By Lewis Lesbirel (TDN AusNZ)
In the first instalment of a new series delving into the origins of people’s passion for racing, TDN AusNZ caught up with Trilogy’s Jason Stenning to find out more about one of the industry’s most prominent new players.
A first brush with horse racing can often be traced back to a particular family member, whether it be the grandfather who always has a few bob on the locally trained runner or the mother who is a gifted rider.
In Stenning’s case, his primitive years were influenced by both his jockey uncle and his “horse mad” grandmother, although the latter is the one credited with planting the seed that has since blossomed into a flourishing orchard.
“She’d take me to track work and take me to the races and stables when I was five- or six years old, so I was always just in awe of horses,” he said.
“From those early years, she put bets on for me. We’d read the form together and she’d tell me about who the best trainers and jockeys were and which horses we were following. It started from there.
“It would be frowned upon now, but I was punting well before I was 10. I was always watching the races and loved being around them.
“It took me until my forties to actually meet someone that was recommended, trustworthy, experienced, and had the ability to go into business with us and kick it off.”
The person that Stenning makes reference to is Sean Dingwall, who along with his wife Cathy, is a partner in Trilogy Racing.
As one of the industry’s most rapidly expanding ownership ventures, Trilogy has turned plenty of heads since its inception around two years ago, and what started out as “a little bit of fun” for Stenning and his wife Melanie quickly turned more serious once the pair were introduced to the Dingwalls.
A mutual friend by the name of Jon Fleming, who is now CEO and part-owner of Stenning’s personal protective equipment business Industree Group, was the man responsible for that introduction, and a burgeoning friendship swiftly progressed into a partnership that is equal parts purposeful, ambitious and steadfast.
Given the regard in which Dingwall is held by Stenning, it is easy to see how it all unfolded.
“Sean is like an oracle, his knowledge regarding horses is mind-blowing. He’s teaching me everything he knows – that might take a while!” Stenning quipped.
“One of Sean’s key roles is to protect the business and the ownership group. He’s very well versed in how complex this industry can be.
“When we decided to start buying significant numbers of horses, especially breeding stock, he was very transparent and brutally honest with us about the sad side of the business, which doesn’t get spoken about or publicised a lot. Losing animals, mares slipping and things like that. We’ve had a pretty rough 12 months, but I was very well versed and prepared for what was coming.
“We are very fortunate to be in business and spend so much quality time with Sean, Cathy and their family as well as Bronwen Upjohn, part of the extended family, horsewoman extraordinaire and Trilogy Racing Operations Manager. The bonds are very strong and the dynamic is excellent.
“It’s one thing you must have to be successful. If you don’t have the right people, with the right mindsets and skill sets, it makes it very hard to get the desired results.”
Realising a passion
By his own admission, Stenning’s introduction to the Dingwalls is what gave him the confidence to fulfill an ambition that had been put on the back burner whilst all energies were channelled into growing Industree Group and managing other business interests. Where horses were concerned, a war chest had been allocated, and a reduction of time commitments across Stenning’s business portfolios added both a degree of urgency and further fuel to the fire.
“After 15 or so years of running our businesses without having much of a break, I decided that it was time for Mel and I to scale back our day-to-day work hours,” he recalled.
“I said to Mel that I wanted to buy a farm and get into breeding and racing because it had been a passion of mine that I hadn’t been able to realise or get involved in, due to a lack of experience and connections. Sean gifted that opportunity to us. Everything that I didn’t have that I needed, he brought to the table. So we decided to buy a little farm around the corner from theirs and buy a few more horses.
“That was how it started and it felt natural, it was quite organic and slow. It may not seem that way for outsiders looking in – and I get that people think it has been quite fast and it possibly has – but if you know what you want and you have a strategic plan, then it’s not fast, it’s efficient.
“When you have all the right elements of a structured business model, with the right executive team and support staff, why would you intentionally go slow?”
That thought process has underpinned Trilogy’s expansion from a handful of weanlings and tried horses to the ever growing force of present-day, one which now has interests in upwards of 250 horses and encompasses more than just racing stock.
Trilogy also has interests in stallions and is forming a broodmare band that continues to grow in both quantity and quality, while the recent acquisition of the highly distinguished Blue Gum Farm in Victoria, which Stenning insists will continue to operate in its current format, demonstrates further intent to become an established force in the breeding game.
Perhaps most notably of all, Trilogy entered into the Newgate/China Horse Club colts syndicate at the start of the year and was a prominent feature on the buyers’ sheet throughout the sales season just gone. An introduction to Newgate proprietor Henry Field at an Inglis function is what set those wheels in motion, and there is little doubt that Stenning is enjoying the ride.
