Scroll Top

Kathleen’s Standardbred Hat Trick from Race Retirees to Royal Show Champions.


Growing up around the stables of her father’s harness racing operation, Kathleen Mullan developed what would become a lifelong affinity with the standardbred.

Never far from the paddocks, Kathleen and her sister showed an early interest in horses and assisted their father with day-to-day stable duties and trips to the races.

It was during a day at the Kilmore trots more than twenty years ago that a striking stallion with a lush, ‘Fabio-like’ mane and tail caught the discerning eye of Kathleen’s father Danny.

“Dad called me over and said I had to check out a horse in the parade ring. He was such a beautiful type, standing out from all the others”, Kathleen recalls.

A few weeks later, Danny went back to the track and found his horses stalled next to the owners of the stallion who’d caught his eye.

“I get this call from Dad asking me if I remembered the horse we’d seen at the Kilmore trots a while back. I said ‘vaguely’, only to be told that was good because he was on the float and on his way home”, says Kathleen with a laugh.

“All I kept thinking was ‘what on earth do I want with an aged, entire ex-pacer?’ I thought Dad had lost his mind, right until the horse stepped off the float. He was just magnificent, with huge jersey cow eyes that looked right into your soul.

“I turned to Dad and said ‘alright, let’s give him a go’. I didn’t realise at the time that bringing Tom home would be the start of a remarkable journey”.

Despite being unbroken to saddle and a stallion (a status which remained throughout his racing and ridden career), Kathleen was quick to get started with Tom’s commencement to ridden training.

Tom at the Summer Royal in 2005 – Derek Oleary

Within a short couple of months, Tom had progressed in leaps and bounds and Kathleen thought it would be a good experience to take him out to an event.

The upcoming Standardbred Pleasure and Performance Horse Association of Victoria (SPPHAV) 2004 State Showing Championships provided the perfect backdrop for Tom to get out with some fellow harness racing retirees and learn the ropes.

“We went into the State Champs just thinking it would be a nice first event for Tom and an opportunity to see how he would handle the experience”, Kathleen explains. 

“He ended up missing out on the Supreme Led award by one point and then went on to take home the Supreme Ridden sash.

“With the State Champs considered the pinnacle of standardbred competition, it was a remarkable start to Tom’s show career and all the encouragement we needed to step things up”.

Kathleen and Tom, who was shown as ‘Titan Thunder’, went on to contest some of Australia’s most prestigious awards in both the standardbred ring and open classes, taking home Supreme titles in three states (Victoria, NSW and South Australia).

A highlight of their partnership was winning the Melbourne Summer Royal Open Breed Stallion twice and going on to make the Top % Best of Show award at the 2011 Melbourne Summer Royal.

During his travels around the country, Tom visited some of Australia’s iconic landmarks, posing for photos and winning over tourists.

Tom retired to the paddocks at the Mullan farm to provide companionship to young stock. He occasionally stepped out to play a role in some of Kathleen’s most significant life milestones, including a cameo appearance in Kathleen’s wedding photographs and entrusted as the first horse Kathleen felt safe climbing aboard when she was ready to return to riding soon after the birth of her daughter.

Tom passed over the rainbow bridge at the ripe age of twenty-six years old, in the arms of his dear friend Kathleen. He was carefully wrapped in one of his State Champion trophy rugs and buried on the farm he’d called home for close to two decades. 

A friend to Tom in his later years was MF Hollywood; a horse who would go on to earn himself legendary status within the standardbred and open showing communities.

James, as he was known to his friends, was bred and owned by Kathleen’s father Danny. 

“The Stud Master called dad to let him know our mare had foaled a ‘big red one, with a baldy face and white legs’.  I didn’t have to say anything, Dad just simply turned to me and said ‘hands off’”, Kathleen recalled, chuckling.

“James went off for yearling prep and was broken to harness. When he came home he was two years old and super flash. I called him ‘Little Surfer Boy’ because he was chestnut with this blonde mane and tail”.

Despite Kathleen’s keen interest in the handsome youngster, James was committed to training in harness.

Kathleen and James – Julie Wilson

“You’d have your heart in your mouth watching him fast-work”, Kathleen recalls.

“He had a huge stride but was super awkward, like a spider on roller-skates. James had about three or four starts as a pacer and was hopeless. I think we figured out that during those few races, he was beaten by nearly four hundred metres collectively!

“In cart, James cornered like a motorbike. I suggested to Dad that we break him to saddle to teach him to use his body and steer properly. We thought this might help him to improve his coordination and balance”.

It didn’t take long for James to excel in his ridden training and for Danny to lose his racehorse.

