Mark and Pauline O’Connor have been breeding horses for twenty years and their Denario name has had a fair amount of success over the years at the National Yearling Sales.
Both Mark and Pauline come from harness racing backgrounds with Pauline having a rich pedigree.
“She was brought up on a farm and has been around horses all her life. Her mother was a Dalgety so her uncle is Jim Dalgety and cousin is Cran Dalgety,” said Mark.
Mark also has a ‘bloodline’ which is perhaps a bit more grass roots.
“It started when I was young kid and my father worked on the tote in Southland and travelled around to both galloping and harness meetings. My grandfather was JJ Burke who was a hobby trainer and I got some exposure to stable and training environment.”
One of a handful of winners for Burke was Darkie Song in the Borough Handicap at Winton in 1972 when driven by TB Fordyce. Darkie Song was owned by A R McEachern who also owned and drove the second horse Garrison Band – also trained by Burke. Darkie Song and Garrison Band were half-brothers.
When Mark left high school he worked for NZI Trust and whilst working there he undertook tertiary study.
“I did most of my study when working. I went to the local community college which is SIT now. I did the last year full time at Otago University so made a few jaunts out to Forbury Park. I remember back in the day you got your bursary allowance at the start of the term so there was always a great lunge by the guys to take the money out to the races.”
After University he was employed by local accounting firm Ernst and Young.
“I had ten years with them including two years in Canada; towards the end of that time. Pauline and I had just got married. I got a contract role in Toronto for two years and we went to a few race meetings over there. There was a track in downtown Toronto at the time called Greenwood and we also went to Mohawk and Woodbine.”
Two years after returning from Canada the O’Connors purchased a ten acre life style block on the outskirts of Invercargill rearing bobby calves for the first two seasons before they started to accumulate a few riding horses. At that time Pauline was a teacher at James Hargest College.
“When I was first courting Pauline I went to my first yearling sales with her and her parents. I thought it was pretty good fun and got the bug. She started a riding school for kids after schools twice a week offering the basics of riding for young children. She’s currently got ten horses that are been ridden twice a week. She started to grow her horse numbers so I bought a few harness broodmares.”
The first mare the O’Connors bought in 1996 for $3,500 was the Talk About Class mare Campeche in foal to Safely Kept. The resulting foal Flow Denario won one race for Alan Paisley. She’s now owned by Dexter Dunn who’s since bred the five win Mach Three gelding Mach Denario from her.
The second foal Dreamo Denario, won four but it was the next foal Fake Denario that put the Denario name on the map.
He was bought by Stephen Reid for Robert Famularo and won the Australian Breeders Crown and Sires Stakes Final as a three year old before he was sold to America. While racing there he recorded a mile World Record on a 5/8 track of 1-48.4.
Denario translated is Latin for money, and the Fake Denario family certainly has plenty of big money earners in its extended pedigree. It’s produced the likes of Delightful Lady (47 wins), Jacron (9 wins), Grinaldi (10 wins), Ross The Boss (10 wins), Slugger (10 wins), Davey’s Jill (10 wins) and Kotare Jaeger (8 wins).
Over the years lots of horses have passed through the O’Connors hands either as yearlings for sale or as racehorses. And they had some good returns. They sold Cee Cee Denario for $65,000 in 2008, Romeo Denario for $55,000 in 2012 and Magnifico Denario for $46,000 in 2014.
They now have a much smaller operation with fewer mares but still have a focus of breeding good saleable stock.
“When you’re breeding for the yearling sales you have to be reasonably brutal because if you haven’t got any well credentialed offspring close up in your line you’re going to struggle.”
They’re now breeding from Averil’s Atom (Soky’s Atom – Quest Of Glory), Southern Delight (Bettor’s Delight – Averil’s Atom), Presidential Sweet (Presidential Ball – Stylish Sweetheart) and Shezaball (Presidential Ball – Averil’s Atom).
They’ve also leased out two mares; Goodtogo Denario (Presidential Ball) and Ergo Denario (Bettor’s Delight) to Woodlands Stud.
