The surf breaks of Sydney’s northern beaches are a world away from the farming country at Walcha, but Greg Bennett made the transition in his early teens and soon became involved in the world of horses and pony clubs before graduating to became one of Australia’s most respected horse breakers. Now a highly successful trainer based at Scone, he enjoyed a major success at The Championships at Randwick on April 2 through talented galloper Clearly Innocent.
With his 188cm frame, prominent moustache and usually wearing a Stetson, Greg Bennett is a readily recognizable figure in the Hunter Valley. Apart from two stints in the United States learning the art of breaking-in he has spent nearly all of the past 40 years in the Horse Capital of Australia.
It is an ideal place for someone like Greg, who has a love of horses and of working with them. After developing his skills breaking-in stock horses and polo ponies he graduated to thoroughbreds. Foremost amongst those to go through his hands is the three-time Emirates Melbourne Cup winner and two-time Horse of the Year Makybe Diva (GB), who holds a very special place in his heart.
“I was the first bloke to ever ride her, long before any jockey,” he says of the imported daughter of Desert King (IRE) and the Riverman mare Tugela (USA). “She came into my care three times before she went away to be trained and I knew from the way she went about her work that she was exceptional.
“She was such a smooth ride I always felt you could canter along rolling a smoke and drinking a cup of tea while you were on her back. She was athletic, strong, calm and so sensible that nothing ever bothered her. On top of all that she had an unbelievable lung capacity and intestinal fortitude and as Glen Boss, who rode her to her three Melbourne Cup victories, would testify she was able to do whatever you asked her in a race.”
Now 57 Greg has in more recent times put behind his days of actively breaking-in to concentrate on training and has since put together a very satisfying winners-to-runners ratio. “Although I am not breaking-in any longer I still ride every day,” he said.
“I won’t put a work rider on a young horse until I’ve ridden them and know it is going to be all right. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come off but these days I’m sensible enough to ride in a big saddle, rather than a pad. It’s something I love doing and I don’t want to stop.
I’ve met some wonderful people through racing and I have some made some great contacts. What I really like most is seeing the smiles on the faces of owners when they’ve won a race, but I’m in the game for the horse and as long as I am doing something with a horse I will be happy.”
Greg was into his teens before he had even a cursory interest in the equine world. Born in Sydney Greg lived on the northern beaches for the first “11 or 12 years” of his life.“My father was a wool buyer and in the mid-1960s he sold the house we had at Rose Bay and bought a property at Walcha,” he said. While his father was completing his 25 years as a wool buyer the Bennett family rented a house at Avalon, which is about 35km north of Sydney.
“In the years we were at Avalon I had become what is known as a grommet. For anyone who hasn’t heard the term that’s a little surfie kid, with long hair, zinc on the nose and a board.” During that time his only experience with horses came during occasional visits to a godmother, who had a place at Narromine about 340km north west of Sydney. “It wasn’t really a strong connection but we’d ride ponies when we were out there,” he said. “When my father finished his years as a wool buyer, that would have been about 1968, the family moved to the Walcha district in the New England region of New South Wales.”
It was after the family settled in that his involvement with horses really began and he was able to reminisce about those days after winning the Walcha Cup in February with Reset gelding Pro Consul. “We were 40 miles out of town and back in those days you had to find things to do when you were a kid. Riding ponies and helping Dad muster sheep was part of that.”
Greg and his younger brother Cameron were also enrolled in pony club. They had progressed through to bigger horses by the time his father accepted a position at Yass managing a property owned by Barry Tilley and Tony Freedman, the father of Lee, Anthony, Richard and Michael. Although Yass is 60km away from the nation’s capital Greg finished his high school education in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham. By then he had “fallen in love” with horses. “We had a stallion, which I trained and showed a lot, and we started breeding Australian stock horses. When I left school Tony Freedman offered me a position at Hardwicke Stud.
“The AJC Australasian Champion Stakes winner Latin Knight was standing at Hardwicke and while I was there he was joined by Loosen Up, who sired the Cox Plate, Japan Cup winner and Horse of the Year Better Loosen Up. Lee was just starting out on his career as a trainer and I remember him bringing up his first city win at Warwick Farm with a horse named Sitting Bull. “My job at Hardwicke was to help with the yearlings and young horses. I’d taught myself to break-in horses, through trial and error, while at Walcha and I did a little more of that. That was mainly with Harry Bentley, who all these years later is working with me at Scone. I had a good learning curve while I was at Hardwicke, and had Harry Bentley alongside me, but after a couple of years I decided I wanted to do more with the education of horses.”