“As I started to work with James under saddle I thought “holy moly, this horse is an athlete!’”, says Kathleen.

“He had such a powerful trot and well-developed, natural canter, especially for such a youngster. I told Dad he wasn’t getting him back; I knew we really had something special”.

With his rich liver chestnut summer coat shining through, James was taken for his debut showing season where he matured, honed his craft and picked up many wins in both breed-specific and open classes.

As fate would have it, it was an off-handed comment during an interview at the 2012 Equitana event, where Kathleen and James spent a few days representing standardbreds, that would inspire the beginning the next chapter for the pair.

When asked what she considered to be the preeminent showing event, Kathleen answered that competing in the Garryowen Trophy at the Melbourne Royal would be the ultimate measure of success. 

When the article was published, people began to query whether Kathleen and James would dare to dream their way to Garryowen glory.

“My immediate response was ‘no, no, we couldn’t do that’, when people started coming up to ask me about the Garryowen”, says Kathleen.

“The idea really stuck in my mind and on the last day of our Equitana commitments, I found myself out in the misty early morning fog, riding James on the Main Arena (where the Garryowen event is held each year). I looked around at the enormity of what it would mean to be there in the line-up and the significance for standardbreds by and large”.

Equitana proved the perfect place to set lofty goals, with renowned ‘queen of outfitting’ and fine saddlery specialist Caroline Wagner hosting a stand at the event.

“I spent about twenty minutes loitering around Caroline’s stall, pretending to browse whilst mustering up the courage to talk to her”, Kathleen recalls.

“I thought she’d laugh me out of the shop when I shared my plans to enter my little standardbred into the most prestigious equestrian show event in the country.

“Caroline was just amazing. She jumped in and was like ‘sure, what a cool idea’ and spoke about my plan as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

“To have such support from someone so accomplished and admired was all the encouragement I needed. I decided then and there that we were going to go for it”.

And so ‘The Road to the Garryowen’, as the project was dubbed, was born.

The excitement surrounding Kathleen and James’ preparation had a snowball effect on the equestrian and harness racing communities, with many businesses and individuals offering generous donations to dress the pair in the expensive, meticulously-tailored finery that is required of all Garryowen competitors.

“The buzz was just huge, as everyone loves an underdog story”, Kathleen recalls.

“I created a Facebook page to follow our journey, which just blew up. We had ABC Landline reporters following us around and all this other media attention and magazine articles being written. Lots of people were recognising us out at events. It was just insane and still something, even ten years on, people still talk about”.

Kathleen and Buck. – Steve Meyles

James performed a foot-perfect workout in the Garryowen, earning scores only a few points outside of the placings. It was remarkable outcome for Kathleen, as a first-time Garryowen competitor mounted on a 14.3hh, five-year-old ex-pacer, especially when considering that the winner took out the award on her fifteenth attempt.

“James stood up when it counted that day. The atmosphere was completely electric”, Kathleen recalls.

“As a show horse, James was an absolute baby in terms of age and experience. He had always been a complex character but, like all the great horses, he seemed to understand the enormity of what was in front him.

“He put his heart and soul into that two minutes, where all eyes were on us. He did himself and his breed very proud.”

Their stellar performance in the 2013 Garryowen Equestrienne Turnout competition was the catalyst for James and Kathleen’s showing career to soar to new heights.

The following season, James returned to the Main Arena at the Melbourne Royal Show to claim the Novice Hunter Galloway prize in an immensely competitive field of the best show horses of this height range in the country.

Receiving this accolade in the open show ring in a way legitimised James’ status as a standout competitor in his own right, rather than simply being recognised for being ‘The Standardbred’.

The following year, James rounded-out his historical showing campaign by gallantly carrying a young rider he had just met at the 2015 EA Show Horse Nationals.

“I’d just tipped James out for a spell about two weeks prior, when I received a call asking if a girl from New Zealand could borrow him for a rider class at Nationals”, Kathleen explains.

“The horse initially booked for Stephanie to ride proved too sensitive and reactive. She needed a safe, straightforward horse to step in and give her the opportunity.

“Their workout was set to music and Stephanie had chosen Katy Perry’s song ‘Roar’. I still get teary to this day, thinking back to how perfect a choice it was and how James roared out into the arena and gave it his all. He has always been a remarkable little horse”.

As the intensity of a sustained, multi-year showing campaign wound down, Kathleen took on a new role at Harness Racing Australia (HRA), as the Equine Health and Welfare Coordinator.

With her work commitments increasing, Kathleen felt James had too much talent to stand idle in her paddocks.  She decided to sell him to the next aspiring rider, to allow him to keep sharing special moments.

