Denice Swain – Pioneer
Sunday 24th May 2020
Thirty years ago, Southlander Denice Swain was a pioneer for women in a harness racing industry that was dominated by males.
From her Ashburton base in the nineties she stood tall, gained respect, and fashioned a very good training record. Being the first woman to enter a horse in the New Zealand Cup is one of her many achievements.
Denice Swain far left with one of her many winners Pickapocket
Denice was born the oldest of seven children, to parents Ray and Rhona Swain who lived at Lumsden.
“Unlike other girls of my age I didn’t have a pony in the paddock at home. It was an expense we couldn’t afford so we used to break in and ride wild ponies instead,” Denice said.
Her love of horses began as a ten year old when using binder twine for reins, she rode a pacemaker bareback along a railway track with her father in the cart.
“Dad used to get me to ride the pacemaker bareback while he would follow with a colt in the cart. It got quite scary at times because we’d be going really fast.”
The family also enjoyed the success of racing horses, and Auto Tryax was their best.
Owned by her mother Rhona, Auto Tryax won seven races, his first at Wyndham in November 1961, trained and driven by Stewie Sutherland of Duntroon.
Auto Tryax’s sister Beautilima won twice and left a string of winners for the Swain family in Honest John (8), Johnny’s Brother (8), Sam’s Smile (6) and Minilima (5).
From an early age Denice built a wealth of knowledge about horses, skills she would use later.
In the early seventies she moved to Australia with her partner Jo E King, whom she had met when he was working at a sawmill in Balclutha. “He was an entertainer and wanted to try his luck over there.”
They lived in Melbourne for eighteen months followed by twelve years in Sydney. While there, Denice started going to race meetings, but she could never afford to train horses across the Tasman.
“I would have liked to (train there) but getting a piece of land to train from would have been too expensive so I waited until I came home to Invercargill before I took out a licence.”
Denise began her training career in Invercargill in 1984, holding a probationary licence and training out of stables just off Findlay Road once used by galloping trainer Ray Pankhurst.
“I started breaking in horses for other trainers but was constantly asked to train them.”
The demands for her to train became more constant, so she took out a professional licence.
Her first winner was Sweet Song at Forbury Park in April 1986. The win was a family affair with Denice’s brother Robin driving the mare she part owned with Neville Ross.
Denice though, was feeling the effects of the Southland weather which was markedly different to Sydney’s.
“I was working horses in the mud, rain and hail one day and local vet Dick Hopkirk who had a few horse there as well, said I should think about moving to Ashburton where it was warmer. He got hold of a good friend Graham Sherman, another vet, to help.”
The Ashburton Trotting Club was very proactive in helping with the move and Swain, with the help of Hopkirk and Sherman moved north to become the first trainer in the Club’s newly erected barn at the racecourse.
“They redid the track, it was a lovely place to train. You could get your horses up a fair way before you took them to the races.”
However Swain said that initially she found the move hard. “I called back home often because I got lonely at times.”
Her first winner from the new stable was Congo Magic driven by Ricky May at Methven, in December 1988.
During this time Swain continued to break in horses, and one that came through her hands was the smart colt Clever Dillion which had been sent north by Bud Baynes. “It helped build my reputation.”
In those early days she broke in horses for some big name owners and trainers including John Seaton, Kevin Townley and Bud Baynes.
“I loved the babies because there’s a lot of TLC. At the end you could walk that horse anywhere and it would come with you because it had so much confidence in you.”
Denice started creating an impressive record and 1991 was the memorable year that she became the first ever female trainer to have a runner in the New Zealand Cup when she produced Clancy, raced by Colin Baynes and his family to finish a gallant second to Christopher Vance.
Clancy had been sent to her by Baynes and training partner Robin Swain in May 1991 after winning eight races for the partnership.
“I noticed he wasn’t finishing his races off the way he should so I got him scoped when he got here and found that he had an infection.”