“I haven’t had an in-depth discussion with the principals of Woodlands but my understanding is that they were directing a lot more progeny to the weanling and yearling sales and they also wanted to get a good number of mares locked in for Sweet Lou.”
Over time both Mark and Pauline have been great supporters of the racing side to the industry and have raced many of their horses with friends and acquaintances including Shezaball which won eight races and recorded a 1-56.2 mile time.
“We had a lot of fun racing her and those friends have stayed in and formed a breeding syndicate so hopefully we can carry on with that ride. She’s probably our best credentialed broodmare at the moment.”
The mare’s first foal by Rock N Roll Heaven will race for the O’Connors while her latest foal, a colt by Art Major, will go through the yearling sales.
“He’s called Ronnie Denario and is a nice striking type.”
Also heading to the Christchurch sales next year are a well bred filly by Somebeachsomewhere out of Averil’s Atom, a Sportswriter colt out of Southern Delight and a Rocknroll Dance filly out of Presidential Sweet called Jive Denario.
On the racing front the O’Connors are excited about a Somebeachsomewhere filly with Cran Dalgety called Mantis Denario.
“She qualified back in February and we’re hoping she’ll perform and help the progeny that’s going through the ring next year.”
Another arm to the O’Connor breeding operation is Stylish Breeding Partnership with former Southlander now Queenstown based Owen Shaw.
“Owen and I have been friends since we were kids. He hadn’t been involved in harness racing before but liked the idea of seeing some action around the track. We bought some mares originally to breed from and we raced Stylish Arden. We bred a horse out of her by Camtastic called All Style and didn’t sell it because it got caught up in a fence a few weeks before the sale. We took it home and tried it ourselves. It was no star and we sold it for a couple of thousand dollars. The second horse we bred from the mare was Cut And Style (Presidential Ball). She didn’t fetch what we wanted so we brought her home and raced her.”
Cut And Style was sold as a four year old after winning three races for Invercargill trainer Wayne Adams. She won a further four races in New Zealand before being exported to America.
One of the last acts for the partnership was the purchase of For The Corz (Lis Mara) bought at the Christchurch weanling sales 18 months for $7,000. She’s a rising three year old filly and a half-sister to big Australian winner Corzin Terror. (19 wins and $276,857). This is the family of Sogo (13 wins) and Hitchcock (10 wins).
“That’s probably our last horse under the Stylish Breeding banner.”
Although Mark is the face of Denario Breeding he’s quick to acknowledge his wife Pauline as being an essential part of the operation.
“She’s a critical part of the Denario breeding operation. She’s the horsewoman and knows how to handle the horses correctly and gives them the right direction and grooming as a young animal. I’m responsible for the feeding. Luckily she’s a school teacher, so she doesn’t get a holiday over the Christmas break as the yearling are brought in everyday at that point. We have a weaning process where if we’ve got three or four mares in the paddock we just pull one mare out at a time rather than separate them all cold.”
On the business front Mark is CEO of South Port and is also on the executive of New Zealand Standardbred Breeders, and is impressed with the strength of the group around him.
“John Mooney is doing a fantastic job as Chairman. He’s committed and invested in the breeding side of the industry.”
There’s also a recognition that there are challenges.
“It’s a game that’s become more challenging because of the challenging entertainment offerings in the market.”
But the O’Connors are continuing to do their bit to get more people involved in the industry.
“We’ve formed a racing syndicate to race Muso Denario (Rocknroll Hanover – Averil’s Atom) with my older brother Stephen who’s going to be the syndicate manager. Half the crew are from where I work at South Port and the other half are from the Marist Rugby Club. There are fifteen shares and about twenty people involved and I think that’s the way forward. We need to try and broaden the base as much as we can and give an insight into how the game works. It always looks a bit mysterious looking from the outside in. It’s about getting a bunch of people who know about it and mixing them with greenhorns and help them understand the risks and the upside.”
And one final comment of ownership from O’Connor.
“If all people involved in harness racing took that approach and invited their circle of friends that weren’t involved, we would have a much broader base to draw on and that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.”