With that Greg headed to the United States where he felt he could learn the tried and true way of breaking-in horses. The venture first took him to the central Texas city of Forth Worth, which had been renowned in the late 19th century as an important trading post for cowboys.
Devoid of contacts he began ringing around seeking some employment only to find the Texan drawl and the Australian accent made communication difficult. However, he finally secured a position training cutting horses at Wichita Falls, which is around 200m away from Fort Worth. After spending about 15 months in Wichita Falls Greg returned “down under” to a job with David Arnott’s Australian stock horse stud at Murrurundi, just north of Scone, in the Hunter Valley.
“When I came back I was able to put into practice everything I’d picked up in America,” he said. “It was unbelievable what I had learned from the old-time horse trainers in Texas. I was given the responsibility of looking after the stallions, the breeding, the breaking-in, training education and sales of all the young stock horses by David. It was a big job for a young bloke but he had confidence in me and with his help and encouragement we were able to build a very successful stud.”
Towards the end of 1982 Greg decided to go back to the US. On that occasion he landed in Sacramento, the capital of California situated in the northern reaches of the state’s expansive Central Valley. “I worked with reining horse trainers there, rather than cutting horses,” he said. “We were showing horses, travelling all over the countryside to different events and I was able to learn from the best trainers I could possibly work with. I was only 23 when I was in California but I was having a great time and learning a lot.”
By that stage the visa requirements in America were becoming tighter so he returned to a position with David Arnott and his nephews Anto White and his brother Peter at historic Belltrees station.
“Anto and Peter, who are about my age, had just come back from representing Australia playing polo in India and Pakistan. They realised there was a market to sell good polo ponies to people in England, the US and Asia. The two White boys and David Arnott formed a partnership to develop polo ponies and they had rung me while I was in California asking me whether I would look after the education and training side.
“That meant doing a lot of breaking-in and I’d be doing 30 at a time during the day. Then in the evenings we’d stick and ball the ponies and play polo at the weekends, which meant I was in my element. All these years later I still equate breaking-in young horses to school kids who need time, if you are to train them properly. They will tell you when they are ready to take the next step so you just have to be patient and not force them.”
It was while at Belltrees that Greg met his wife-to-be Wendy, who is a younger sister of Anto and Peter and comes from a long line of Whites involved in the racing and breeding of thoroughbreds. She is a great, great niece of The Honourable James White, who in the late 19th century owned much of the Upper Hunter Valley, and raced a host of top class performers including Melbourne Cup winners Chester and Martini-Henri.
Wendy has notably been granted the privilege of being able to race horses in which she has an interest in White’s colours of light blue, white sleeves, quartered cap. It was in 1987 that she and Greg were married and they have two children, Chloe, who is 27, and Harry, 25, who are both high achievers. A bachelor of clinical sciences, Chloe is employed by Endota Spas, which is an organic skin care company with more than 90 locations around Australia. After playing representative rugby union in NSW Harry now lives in the US where he is captain of the Santa Monica team as well as holding a senior position with functional training group F45.
As Greg and Wendy’s wedding was drawing near Greg purchased a small property just outside Scone with the objective of establishing his own business breaking-in, pre-training horses and educating polo ponies.
“Our two children were born there and everything was going along great until 1990 when there was a dramatic increase in interest rates,” he said. “I was paying 18% interest on the loan, which sent me to the wall and I had to sell, which was a shame. “Luckily, I had been offered a good job by John Kelso, who was managing a property at Wahroonga, outside Scone, which subsequently became Arrowfield Stud. That was my introduction to breaking-in thoroughbreds. Before long I was also breaking-in for Billy Mitchell, Pine Lodge Thoroughbreds and others, which led to me getting away from the stock horse, polo pony side.
“I was getting better quality horses and obviously there was more money involved. I also took out my trainers’ licence. Michael Beattie, who is now the executive officer of the Clarence River Jockey Club, was then the chief steward in the Hunter Valley and he gave me my licence. I began training four or five horses for Pine Lodge as well as breaking in for them.”
