Southland trainer Robert Dennis is bullish on the prospects of his growing team of horses despite the relocation of his best performer to Australia. The 28-year-old confirmed Out Of The Park, the winner of the Group 3 South Island Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes (1600m) for good friends Mike Rennie and Jack Stewart in March, had transferred to Victorian trainer Henry Dwyer.
The daughter of Ocean Park only joined Dennis late last year and won four races from her seven starts for the Woodlands horseman. “I didn’t have her for long and she arrived a well-tried horse with a few quirks and she took a couple of weeks to settle into farm training life, but once she did she never looked back,” Dennis said. “A horse like that, with those quirks and characteristics, you get to know them and figure them out and it is pretty satisfying when you get them to turn their form around.”
The five-year-old mare became the first stakes winner for Dennis, whose father Tony, along with uncles Joe, Martin and Ray, comprise the Dennis Brothers, successful breeders, owners and trainers in Southland for the best part of 60 years. “It probably hasn’t sunk in even yet, taking her from a maiden to a Group 3 winner in such a short space of time,” Dennis said. “I think it is always disappointing to see a horse like that go, but you do have to be accepting that that’s the way it is. “I have had opportunity to move elsewhere myself or take up an opportunity over in Australia, but I have made the decision to stay down here and I guess when I did that I was aware that those sorts of things would happen.”
Dennis has a well-rounded background, having been immersed in farming and horses from a young age, while he also has a degree in economics and is well-travelled. Dennis also prepared South Island Sale yearling drafts for the family’s Ravelston Stud in 2017 and 2018, where they notably sold the sale-topper on both occasions. His father and uncles bred numerous quality gallopers including The Phantom, The Phantom Chance and The Jewel and more latterly The Chosen One.
The emerging trainer, who is in his fifth season of training, said he was pleased with the support he was receiving as his training operation develops. “Only about three years ago I set up my first syndicate and now I am well over 100 owners and I have found myself a pretty good niche in the market down here,” he said. “I have no trouble getting new horses and new owners and there are a lot of benefits to training from the farm. “I don’t have to start at 3am. I can work according to the daylight and I don’t have to be done before a track closes. “I guess in a way it frees up a little bit more of a lifestyle.”
While training is Dennis’ passion, he is still hands-on with stud work at the farm. “I wean the foals, handle them and trim the feet and break-in the yearlings,” he said. Having worked at The Oaks Stud in Cambridge, Dennis also won the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Sunline Scholarship in 2014, which enabled him to travel to England, Ireland and the United States working and learning at world-class breeding operations Cheveley Park Stud, Coolmore and Taylor Made Farm.
“When I was at Cheveley Park in the UK, Chris Richardson (managing director) took me to the gallops in Newmarket on Saturday morning in the first week I was there and we watched all of their horses work,” Dennis said. “I talked to the trainers and basically invited myself out the next weekend as well and it just snowballed from there.”
Added to stints working for Riccarton trainers while at University, in addition to respected breeze-up vendor Bruce Harvey and Rosehill trainer Gerald Ryan, Dennis has crammed a lot into his formative years. “At the moment, I have a dozen in work and I am almost flat to the boards now and a bit more daylight would help,” he said. “I have the largest number of young horses coming through that I have had and a good mix of stallions and some nicely bred horses.”
Dennis is keen to see what the future holds for racing in the deep South as he develops his business. “If we can really thrive down here, I would probably build another barn and hire a couple more staff and have a good go at it,” he said.
Dennis has already added more boxes to the Dennis brothers’ farm from which he trains and said the horses relished the rural environment. As a public trainer, Dennis said communication with his owners was vital and very different to what his father and uncles had contended with throughout their time as trainers. “They were effectively owner-trainers, so they just had to please themselves,” Dennis said. “I am training for outside people, so I take that seriously and while social media is good and gets the word out there a bit, I send out regular email updates and all of my owners are welcome to call in and come and see their horse, watch them work and have a yarn.
“I have a couple of owners’ days a year. One at the Wyndham race meeting in March and an end of season one at the local Woodlands Pub as well. “I did put a survey out to my owners probably a year ago to see why they were in horses and what they wanted out of it. Everyone is pretty easy to keep happy when they know what is going on with their horse.”
Dennis said the majority of his owners were locals and Southland still had a good ownership base that were keen to see their horses in the flesh. “I feel like I have been working hard for four or five years now and the results are starting to come my way and I have just got to keep at it,” Dennis said.