At the beginning of the 1991 season Swain had Clancy primed to go and he won at Addington twice before running third in the Ashburton Flying Stakes – beaten by Blossom Lady and Inky Lord.
At his next start he won the Hannon Memorial in a record time and he graduated to Cup class. Swain said the road to the Hannon and New Zealand Cup wasn’t an easy one with Clancy.
“He’d jumped on himself while he was jogging one day and got an infection in the hoof.” Part of the healing regime were regular visits to the beach, and bathing in salt water. “I thought I had it right.”
Owner Colin Baynes was prepared to head north from Knapdale to see Clancy run in the Hannon. “I said to Colin that the horse would probably need the run so he didn’t come. He won, but yuck came out of his foot again.”
Mike De Filippi and Denice Swain after the Hannon Memorial
Swain says if Clancy hadn’t had the foot problem he would have been more competitive in the Cup.
“The horse’s second (in the Cup) gave me a real boost in confidence that my training method worked.”
Clancy running second to Christopher Vance in the New Zealand Cup.
Clancy won four races for Swain and $162,850.
Four years later she was to line up her second New Zealand Cup runner Just Royce, owned by Noel Morrison of Christchurch. He too had to settle for second, beaten by a neck by Il Vicolo.
“John (driver John Hay) just told me the other night that Master Musician interfered with him at the 200. I wasn’t confident. I was standing by the tree at the top of the straight. Then I heard his name being called and I thought oh my god. I couldn’t have got to the birdcage if he’d won (laughter).”
Just Royce winning at Addington 7th March 1995
Saturday February 11th 1995 was another special day in Swain’s career when she won three feature races at two venues.
The Orator started the successful run, winning the Southern Supremacy Stakes by six and a half lengths. In the next race Just Royce won a heat of the Four Year Old Classic. Both were driven by Denice’s brother Robin.
At Addington a few hours later Oneinamillion, bred by Robin and Mandy Swain and trained by Denice, won the two year old feature.
“I didn’t like the next morning. I had a cold cloth over my head.”
Another fond memory is winning the 1993 Victoria Trotters Derby at Moonee Valley with Top Evander.
He won three races under Swain’s guidance before he was transferred to Roy and Barry Purdon with an eye on heading to Australia. Denice retained a half share in the ownership.
“It was the first time I’d been to Australia. (with a horse). I’d sent a tape over to Gavin Lang to see whether my horse would be competitive and he thought he would.”
Top Evander ran second to Melpark Maid beaten by a head in the Derby prelude.
“After the race I couldn’t believe how much pressure he (Gavin Lang) put on himself for not moving at the right time. I said that didn’t matter, it wasn’t the main race (goal).”
Top Evander came out a week later and beat Melpark Maid in the Derby. He came home and won two more races for Swain.
Gavin and Graeme Lang with Top Evander
Swain didn’t train many trotters but had a nice two year called Chicotee which was by Chiola Hanover out of Picotee. He won at his first start at Ashburton in February 1991 and was then taken to Auckland, running second to Call Me Chiola in the $90,000 International Classic Series Final.
Over the years Denice formed a close bond with Southland brothers Colin and Bud Baynes.
“Bud always had lovely colts. You could walk anything past them, they weren’t squealers. He was a great stockman and he just knew what to buy. He’d never pay more than about five thousand. I remember one year he bought about five. Every one of them won a race and a couple were real nice horses.”
Swain says she’ll always be indebted to the brothers.
“If it wasn’t for Colin and Bud I wouldn’t have had the good horses I had. You’ve got to have a good horse to show you up and when you’re winning races everyone wants to join the ride. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have done it.”
Swain remembers receiving a letter from Colin. It said he was enclosing a cheque for five hundred dollars that he’d intended to use for sponsorship, but that he’d appreciated her going to visit him while he was in hospital, and also knew from his wife Nellie that Denice was working in the cold at Oreti Beach. He hoped the cheque would help with a few bills.
Throughout the Ashburton years Swain always seemed to have a good horse in her stable.
Vera’s Dream was her first stakes winning filly, and she won the 1996 Nevele R Stakes by five lengths.
