The Southern Harness Racing community and the Southern district in general, has lost a very much loved figure with the death earlier this week of Father Dan Cummings.
This was a hard story to start, but having spoken to a host of people who knew Fr Dan well, I’ve been given an insight into this man and feel privileged to be able to reflect that to many who will have known him and valued him. He was a loved family member, priest, and good mate.
There’s a lot I didn’t know about, particularly Dan’s life outside of the harness breeding and racing world, but luckily plenty of people have been able to fill in some of the gap, not least of these his sister Julie.
Father Dan attended St Kevin’s College in Oamaru as a boarder and upon leaving school, he went home to work on the family farm at Lawrence, before heading to Mosgiel to begin his training for the priesthood.
Julie said “He was very close to Mum. She started working on breeding thoroughbreds which he enjoyed and continued (with it) quietly as he continued his training.”
Dan had also developed a great love for rodeo, especially calf roping and bulldoging. Training for the priesthood didn’t put a damper on competing; he won numerous titles in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early 1980’s.
“He had a tin calf set up out the back of the Seminary, as local Mosgiel people will tell you, so he could practice his calf roping,” said Julie.
Follow rodeo competitor Pat McCarthy of Chatto Creek in Central Otago remembers those early days well.
“The first trip I can remember with Danny was that I picked him up after the Millers Flat Rodeo and we drove to Waimate. We had one hell of a trip. We sang songs and laughed the whole way. Just the two of us for the best part of five hours.”
He also fondly remembers Dan’s ability to improvise in the days when saddles weren’t tailor-made for rodeo events.
“There weren’t many western saddles round in those days. Danny had an old stock saddle -not sure whether it was an Australian breaker or what it was. There was no horn on the front so Danny had a bolt stuck in the pommel. He had it braced back round the seat of the saddle. It was really quite something. Danny used to practice in it. Most people wouldn’t have even got into the saddle let alone trying to rope in it.”
In the rodeo world there were road trips, banter in abundance and loads of laughs.
Pat continued, “I always associate Danny with the Waimate Rodeo because we used to have a hell of a party at Johnsons Pub. Bill Johnson was a great friend of Danny’s. I remember one night we were in the pub and I said to Danny ‘We should sue you because you married me and you married Bill and none of them turned out.’ You could say things like that to Danny.”
Dan also had a few party tricks back in those early days.
“Danny was a hell of a gymnast and he kept himself in real good shape. He used to have an act he’d put on in the pub where he’d get up on his hands with his feet in the air and walk along the bar. He was a hard thing and he loved a good time.”
McCarthy says he had a deep respect for his follow rider.
“Before he went away and became a priest he did a bit of living which a lot of these clergymen didn’t do, so he could relate to anything. I was telling someone the other day ‘If every priest or Preacher was like Danny Cummings, religion would be totally different.”
Outside of competing he was also the Secretary of the Outram Rodeo Club for thirteen years and Mid-Canterbury horse trainer Simon Adlam remembers him turning up at his stables proudly wearing the Club’s logo.
“He used to rock in here on his way to Christchurch wearing a pair of jeans, a denim shirt with Outram Rodeo on it and a red, white and green Tamizhan cap like the old timers used to wear. I use to say to people that were here, that they better watch themselves because a priest has just turned up,” Adlam said.
As a Catholic Priest in the Otago Diocese he spent some time in many parishes, including St Bernadette’s (Forbury – handy to the race track), Mornington, St Mary’s Kaikorai, Port Chalmers and latterly at St Thomas Aquinas in Winton.
“Training to become a priest takes seven years but Danny took two years off in the middle to study for an MA at Otago University,” Julie said.
Cummings was in Port Charmers during the 1990 Aramoana Massacre when thirteen people were killed including local policeman Stewart Guthrie.
“At that time he was also a Police Chaplain because as a priest they all have other wee jobs. He was very close to Stu and his wife.”
Other roles that Dan held included being Hospital Chaplin, and he was in charge of Catholic Education in Otago.
Father Dan also spent ten years at the Winton Parish of St Thomas Aquinas where he was able to continue training his pacers which were stabled at Derek Dynes stables.