The first horse he saddled at the races was a filly by True Version named Trubriya, who overcame No13 starting gate at Muswellbrook to win by three lengths under Harry Troy. Two weeks later Trubriya was uncomfortable on the tricky Quirindi track and ran last. “Harry said ‘not to worry’ because she didn’t handle running down the hill.” Harry was proven right when the filly scored at the old White Park at Scone three weeks later.
“That was the beginning of my training career and I had 13 winners for the O’Donnells, who had Pine Lodge then, in about a 14-month period with just a few in work.” The success prompted Greg to rent stables from the Scone Veterinary Practice and to move into a house in the town. “I thought I’d have a go breaking-in and training, on my own, and it has just built from there.”
As his business was growing he decided to lease a 20ha (50 acre) property outside Scone where the Bennetts were based for the next 17 years. He also had the use of about 404ha (1000 acres) of bush country that was adjacent to their land. Then, after the new racecourse was constructed at Scone in 1994, he was able to lease stables on the site.
“When that happened I had 20 horses in town and I had another 15 or 20 out at the property where we were breaking in,” he said. “I was juggling both. I was breaking in a lot of horses for trainers in Sydney such as Gai (Waterhouse), Ron Quinton and Neville and Grahame Begg and Peter Moody in Melbourne as well as doing a lot of horses for Yarraman Park and Arrowfield.”
Among those Gai sent to him was the filly by Danehill (USA) from the Crown Jester mare Very Droll she had purchased for $300,000 at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale in 2000. That was Ha Ha, who scored a brilliant win in the 2001 STC Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1 and went on to capture the AJC Flight Stakes-Gr.1 at three. Then along came Makybe Diva.
“Bloodstock agent John Foote is a great supporter of mine and he has sent a lot of horses to me including Makybe Diva,” Greg said. “John and Kevin Williams, who was managing Tony Santic’s horses, showed a lot of confidence in me and allowed me to take my time with her. “I wouldn’t let anyone else ride her until she went to David Hall, who trained her for her 2003 Melbourne Cup win before he accepted an offer to train in Hong Kong. As everyone in racing knows she was then taken over by Lee Freedman, who won two Melbourne Cups, a Cox Plate and lot of other races with her.”
Not long afterwards the Beggs sent the Belong To Me (USA) youngster All Silent to him and he went on to win the VRC Emirates Stakes-Gr.1 in 2008 and 2009. That galloper was soon followed by the Red Ransom (USA) filly Typhoon Tracy. Trained by Peter Moody, she would go on to win six Gr.1 events was Australian Horse of the Year in 2009-10. During that period another of Greg’s graduates he holds in high esteem is the STC Todman Slipper Trial-Gr.2 winner Written Tycoon (Iglesia), who is now establishing himself as a sire.
“He was worried by a few little injuries and was involved in an ownership dispute, so that didn’t help him,” he said of Written Tycoon. “He is obviously going to make a name for himself as a sire now that Capitalist has won the Golden Slipper and the Magic Millions Two Year-Old Classic.”
About five years ago, when Greg found the combination of breaking-in and training was becoming difficult to manage, he decided to stop breaking-in to devote all his energy to training. “It had reached the stage where I had a lot of horses to train, which meant being away at the races a lot and that left me without sufficient time for the breaking-in. I decided that I’d put 100% into training racehorses and the only breaking-in I do is a couple for myself.”
That led through to Greg and Wendy buying a house in Scone. He was also able to rent 33 stables on the Scone racecourse, which has been developed into a first class training facility. Since then the stable has been winning a series of races leading through to the impressive victory of the Not a Single Doubt gelding Clearly Innocent, with Tommy Berry aboard, in the $400,000 The Country Championships Final at Randwick on April 2.
The galloper was bred and retained to race by Bruce Neill’s Cressfield at Scone. It was Clearly Innocent’s sixth win from eight starts, he also has a second to his credit, and stamped him as the most “serious” racehorse Greg has trained. “I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of support from people within the industry and having a horse like Clearly Innocent makes everything worthwhile,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the way everything is going and, as I’ve often said, as long as I working with horses I’ll be happy.”
Published: May 2016