Bullionaire | A Character With a Heart of Gold.

Bullionaire, by USA stallion Made of Gold was trained by Ted Martinovich for his only start in 2003 where he placed 10 from 11, trailing the leader by 25.5 lengths (approximately 61m).

Ted was presenting a horse to the equine vets at Murdoch Veterinary Hospital in 2003 when he mentioned the troublesome two-year-old, Bullionaire. One of the Vet Nurses took interest in the gelding and Ted said her would be hers if she could collect him. A float was borrowed from the practice and she brought the small-statured chestnut home.

Ben, as he was soon known as developed a reputation as quite a handful. The busy-minded chestnut had no malice or ill-intent, but was smart, quick and easily bored. Ben’s quirks did not win over his new owner’s husband and the “it’s me or the horse” ultimatum was soon delivered. The husband was chosen and Ben was sold to 12-year-old Caitlyn Foote. Caitlyn evented and show jumped the gelding, competing up to 90cm before retiring from riding. Hearing of his availability Georgia Oakman recommended eventer and good friend, Sonja Johnson view the gelding.

Sonya was in crutches at the time having rolled her ankle and so brought friend and dressage rider Tanya Lawless to trial him. Sonya wasn’t looking for a new mount and had arrived with the intention of talking herself out of buying him. Fortunately, events didn’t proceed as Sonya would have liked. Tanya saw potential in the gelding and advised Sonya to take him home. Not wanting to purchase a horse she hadn’t ridden, or really any horse at all, Sonya cast aside her crutches while her mother, Phoebe, prepared a 90cm jump. Sonya put the then three-year-old over the oxer. The first time he knocked the front rail, the second time he knocked the back and third he gave it so much clearance Sonya was almost jumped out of the saddle. The jump later measured at 120cm. Sonya was running out of reasons not to buy him and so arranged for a vet check which he passed with flying colours. Sonya relented, and the striking gelding found himself at the Johnson’s Albany farm.

Phoebe wouldn’t allow Sonya to ride Ben for three months while she recovered from her injury. Instead, Phoebe spent the time walking the gelding around the property. Sonya recalls often seeing Ben flying out sideways, spooking at anything that took his fancy.

Once Sonya was able to get aboard and start working with the character-filled gelding it didn’t take long before he had proven Tanya right. In 2007 they went from competing 90cm to 3*. Ben was now Sonya’s second-string horse to 2008 Beijing Olympic mount Ringwould Jaguar.

In 2009 Nikki Brooks and her mother Olga Reveller had been looking to purchase a horse for Sonya to campaign. They had their eye on Ben. It took a little while, but Sonya was convinced and Ben was sold, but of course didn’t go anywhere.

“Ben was gentle with Olga. He was staying at Estate just prior to a wedding when he got loose. I watched him jump the hedges, and gallop across the grass, right up to the window of Olga’s room. I was worried about him tearing up the turf right before the wedding and I couldn’t catch him. Every time I’d approach, he’d run off. Olga came out with a carrot and he went right up to her, she held him while he let himself be caught.” Sonya remembers.

“He was always up to mischief, but still such a loveable character.” Sonya says.

Sadly, Olga, a key contributor to WA eventing at the time passed in 2010. Nikki inherited Ben and has owned him ever since. That year Ringwould Jaguar was retired and so Ben was promoted to Sonya’s number one horse. Over the next seven years Sonja and Ben successfully completed in 28 FEI events, winning eight of them.

The pair were a part of the winning Australian Team at the Aachen leg of the 2016 FEI Nations Cup and listed as reserves for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In 2017, when tackling the last jump of the Adelaide International cross-country course Ben injured the tendons attached to his hock; ending his international eventing career with Sonya. The vets suggested casting the leg and boxing him for six to eight weeks, but Sonya said this was akin with torture for the active gelding. Instead, the vets and Sonya opted for paddock rest on the Johnson’s farm in Albany.

In late 2018, after a little over 12 months Ben had become paddock sound and was showing signs of being ready to go back under saddle. At the time Tara Harding had been working at the Johnson’s farm. Sonya suggested Tara take on Ben, and potentially campaign him if he was sound enough. Tara gladly agreed and began diligently rehabbing the enthusiastic gelding. Tara spent a month walking and trotting around the property, then another introducing canter before progressing to lateral work. It was another few months before Ben was put over some small jumps.

In June 2019 they made their competition debut at WAYER CCN at 95cm where they placed fourth. Later that year they competed in the 2* class at Moora Horse Trials, Tara’s first at that height, and won it. In the same year Ben took Tara around her first 115, 120 and 125cm show jumping course at the FEI State Show Jumping Championships. Tara and Ben competed in the 2019 Equestrian in The Park, catching one rail and winning Junior Champion.

“He is one of the spookiest, naughtiest horses. Half-way through our round at EITP he spooked at the cut-out horses near the water. I had to take a loop around them to make the jump!” Tara says.

“He’s the type of horse that if you didn’t know him, and you’re not patient, you won’t get anywhere. You can’t fight, you have to change the topic and reapproach later.” Tara says.

After EITP Ben had a spell until January 2020. Tara brought him back into work and they continued competing, winning the 1* class at Gidgegannup. While he was still jumping well Tara knew his heart was no longer in jumping the higher heights.  She felt it would be selfish to compete him at 1* herself, and that there was a junior rider he could show the ropes. Sonya was a little surprised Tara’s revelation but completely agreed with her suggestion for Ben’s next rider, Ruby Rae.