“I found James a lovely home with a rider who had an interest in dressage. In 2020 he was sold again to Emma Lindell [TARA TO LINK TO EMMA STORY], who is his current owner”, Kathleen explains.

“Seeing James still going round, taking Emma from Level 5 HRCAV as a new partnership through to Level 1, has been sensational. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see Emma enjoying James and for his legacy to continue on”.

Through her work at HRA, Kathleen has developed several key standardbred welfare initiatives, to enhance traceability, legislation and education.

One of these programs was the There Is No Finish Line project, which saw the creation of a website and social channels to provide easy-to-digest information to the non-racing public about the efforts the harness racing industry is taking to safeguard its horses and participants.

As part of There Is No Finish line, it was suggested that Kathleen should take on another standardbred to showcase the retraining process as part of an educational initiative.

“I went to visit Paul Rowse, harness racing trainer and CEO of the Ballarat and District Trotting Club, very early on to see a particular horse he thought might be suitable”, Kathleen explains.

“The horse didn’t really suit, but whilst I was there Paul offered to show me around. A big, arrogant black horse came over to the gate and glared at me as if to say ‘who are you and what do you think you’re doing here?’ I liked him immediately and Paul explained he was also retired from racing, but he had some age on him and had completed over one hundred starts as a pacer and had won over $200,000 in earnings”.

Over the coming few weeks, Kathleen travelled the countryside, even venturing interstate, on the hunt for a show-quality harness racing retiree to fit the brief. Kathleen met some beautiful standardbreds during her trip, but always found herself comparing each prospect to Paul’s gelding.

Kathleen and Buck. – Belinda Richardson

“In the end, I went back to Paul’s place and asked him to trot the horse (who raced as Savesomtimetodream but was referred to around the stables as Buck) up and down the driveway for me”, Kathleen recalls.

“Buck didn’t look like a show horse by any means, as he had this woolly winter coat which was so thick and plush it was almost velvety. But, he trotted with his chest puffed out and proved himself to have a pretty excellent attitude to everything we asked of him. I thought, ‘we’ve got something here’ and decided to take him on”.

With a few raised eyebrows at Kathleen’s furry new project horse, Buck soon earned himself the nickname ‘the tradie’, as he would roll up to the gate ready to work, dismissing coddling and cuddles in favour of getting stuck into whatever job awaited him that day.

“Buck’s always had the most fantastic work ethic”, Kathleen explains.

“I got on him for the first time only a couple of days after he arrived home. He couldn’t have cared less. I phoned Paul to query whether Buck had ever been ridden before, because I’d just gotten on and ridden him around the farm and he didn’t bat an eyelid”.

Buck’s straightforward, intelligent nature made him breeze through retraining, which was documented in a video series for the There Is No Finish Line project.

He went out and won a few classes at agricultural shows, including being sashed Champion Open Hunter Hack and Open Champion in his height classes at some well-attended events.

The goal was to use Buck’s retraining journey to show people that even older, seasoned racehorses could successfully transition to ridden training.

“The plan was never for Buck to stay long-term, nor for me to campaign him too heavily.  Paul had always said that whenever he retires, Buck’s got a reserved paddock to live out his days”, Kathleen explains.

“We put an announcement out that we would be taking applications for Buck to go on and find his next rider, as part of what is essentially an ongoing lease arrangement.  Hollie Hildebrandt was selected as a great match for Buck and they’ve proven themselves to be a fantastic team, achieving many successes and broad sashes to their name both in Victoria and interstate over the past few years”.

“I think the really cool thing is that Buck, James and Tom’s journeys were so different.  Tom was an aged stallion, James had such limited training in cart and was super sensitive when he began his ridden training and Buck had such a huge career as a pacer and then just slid into ridden life without missing a beat.

“I think it just proves that is doesn’t matter how old, experienced, or how much a standardbred won on the track, give them time and the right tools and they can be massively successful”.

With many standardbreds continuing to break stigmas and showcase their talents and versatility in performance arenas, Kathleen feels a sense of pride when reflecting on how far the breed has come.

“In my role for HRA, I’ve seen some huge changes relating to high-level regulation, rules, traceability and welfare practices. These have been utterly embraced by harness racing industry participants”, Kathleen explains.

“On the other hand, standardbreds as a breed have also come along in leaps and bounds, in terms of favourability as riding horses. They’re being recognised for how smart and versatile they are and there are many standies out there doing some really cool things under saddle.

“The industry, and our breed on the whole, has come very far in a relatively short period of time and this is something I think everyone involved should be proud of”.

Related Posts