“Mike De Filippi drove her for me. I told him to go at the 400. He said ‘that’s a bit soon.’ I said no, just go because she’s a great stayer. She just ran away (winning by five lengths). She was a lovely mare but had trouble with her fetlocks. We never saw the best of her.”
She only had nine starts, winning twice, and she was placed four times.
Vera’s Dream after winning the 1996 Nevele R Stakes
Chiavelli was another good mare.
“I bought her for an Australian owner out of the calendar. I asked Kerry O’Reilly who was my blacksmith at the time, whether she was worth buying. He said yes because he had driven the mother Assisi. I bought Chiavelli to be a broodmare. I actually time trialed her (1-55.6). In her races she had to be locked away because she was a nervous type and pulled. He wanted to take her over for the fillies’ races in Brisbane so we went. While she was over there a yearling ran into her on the Albion Park track. She got away and onto the main highway and was killed. The worst thing ever.”
Chiavelli won six races for Swain. Her dam Assisi won four races for Paul Newton and also left Scorching (11 wins) and Roman Gladiator which won nineteen races for Robin Swain.
Chiavelli winning at Addington
Smart two year old Oneinamillion bred by Robin and Mandy was another horse Denice enjoyed success with.
“Robin said ‘I’ve got a nice two year old here and can you sell him for me because Mandy wants a new kitchen’ (laughter). He ran a good time with Bob Beck driving and I didn’t know what price to put on him. Any rate I put seventy on him. I told Robin and he couldn’t believe it. I sold him for seventy to an Aussie guy.”
Oneinamillion won his first two starts as a two year old, and subsequently went to Australia where he won another thirty four races.
Oneinamillion winning his first start at Addington
Swain developed The Orator, a Talk About Class gelding out of broodmare gem Sakuntala.
“People said I was wasting my time with him. He was erratic but turned into a successful racehorse.” He won five races including the Supremacy Stakes and Four Year Old Superstars Championship. That was my favourite win. He beat some nice horses (OK Tiger, Vanderel and Il Vicolo).”
Swain believed the Holmes Hanover gelding Out Of Africa was going to be a topliner.
“I thought that was going to be my next cup horse. He started to blow a bit so I turned him out for a spell. They rang me up and said he was going backwards. It turned out he had blimmin cancer all through him.”
Out Of Africa was out of Rhodesian Lilly and a half-brother to the John Lischner trained Tartan Clansman which won nine races.
The Vance Hanover gelding Milton Vance unfortunately never reached his potential either.
“He won at Cup time after breaking at the start and losing a heap (of ground) but he still won. He was a top wee horse but the next year when I brought him in he wasn’t himself and I think he bled.”
He won his first five starts but never recaptured winning form in his subsequent starts and was exported to America where he paced a mile in 1-52.8. “He was my favourite horse.”
Milton Vance winning on cup day.
Swain also remembers breaking in quality gelding Bogan Fella owned by Ashburton businessman Peter Cates.
“I was breaking him in and I remember Peter saying that he needed to pay up for the Sires Stakes. I said ‘oh god I haven’t got that far with the horse yet.’ I said to him that I’d run him over a mile which he ran in 2-04 so I rang Peter and he went and paid up. Then Mark Purdon came down and took the horse off me (laughter).”
Bogan Fella went on to win sixteen races and $691,518.
Swain also broke in Desperate Comment who proved to be a bit of a problem child.
“He was the worst one I ever broke in. He booted in the cart for two weeks.” In the end Swain called on the services of another Southlander Bob Beck who was also training at Ashburton at the time.
“I decided I needed a heavy cart so I borrowed one off Bob. The cart had car tyres. I was on the tractor and Bob was in the cart and it (Desperate Comment) just kept on booting. It took another two weeks before it stopped. He turned out to be a top horse.”
Desperate Comment went on to win twenty races (his first three for Robert Cameron) and $788,617.