“He loved it down there. He had fond memories of being able to train with Derek. He got very involved with music for the church, while at Winton. He loved the technical challenge of setting up speakers and sound systems,” Julie said.
Dynes son in law Trevor Proctor says although pedigrees were talked about regularly, there was always plenty of other chat.
“They used to talk about religion and the other religion (the horses). It used to blow my mind when they talked about breeding. They’d go back years and years. It was unbelievable just listening to them,” he said.
Dan held an Open Drivers licence for twenty five seasons. He recorded his only ever win driving Tact Hayley Jane for Dynes at the Wairio meeting in December 2004.
“He said ‘I don’t think Derek wanted to win the race so that’s why he put me on.’ He said ‘I drew one on the second line and the horse that drew one (on the front) lead all the way. I think I messed it up for him,” Proctor recalls.
And the following day spirits were high at St Thomas Aquinas.
“When he won that race Dianne and I got a photo of the win, presented it to him, and it was hung in the church at Winton. On the Sunday after the races he joked that there were more losing tickets on his drive than there was money in the plate.”
And Proctor said Dynes was always under pressure to head to church but that was something Dan never quite achieved until the very end.
In referring to this, Brent McIntyre from Macca Lodge said “When he was at Winton one of the O’Reilly boys rang Derek and said ‘He’ll get you, he’ll have you going to church every Sunday.’ Old Derek used to say the only way they’ll get me in the church is if they carry me in.”
Simon Adlam continued the story – “When Derek passed away, Father Dan took the service.
“At Derek’s funeral in Winton the first thing Father Dan said was ‘I finally got ya.”
As a priest Dan was required to take a number of sabbaticals and one was to England where he was to stay for nine months, attending a university studying a theological paper, the last three months though were spent at a racing stable In France.
Julie said “He didn’t see the need to sit the exam because it wasn’t going to mean anything. So he went to a racing stable in France which he thoroughly enjoyed. He didn’t speak much French so there was a barrier there, but I remember him saying ‘If they give me a grooming brush and a hoof pick I’ll know what they’re saying.’ He was basically the boy. I think he got to sit in the cart a couple of times.
As a trainer Father Dan held a training licence for twenty nine years, training seven winners including Petra Star and Maureens Dream. Maureen’s Dream was his first winner at the Tuapeka Meeting at Forbury Park in November 1984.
Julie says in his later years Dan returned to live at Lawrence on the home farm, and together with Peter, got great satisfaction in breaking in and training the fillies that the lodge kept and in particular seeing Bonnie Joan perform at the highest level.
“He got a huge thrill out of Bonnie. Although rodeo and racing were secondary to his priesthood, in the last few years he’s really enjoyed training the horses. He got a great thrill training two and three year old winners Notaword and Tuapeka Jessie. He never boasted but I think he was quite proud of that.”
Notaword won as a two year old at Forbury Park in July 2018 and in November 2019 Tuapeka Jessie won at the same venue as a three year old.
Notaword in America – Photo supplied – John Curtin
West Otago breeder and trainer John Stiven said when it came to training, one of Cumming’s pet subjects was horses tying up.
“He often told me that when he was training from Forbury Park where the horses never got out to grass, he never had any problems with tie ups. When he was at Winton and Lawrence they did. He’s been extremely helpful to me in sorting out Countess Of Arden. He analysed the blood tests we had on her in a totally different way.”
Tuapeka Lodge Stud was established in 1965 and since 1977 has been run by Dan, his brother Peter and his sister Julie.
“Dan was very aware that it had to pay for itself which it has done over the fifty plus years it’s been operating,” Julie said.
Dan, who oversaw the preparation of the stud’s yearlings for the National Sale in Christchurch was a pioneer when it came to publicity using the internet and he was the first to introduce videos for prospective buyers to view.
“He liked to push the boundaries by making the videos for Tuapeka Lodge and being the first. He filmed and edited them all himself. He was way ahead of his time. It must be twenty years ago that we started making those videos. He would ride my horse and lead the yearling and we would video it so the people could see the legs and the feet of the horse as they were trotting. He loved the challenge of doing that,” Julie said.