Ruby is a member of King River Pony Club where Sonya, her coach first began. Ruby’s mum, Kristy Rae received a call from Sonja offering Ruby the talented ride.

“It was a huge shock to Mum and as we had gotten to know Tara through Sonja and had been following her success with Ben, I had only dreamed of having a horse a like that!” Says Ruby.

Ruby and Kristy quickly accepted the offer after talking to Nikki and discovering Ben’s amazing support team that would be there to support them as well.

On the 31st of July, 2020 Ruby had her introductory ride on Ben in a paddock. They galloped around, jumped logs and cantered back to the stables. Ruby realised it was the beginning of an exciting journey when, the next day she had a ball taking Ben to a King River Pony Club rally. The same club Ben had started his post-racing education 17 years ago.

In just over 12 months together Ben has taught Ruby invaluable lessons.

“Ben teaches me something new every day. He’s a sensitive and quirky horse who appreciates a calm and consistent routine. It took me awhile to work out all his buttons and sit his big expressive movement.” Ruby says.

“Ben is so quick to respond to your slightest aid, so you really have to be ready! He jumps like a gazelle and can turn on a dime but drop the reins and he’s happy to walk home like a cart pony!” Says Ruby.

Always looking the part on cross country, which Ruby says is his favourite phase, Ben flies around a course.

“He knows his job 100% and I always feel super safe on him, but you can’t slack off. Ben demands a partnership and if you’re not 100% committed or focused you may find yourself walking home!” Ruby says.

In 2021 Ruby and Ben had progress from elementary dressage, showjumping and eventing 95cm to competing in the 1* Junior eventing classes. They won the CCNJ 1* class at the Brigadoon Two CCN, and Alcoa CCI-S and place second at the Swan River CCI-S. They rounded out a great year by competing in the Diamond Class at Equestrian in The Park, placing 20th in a field of 58 riders which Ruby says is a highlight of her time with Ben.

“It was an unreal feeling cantering around the course. Ben gave quite the entrance as we cantered into the arena, first spinning and trying to head back to the float and then spooking at the flower horse statue! It was a good reminder for me that Ben isn’t a robot, and you have to ride him. Once we got started, he gave me an amazing ride and I couldn’t be happier with him.” Said Ruby.

Ben and Ruby also competed at the EA Interschool Championships and were selected for the 2021 Pony Club WA Interschool Championship State Team.

“I wouldn’t have achieved these results without all the help from Sonja Johnson who has been my coach and mentor which I am so thankful for.” Rub says.

Joining Ruby at her competition is also loyal supporter Tara.

“I Love watching Ben and Ruby. At Eventing in The Park I was watching her warm up, feeling like a nervous mum. Sonya and Kristy had to tell me to stop stressing. I always help them at shows; walking the cross country course and warming them up. Ruby is the most deserving rider I know.” Says Ruby.

Sonya and Nikki enjoy watching Ben and Ruby building their relationship.

“She is such a genuine kid. She loves that horse and dotes over him like a mother hen. She values him more than just for what he can provide under saddle, but also for being himself.” Sonya says.

Ruby’s favourite memory with Ben is taking on their first 1* track together at Alcoa International Horse Trials. It was Ruby’s first time competing at the venue, and her first Junior 1* competition. The grounds were wet but Ben looked after Ruby, carefully tackling the course with his young rider aboard.

“I was pretty nervous in the lead up to cross country but as soon as we left the start box I knew we would be fine. Ben powered around the course, galloping up the hills, flying over all the jumps and finishing inside time to take the win!” Ruby recalls.

Not just an eventing legend, Ben is a memorable character with many strong opinions. The well-travelled gelding has his favourite paddock and refuses to go in any other. He knows he is a star and as such deserves to be fed first, any deviation from this results in a large hole being dug. You will never see Ben wearing an ear bonnet as he refuses to wear them.

“If Ben doesn’t like your float, he won’t load! If he does, he’ll walk himself on.” Tara says.

Ruby says her most important goal is to be riding a happy, sound horse that continues to enjoy his job. Second to this she would love to move up to 2* in 2022, with her sights set on competing at Melbourne International Three Day Event.

“At the grand age of 21, we will only do what Ben is comfortable with and believe me, Ben is very good at letting you know what he wants!” Ruby says.

In honour of his achievements an area of the Off the Track WA Estate was named after Ben; The Parkiarrup Illicit Liaison Barn.

Ben is a great example of the genuine heart of a thoroughbred, filled with character and loved by so many. We look forward to seeing Ben help Ruby grow as a horseperson and eventer.

  • Photo Credit: Silverfern

  • Winning Team at Aachan in 2006

  • Chrissy May Photography

  • Cotsmore Leap Burghley Englad 2006

  • Photo Credit: Meimipix

  • Photo Credit: Meimipix

  • Photo Credit: Vicki Photos

  • Photo Credit: Vicki Photos

  • Photo Credit: Vicki Photos

  • Photo Credit: Silverfern

  • Eric Lloyd Photography - Tara Harding

  • VickiPhotos - Tara Harding

  • VickiPhotos - Tara Harding

  • Waylib Photography - Tara Harding

  • Waylib Photography - Tara Harding