoria’s City to Surf Polo Club has become the new home for a number of retired racehorses.

Amber Gibbs is only too happy to be surrounded by slow horses.

In fact, those racehorses classified as ‘too slow’ by trainers are just what Gibbs, who runs Victoria’s City to Surf Polo Club, are looking for.

The husband and wife team of Corin and Amber Gibbs have been re-training off the track thoroughbreds for careers within the professional polo industry for the past 20 years, with a number of their graduates having gone on to compete Internationally at the highest level.

Gibbs takes great pleasure in the re-training of off the track thoroughbreds who, for whatever reason, have had their racing careers cut short.

“If a horse makes it in polo, it’s a lifelong career for them basically,” she said.

“You see a lot of off-the-track thoroughbreds out there in their mid-teens, and there are a lot of avenues for all different ages of horses within the polo industry. I even see 20-year-old horses trotting around for beginners.

“We’ve got one horse that’s 18 and she’s still going strong. She’s been a good horse for a professional player we know and has played some fast, hard polo and she’s still going. These days she’s a rental horse so life’s a little bit quieter for her.”

The Gibbs’ are a formidable force in the polo world, offering everything from lessons to agistment and stallion services at their 200-acre farm ‘Coramba Downs’ in Winchelsea on Victoria’s Surf Coast. It’s here that Corin and Amber ply their trade, having devised a three-year training program to help transition their off the track thoroughbreds towards their lives as polo ‘ponies’.

Year One of ‘polo pony school’ is all about ‘baby steps’, with the first month or two dedicated to working on circles, learning to accept the bit, moving off the leg and neck reigning, one of the most challenging aspects of their re-education.

“Neck reining is where you hold the reins with one hand rather than two and you use the neck to move the horse across, a bit like a joy stick,” Gibbs explained.

“If you want to go forward you release the reins and if you want to go to the left, you move your hand to the left and the right hand rein pushes against the horse’s neck which moves the horse across.”

“Obviously you’ve got the stick in the other hand so you need to ride with just the one hand.”

The stick and ball are introduced towards the end of their first year’s training, with their whirlwind year’s education culminating in very slow practice games.

Upon completion of their first year at pony school, Gibbs’ horses are ready to enter low level competitions where they are taught the basics of polo before they return for a third year and final year where the ‘final touches’ are added to their educations.

Gibbs works almost exclusively with off the track thoroughbreds in her pursuit to find the fastest, hardiest and most supple equine athlete. She is not alone in her thinking either, with thoroughbreds now making up almost 90% of the equine polo-playing population, overtaking even the purpose-bred polo pony in popularity.

“Thoroughbreds are perfect for polo, because you need a horse with that flat-out straight line speed, as well as that stayer’s endurance,” Gibbs said.

“A polo field is 300 yards long, so if you’re doing that run down the field and it turns in to a horse race, which it often does, you need that sprinting speed, but you also need endurance. Each horse plays a chukka, which is a quarter of a game and is seven-and-a-half minutes long. That’s seven-and-a-half minutes of galloping, stopping flat-out and then going again which is pretty tiring.

“It’s a tough ask, so you need a horse that has the stamina and brain for that. We don’t want to push horses in to something that they’re not going to enjoy.”

On this point the racing and polo worlds meet. Melbourne Cups king Bart Cummings is often quoted as saying, ‘A happy horse is a good horse’, and ideal shared by Gibbs.

“The horses love the game which is something that is really important to me,” she said. “They’re actually quite competitive.

“You can tell in racing, they always want to get their heads in front and it’s the same in polo. They really try 120% for you, so we obviously want to do the best by them. All the people who work for us love the horses and they get spoilt rotten.

“To be honest we’re astounded at the horses we can get off the track. For us, they’re obviously our livelihoods but they turn in to our pets. Our 18-year-old mare that we have; Corin re-trained her 14 years ago and she’ll stay with us for the rest of her life because we absolutely love her, just like we love all of the horses who come through our yard, you just can’t help but love them.”

Click here for more information about off the track thoroughbreds, and here to find out more about the City to Surf Polo Club.

By Daniel Miles – @DanielMiles90

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The Thoroughbred Riding Club is one of three finalists for the Equestrian Victoria Club of the Year Award, the winner to be announced at the Equestrian Victoria Awards evening at Crown Entertainment Complex on Saturday night.

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A Victorian Club dedicated to the welfare and advocacy of thoroughbreds has been named as a finalist for one of the Victorian equestrian industry’s most coveted awards.

Geelong based Thoroughbred Riding Club (TRC) is one of three finalists that will vie for the Equestrian Victoria (EV) Club of the Year, to be awarded at an exclusive event at Crown Entertainment Complex on Saturday night.

TRC President Lisa Brown said the Club, which stages regular rallies, competitions and clinics throughout the year, provides an avenue for riders to showcase the array of talents exhibited by thoroughbreds, many of which are retired racehorses.

“Since our inception in 2011 I’ve kept a spreadsheet of all the horses that have ever come to our events or rallies that have been owned by our members and we’ve had approximately 350 horses go through our programs.”

“Within that, the vast majority of those horses are be Off the Track.”

The TRC currently has in excess of 40 members and Brown said each rider held a strong passion for the thoroughbred that has seen them taste success in a variety of disciplines including eventing, show jumping, dressage and show horse.