Over the years Father Dan has built very strong relationships with a number of people. Perhaps one of the longest is with fellow breeder Brian West who met the Cummings family forty years ago through a work colleague who owned a farm next to Tuapeka Lodge.
In 1985 West tried to buy Tuapeka Kay (Smooth Fella – Tuapeka Star) from the Cummings as a foal.
“It didn’t happen and we had to buy her at the Sales. So that’s when my connection with the Tuapeka horses began and I met Dan after that.”
West says Cummings had a vast knowledge of Standardbred pedigree.
“He was a star really. We literally spent thousands of hours talking about what was happening overseas. This of course was way before semen transport and shuttle stallions. We had second rate stallions coming here because at that time racing was thriving in North America. It was very expensive compared to here. On one of my early trips over there horses were grazing on a farm at $12.00 US a day and here it was $1 a day. That gives you a comparison as to where we were in terms of money and strength. In the States the old boys looked after what went on and they looked after their own interests first. That’s why it was so difficult to get stallions to shuttle down under. I mean, who would breed today to an unraced stallion like Vance Hanover. He wouldn’t get a shot especially now days when there’s only about 2000 mares being bred from,” West said.
West and Fr Dan enjoyed some trips overseas together, one a month long to North America and Canada with bloodstock agent John Curtin.
“We realised during the trip that we were way behind in regards to pedigrees. It was also a great learning exercise for Dan and I because we found out what the American farms were feeding their foals to grow them into good strong yearlings. Nobody here had any idea of what we should be feeding young horses in those early days.”
West and Cummings also had a close association at Sale time where their yearling were boxed side by side in the same barn for many years.
“In 2008 we actually prepared the yearlings for Tuapeka because Julie and Lew’s farm at Mosgiel where the horses were being prepped was flooded out.”
West vividly recalls one standout yearling in the draft that year.
“When the yearlings arrived here there was one absolute standout so I phoned Dan and asked him how much he had that yearling insured for. He said $50,000. I told him he should double it. The horse (Tuapeka Mariner) sold for $250,000 so it was a wonderful experience going through that with him as well.”
West, Father Dan and Braeden and Caroline Whitelock spent lots of time together.
“We did a lot of stuff outside the horse world but we always gravitated back to the horses, pedigrees and families.”
After trying for a few years, West finally convinced Dan to go with himself and the Whitelocks to the Breeders Crown in Australia.
Fr Dan’s connection with Braeden and Caroline Whitelock who live in the Manawatu, goes back a long way, in fact horse wise, right back to the early 1900’s.
It transpires that Braeden’s great great grandfather George Craw owned a horse called Nelson Derby which won the 1915 Great Northern Derby. Unfortunately due to the depression Craw had to sell the horse which ultimately went on to win the 1925 Auckland Cup, but for his new owner.
As a sire Nelson Derby sired Single Star which was the grand dam of Hindu Star. Hindu Star’s third foal was Sakuntala (Armbro Del) and co-incidentally Dan’s parents Cliff and Joan bought her in 1974.
“When Caroline and I got married we went to see Dan at the Catholic Presbytery in Dunedin. We’d never met him before but we asked him if we could buy a filly. It didn’t come to anything but Dan rang us later and said Tuapeka Star was for sale. Ivan Harris had bought the filly off him a few years before but she hadn’t had a foal for three years,” said Braeden.
Subsequently the Whitelocks bought Tuapeka Star and have had great success with the family. She left Braeside Star the grand dam of O Baby which won four Group One races.
“We’ve been good friends since. We’ve talked about horses, breeding, and life around many things. He’s (Fr Dan) remarkable to me because he put other people first. He’s done that in his work and his life and hasn’t bothered about material things. His priority has always been the people, their hardships and how he can support them.” I get
Whitelock says it was Fr Dan who came up with the idea of a horse trek as a way of supporting well known Christchurch vet Bill Bishop and his wife Helen when they lost their house to a fire.
“We got a group of twenty people and trekked from Hawarden to Hanmer Springs over three days, staying in woolsheds. We ended up with a priest, a vet and a couple of Americans. It was great.”