While in Ashburton Swain was surrounded by horsemen with a wealth of knowledge, and over the years she listened and learned.
“Old fellas used to tell me that if you see a horse all muscled up and looking great don’t go to the races because it’s double the time for the ligaments and tendons to strengthen. It’s the things you can’t see.”
And a lot of that wisdom has been passed on to the next generation.
“I tell my young relations ‘make sure you’ve got your horse healthy, learn to read them and go with your gut feeling.”
Denice usually limited her team to about a dozen so she could give each horse plenty of attention.
“I had twenty two once which was far too many. I don’t like horses becoming numbers. I liked to treat them one on one so you could read them properly.”
Denice was a real pioneer in the harness industry but it wasn’t an easy road in the male dominated industry.
“I was pretty quiet and wouldn’t say too much. I had to harden up or wouldn’t have made it. I learned to stick up for myself.”
She said it was the love of horses that kept her going through those tough times.
Of the 124 winners Denice Swain trained in her career, 54 were driven by Ashburton reinsman John Hay. The pair formed a formidable combination in the mid and late 1990s.
Hay says of Swain’s training approach, “Very thorough. The horses didn’t go without anything and she had them very healthy. She could have them pretty ready on race day and they could win at Addington without a trial.”
And he was impressed with her attention to detail. “When you went to her place everything was immaculate – the stables, smoko room. There wasn’t a bit of dirt on the gear or the horses.”
Hay said Denice also liked to celebrate the many wins she had in Mid-Canterbury, and that she enjoyed the odd rum.
Denice says she had a great respect for Hay and his driving skills.
“Old Hay boy. What can I say about him? I used to get him to drive at workouts and trials and I liked to keep him on for race day because he knew your horse. He was a very good driver then and still is because there was no pushout rule and nine times out of ten he would get out. He was very good at reading a race.”
There was the odd time when a few tricks were pulled between the pair. Hay says “We rang her up at 3am one morning and said ‘the cars in the ditch’ and asked if she could bring a rope and come down and pull us out. She came down in her nightie. We were having her on, we didn’t think she’d turn up. That’s the sort of person she was. She’d come to your aid.”
Swain remembers the incident. “Him, Brian O’Meara and someone else. They were all full as I recall,” she said.
Swain remembers a particular game of golf at Methven with her sister Dianne, John Hay and the farrier Lin Trotter (Trot).
“Hay boy was the first to tee off. The green keeper came out of his shed and Hay Boy’s ball took a right turn, he hooked it, it went straight over the fairway and just about took the Greenkeeper out. Trot was on a four handicap. He did the big back swing which looked beautiful but it plopped three feet in front of the tee. It was meant to be a drive not a chip.”
Swain said progress was slow after that and some foreign golfers were hard on their heels.“I said we better move over and let them through and Hay Boy said no. He was like a horse with a bad attitude. You can’t bloody shift him once he’s got a bee in his bonnet. Those two were my partners in crime most of the time. I think I ended up winning the match (laughter). I had a good swing and could whack it a fair way because I played hockey. It was a slow game but it was a crack up.”
“She calls a spade a spade. It was never the horse’s fault. It was either the blacksmith or the driver (laughter),” said Hay.
First season: 1986
First winner: Sweet Song at Forbury Park in April 1986
Final training season: 2012
Last winner: Don’t Be Cruel at Ascot Park 25th January 2010
Group One placings: Clancy (1991), Just Royce (twice in 1995).
Group Two winners: Vera’s Dream (1996), The Orator (twice in 1995).
Group Three winners: Tricky Bachelor (1992), Clancy (twice in 1991) and Tricky Bachelor (1991).
Leading man: (driver) John Hay (54)
Groomsmen: Mike De Filippi (11) and Robin Swain (10).
Total stats: 736-124-100-69 UDR .2752
Best season 1992 89-17-5-3 UDR .2335, 1995 65-12-11-8 UDR .3197 and 2000 66-12-6-7 UDR .2677.
The last word is given to John Hay. “She was a very good horsewoman,” he said.