“Henry approached us and asked if we would consider joining the syndicate,” he revealed.
“Henry is the best in the business at what he does and we like surrounding ourselves with the best, whether it be horses, people, whatever it is. So, to be in business with the likes of Henry and the Newgate team, Mr Teo and China Horse Club, and the other syndicate members, we are in exceptionally good company and enjoying the professionalism and fun times that ensue with this wonderful group of people.
“The varying personalities, we just all click.”
A cathartic process
While Stenning’s business acumen has evidently helped shape the expansion of his racing and breeding interests, spending time with horses has undoubtedly provided a welcome break from the realities of everyday life in the corporate world.
“My usual work day in our other businesses, I start at 7am, work all day, don’t go to bed until midnight or 1am, get up again at 6am and then repeat,” he explained. “When we go down to the farm for a few weeks, I’m in bed by 8pm, I’m up at 5am waiting for everyone else to go help and muck out stables, feed the horses, ride the bikes around the farm and check how all the horses are going that day.
“I’ve said to Sean more than once, ‘Mate, how long has this been going on? This isn’t work’. I just find it really good for clearing my mind – it’s therapeutic.
“After being in a real high-pressure cooker situation in a very busy, rapidly growing manufacturing business, to then go out to the farm, ride bikes around and feed the horses, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s almost an escape from reality.
“I’m very lucky that I can go in and come out whenever I want. But I do want to be physically involved a lot more once we complete the handover of Blue Gum Farm.
“For me personally, being around horses is cathartic and that maybe reverts back to my grandmother introducing me to horses at such a young age. I just fell in love with them.”
Much to Stenning’s delight, that love for the horse is something that he has observed everywhere his “surreal” journey in racing has taken him thus far.
Most recently, that journey saw him and wife Mel embark on a tour of the American racing and breeding industries alongside fellow members of the Newgate/China Horse Club colts syndicate, a trip which included watching the final race of Flightline’s (USA) unblemished career at the Breeders’ Cup.
“I’ve been in this five minutes, and my views are based on that, but just from my experience, I have never seen an industry where every person involved at any level, whether it’s a stablehand, a strapper, a trainer, an owner or a syndicator – everybody loves what they do and everybody loves the horses,” Stenning said.
“Everyone I talk to, whether I have met them before or not, you can instantly click on something and have a meaningful conversation with them about horses. That common love of horses, it’s awesome.
“I haven’t got rose-tinted glasses on, I know it’s a very competitive and cut-throat industry, but that’s something that I see everywhere I go.”
Stenning’s infectious enthusiasm for the industry shows no sign of waning either.
“Whether it’s going to inspect 1000 or more horses at a sale, whether it’s putting a suit on and going to watch our horses race, I love every aspect of it,” he added.
“I am enamoured with the grandeur of the horse itself. I love watching the development and education process, and I love the pre-sale inspections. Just looking at all those magnificent animals and trying to pick the ones we think are special – it’s all exciting for me.
“Again it reverts to being around horses, and doing it with people that you click with and want to be around, it’s an absolute joy for me. I feel very lucky and fortunate.
“It’s a whole new realm for me to get excited and passionate about after doing the same thing for so long. It’s exciting, it’s new, it’s fresh – it’s my happy place.”
New it may be, Trilogy has wasted no time in getting some notable results on the board, with its first stakes winner coming courtesy of Kote’s (Choisir) authoritative, pillar-to-post victory in the Listed Brian Crowley S. last month. The team also holds an interest in a pair of 2-year-old fillies that have already secured black-type pre-Christmas – a strong early start from only a handful of juveniles to hit the track.
The level of investment over the past 12 months is a clear indication that Trilogy will be anything but a mere flash in the pan, and Stenning was keen to reiterate that this is just the beginning of what promises to be an abiding venture into racing and breeding.
“We’re just getting started, we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he said.
“We’re trying to get our racing stable as advanced as we can and we have the Blue Gum handover and transition there. We’ve also got around 50 mares and lots of foals to look after, as well as a significant number of yearlings to sell next year.
“There’s plenty of moving parts, and we’re just making sure that they’re all managed appropriately and getting the attention they deserve. We are very fortunate to be well resourced with great staff and expert people behind us, both operationally and financially.
“The future is bright, we are having a great time and once we really get rolling, look out!”
Trilogy may still be in its infancy, but there is little doubt that Stenning’s Grandmother would be immensely proud of what her 6-year-old horse-enthused grandson has started to build in the equine world.