“Dan rang one day and said he was a bit bored. I told him that wasn’t a problem.”
Braeden purchased Avana which was bought at the 2019 Yearling Sales, and the Cummings took a half share.
Dan broke Avana in and worked her up before sending her to Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen at Rolleston where she’s currently in work.
Mid Canterbury trainer Simon Adlam has also been a big part of Fr Dan’s life, having trained many Tuapeka horses – the first being Tuapeka Wings in 2004.
Their association began on the recommendation of Derek Dynes who spent some time in Mid Canterbury training horses down the road from Robert Cameron whom Adlam worked for.
“Dan (asked) Derek when they were both down in Winton if he knew a guy called Simon Adlam. Derek said yeah yeah he’s alright, he’s one of you lot, meaning that I was a Catholic,” said Adlam.
Tuapeka Lodge started sending some of it’s race mares north to Adlam. “Often I’d race them through the winter, time trial them and send them back to become broodmares.”
Adlam trained good mares Raindowne and Wave Runner for Tuapeka, and with his family he visited Lawrence on a number of occasions.
“We called in to see him not long after he’d shifted back to the farm and we took the kids down there because they were educated at a Catholic school. They couldn’t believe a priest could train and would ride horses around a farm.
He always had an interest in the kids. This year Caitlin prepared a yearling for the sales and he came over and gave her a few pointers on how to lead the horse round the ring.”
Adlam looked forward to getting a call from Dan every fortnight.
“He knew what was happening breeding wise and what was going on in America. He was just brilliant.”
For the last ten years Macca Lodge has looked after the Tuapeka Lodge broodmares in the spring. After the foals are born and the mares are served they all return to Lawrence. Stud master Brent McIntyre says he always enjoyed visits from Father Dan.
“Dan was a straight shooter. He was a great thinker when it came to breeding. He’s done it for a long time so he was an interesting guy to have a yarn too. He would often think outside the square,” he said.
McIntyre’s association with Tuapeka Lodge began in the early 2000s when he purchased Jamie (Albert Albert – Tuapeka Tango). Her pedigree goes back to Lumber Dream mare Mains Lady which is another family the Lodge has had great success with.
“Both sides of their breed have done a hell of a job. There’s always been a superstar. The family has done a great job in making sure it’s gone ahead.”
McIntyre says Dan had a special way with the mares and foals.
“He was a great man to come round and inspect his foals especially in the first two weeks when (the mares) are really protective of their foals. But with Dan he’d just walk out in the paddock and say ‘woo stand’ and walk round them and inspect them. It was unreal. He’s the only guy I’ve seen doing that. He must have had a few old rodeo tricks up his sleeve.”
However, according to Julie there was one mare he never quite mastered;
“Maureens Dream. She was a very strong willed mare. For the ten or so foals she had she would chase the stud master out of the paddock. I remember she was at Peter Cowan’s at Mosgiel once. We told Peter not to go in there but he thought he’d go in on a bike. Well she chased the bike, he dumped it, jumped the fence and she kicked the bike. I remember going with Danny to Wai Eyre and he thought he was cocky enough to walk up to her but he didn’t go too close. So Brent may be right with most mares but not with Maureens Dream,” she said.
One of the South’s great successes has been the Southern Bred Southern Reared group of breeders who collaborate to promote southern yearlings that have been prepared for the National Sales in Christchurch. McIntyre says Dan was an integral part of that group.
“He going to be missed. He was like the wise old owl. Everyone would be away on a tangent and he would bring them back into line. He had a deep respect.”
John and Judy Stiven from Arden Lodge in West Otago also had a close relationship with Father Dan.
“We’re really going to miss him at Arden Lodge because when he was down this way he’d would call us from the ‘Koi (Waikoikoi) and say ‘I’m fifteen minutes away, get the billy on.’ “He liked Judy’s baking. He would have a yarn about this and that and then say he needed to get going,” Stiven said.
Father Dan at Arden Lodge – Photo Judy Stiven
John was one of the founders of Southern Bred Southern Reared and he said initially Dan wasn’t part of the group, but once he joined he really enjoyed the company.