Among the members are Racing Victoria-acknowledged retrainers who use TRC events to assist in the transition of thoroughbred from the track to post-racing careers.

“At the moment we’ve got 42 members on our books and that ranges from non-riding members who just love what we do, up to our active regular riders,” Brown said.

“We have some of the Racing Victoria-acknowledged retrainers who bring their horses to get them going and give them a start in their new careers as equestrian horses.

“One of the things that we’re proud of at the club and that we really celebrate and promote is the success of our members and the diversity of the equestrian disciplines they participate in.

“There are horses that are coming off the track and through our programs that are performing extremely well across a wide range of disciplines.”

While much of the focus of Saturday’s awards night will be on the Young Rider Awards that recognise the state’s premier young talent across four equestrian disciplines, Brown said the nomination for Club of the Year was reward for the many volunteers that have contributed the TRC’s success.

“We are a 100% volunteer-driven organisation and we’ve got a very passionate and committed membership which is fantastic,” Brown said.

“We’re a very dynamic club and we try to provide a lot of services for our members wherever we can and that’s because who do step up and support us which enables that to happen.

“The unique thing with us as a club is that our membership is not geographically-based and our members come from right across the state.”

Brown will also vie for the title of EV Administrator of the Year on a night when riders of retired racehorses, including Samantha McMaster, Rianna Percy (Show Horse), Jacob Wells (Show Jumping) and Emily O’Connell (Dressage), are also finalists for key awards.

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Louisa Penn’s lifelong love of thoroughbreds drives her passion for re-homing ex-racehorses

Louisa Penn’s maternal fondness is something that eminates deeply within every thoroughbred to come through her care.

Penn is a devoted horseperson and former jockey, who currently works as assistant-trainer to Western District based-horseman Denis Duffy.

A fierce advocate for the versatility of thoroughbreds, Penn plays an active role in re-homing all of the Duffy Stable’s horses following their racetrack careers, a job she completes with pride and care.

“You do it because you just want what’s best for them,” she said. “We’re real softies Denis and I, we can’t help but get far too attached to them.

“When you work in a small stable with pretty much the same horses day-in and day-out, you fall in love with them. They’re all individuals, they all have their own personalities; you can’t help but fall in love and want what’s best for them.

“People often say, ‘Oh, they’re just horses’ – but they’re not. They’ve all got their own little traits and random things they do. You get attached to them all, they’re like family in the end.”

Penn and Daffy ensure that a horse is set up for life from the minute they walk in their Camperdown-based training facility, including elements of dressage and showjumping within their early race education.

“When we break our young ones in, they always do at least a fortnight’s dressage work,” she said.

“Not only does it help with their future as a racehorse, but it teaches them that they can go on both legs, and how to balance themselves up if they get a knock. I find that it gives them that better grounding before they go on to become racehorses, that they can do something after racing, because they’ve already got the basics there.

“They all do things like jumping too. I’ve got a couple of the blue dairy drums in our round yard and any that want to learn to jump can burl around and hop over them. I really think it helps if they’ve got that good basic education, if they have that they’ll go on to be better horses in the long term.”

Penn has actively re-homed a number of horses following their racing careers, and takes great pride in their achievements off the track.

“I get a huge thrill out of seeing our ex- racehorses out here competing,” she said.

“There’s a little grey horse running around Colac Pony Club right now called Greyt Batch, who we won at Moonee Valley with. He sat in our paddock for two years before I introduced him to the track rider’s school. From that, two young girls took him and another horse home and are now having a ball doing pony club with him.”

Re-homing a thoroughbred is not an easy, nor a cheap exercise. Yet it’s something that Penn would never even consider giving up.

“It can get very hard and very expensive,” she said, “but that just makes you try harder and harder to re-home them because you just want to do what’s right for them.

“Like most horse people, we’ll feed the horses before we feed ourselves. It’s just ingrained in to us that love.

“Denis plays a big part in re-homing our racehorses; I couldn’t do any of it without him. They’ve got to have somewhere to stay until they find their new home, and Denis always supplies them with that. It’s not easy, I remember one year we spent something like $28,000 on hay for those horses awaiting new owners.

“When you first think of that you think, ‘Oh my god — that’s a huge amount of money!’ But when you care for them like we do, it’s all worth it.”

Penn herself rides an Off the Track thoroughbred she broke and raced named Miles Ahead, a Flemington winner over 2000m who finished fourth behind Harris Tweed in the Listed Bart Cummings Stakes (2500m) in 2010.

“He is the absolute love of my life,” she said.

“I helped Dennis pick him from the yearling sales. We saw this great big yearling just caught our eye like nothing else. We bought him, broke him in and raced him. He was a really great horse for us, but more than that, he was always just my special horse, I absolutely adored him.

“When he did a tendon for the second time, we asked the owners what they wanted to do with him. One of the owners turned around and said to me, ‘You said there was always a paddock for him at your place, do you want him?’ and I just jumped at it and said yes.”

The pair have been inseparable ever since, with Miles Above now spoilt by more than just Penn.

“The really sweet thing though is that the owner that gave him to me now comes down and visits him quite regularly, and brings his granddaughter down to feed him carrots,” she said.

“It’s just been fantastic for the owners to see him. He will be starting a career as a Show hack soon, but at the moment he’s just sitting out in the paddock being spoilt absolutely rotten.”

Click here for more information on owning an Off The Track Thoroughbred

By Daniel Miles – @DanielMiles90

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