“He enjoyed working with a positive group. His experience doing banners on the website was great for us but he still liked to have his Tuapeka Lodge banners up first, and he’d always remind us of the extra hits his site got. One of his strengths was to listen and then sum up on everything that had been said. I guess he learn that by being in the Priesthood. He’ll be greatly missed by SBSR.”
Over the last few years Tuapeka Lodge has reduced the numbers of mares the stud breeds, and Bloodstock agent John Curtin recently sold their last three race horses.
The Stud is the longest continuous vendor at the National Sales in Christchurch and over its fifty five years of operation it produced an incredible ten sales toppers.
- 1977: Columbus (Bachelor Hanover – Sakuntala colt) $26,000
- 1979: Young Tala (Young Charles – Sakuntala colt) $20,000
- 1985: Tuapeka Direct (Smooth Fella – Sakuntala colt) $81,000
- 1987: Tuapeka Kay (Sooth Fella – Tuapeka Star filly) $180,000
- 1990: Ermis (Smooth Fella – Tuapeka Star colt) $34,000
- 1991: Kokona (Vance Hanover – Maureen’s Dream filly) $25,000
- 1993: Urrain (Vance Hanover – Marsa Star colt) $85,000
- 1994: Iraklis (Vance Hanover –Tuapeka Star colt) $88,000
- 1999: Lavros Harrier (Falcon Seelster – Marsa Star colt) $170,000
- 2008: Tuapeka Mariner (Christian Cullen-Seamoon colt) $250,000
“He got a huge delight out of seeing them well presented and well behaved,” Julie said of Dan who prepared most of the Tuapeka yearlings.
Sakuntala (Armbro Del – Hindu Star) bought by Dan’s parents Cliff and Joan in 1974 from Templeton breeder Ted Graham was certainly the backbone to the stud’s success.
Julie says Dan got a great thrill out of watching the many yearlings he prepared turn into outstanding racehorses.
However in later years it was Bonnie Joan that held a special place for him.
The Somebeachsomewhere mare won ten races; seven as a three year old and she earned $210,464. One of the most satisfying wins for the family was her winning of the 2017 Southland Oaks Final.
Bonnie Joan and Dexter Dunn after winning the 2017 Southland Oaks -Photo Bruce Stewart.
Julie Davie, Peter Cummings, Dan Cummings, Brent McIntyre, Sheree McIntyre and Jed Mooar – Photo Bruce Stewart
Dan said after the win, “Even when she qualified on the grass at Balfour she seemed to be stronger. She’s got a great cruising speed and looks relaxed. The other feature she’s got is gait speed, and she doesn’t have to grind to get to the front. She seems to be able to do it, and then they leave her alone which is great.”
“She’s the best filly we’ve raced in our own name,” he added.
Dan was able to see Bonnie Joan’s first foal after he was born at Macca Lodge, and Julie said when the colt came home to the farm he was right proud.
“He’s a cracker, just stunning and Danny was very very proud of him. I’m not on the farm, but he rang me and said the colt was a real beaut. He’ll probably be called Tuapeka Dan but we haven’t done that yet,” she said.
Dan loved a feed of oysters and he loved to go skiing with the family.
“Dan, Chris, Peter and Jim (their brothers) did like to go fast.”
In his last days Fr Dan had many visitors. Along with other friends, the committee of Southern Bred Southern Reared called into the Lodge to say their goodbyes to him as did Brian West and the Whitelocks.
“People round New Zealand came to see him in the end. They all had to go and see his foals. He was pretty proud of them,” said Julie.
“Caroline, Brian West and I and a few other friends were lucky enough to go and see him a few weeks ago and spend the weekend with him. It was a very unique time to spend with him, just before the lockdown,” said Braeden Whitelock.
“It was extremely difficult saying goodbye to him. He was just a lovely kind generous man.” said West.
People from all around New Zealand are sad to say goodbye to Dan Cummings. He had a wonderful presence, and he made his mark in the best possible way on all those he encountered, no matter what the circumstances.
We were all very fortunate to know him. Rest in peace Father Dan.