Dennis Picker is one trots trainer who has no intention of getting caught up in the grind of racing all year round.
In the last six or seven years Dennis has established a pattern of working a team of twenty horses, including five yearlings. He likes to have the yearlings broken in, gaited up and in the paddock by late May.
He then selects from the remainder of the team the horses most likely to be competitive in Queensland. “We usually head north with nine or ten horses, and campaign them for three months at Albion Park and Redcliffe”, explained Dennis. “Some of the horses are for sale and if we receive any satisfactory offers we’re happy to leave them there”.
Principal reason for this annual pilgrimage is to escape the ravages of a Southern NSW Tablelands winter. Dennis is based at Bigga, a tiny village about 58 kms from Crookwell. “Bigga boasts a pub, a small golf club and a convenience store”, said the trainer. “The winters are pretty severe but not quite as bleak as they get in Crookwell, which receives several heavy snowfalls every year. Bigga misses the snow, but the frosts are something else”.
By the time Dennis returns from Queensland each year, his father Grant is looking for help in shearing many of the 9000 sheep he has in his care. “I’ve been shearing on and off for most of my life, and I’m happy to work with Dad until we catch up”, said the thirty three year old.
Grant Picker was brought up in the sheep industry and was a relative novice in equine matters when he met and courted Jenna Hewitt, the only daughter of Tom Hewitt from nearby Crookwell. Tom was a highly respected trotting horseman, whose three sons Bernard, David and Mark had clearly inherited his love of the standardbred.
Jenna could handle the horses very capably at home, but Tom made it clear early in proceedings that his daughter would not be driving in races.
“Mum accepted her fate, while Dad really became attached to the harness horses”, recalled Dennis. “He actually drove in trials and show events and won a couple of registered races. Nowadays he’s happy to help me with the horses and I couldn’t manage without his support”.
When the Hewitt brothers decided they wanted to pursue careers as commercial trainers, they each decided to leave Crookwell for established harness racing centres. It’s almost twenty years now since Bernie relocated to Bathurst, Mark to Grenfell and David to Goulburn. All have been eminently successful from their respective bases.
Dennis has no doubt the departure of his uncles, kick started his career. With his sons no longer at Crookwell Tom Hewitt was able to focus on the progress of his grandson. “Grandfather took a tremendous interest in me, and when the time was right he organized the required number of trial drives I needed to gain my licence”, recalled the trainer.
Tom Hewitt also provided the budding trainer’s first winning drive - a filly called Nika Moment at Canberra in April 2006. “Grandfather was away at the time, leaving me with the responsibility of getting her to the meeting and looking after everything on the night”, reflected Dennis. “That made it even more memorable”.
Dennis is pleased he had the opportunity to have a handful of drives at Harold Park before the iconic venue closed in 2010. “Thankfully I drove a winner at the track only a few months before it was closed down”, recalled the trainer. “I led all the way to win a 2YO Sires Stakes Semi Final on a filly called Sounds So Good”.
One of Picker’s early favourites was a genuine chestnut gelding called Demarco who won nineteen races on outside tracks. “He was ready to have a crack at a metro race when he developed recurring heart arrhythmia issues”, said Dennis. “We couldn’t get him over it and had to retire him”.
Another surprise packet was a filly called Intimate Moments, who won nine races under Picker’s guidance before being transferred to the Ian Wilson stable.
California Sunset was a good money spinner for the stable winning nine races, including a Country series Final at Menangle in 1.54.9 - very good time a few years ago.
Picker’s first Group 1 winner came in the shape of New Zealand acquisition Just Cala who’d won a couple of average races in NZ before being sold to a stable client. Dennis gave her three starts in Brisbane, one of them in a Breeders Crown Heat. She was narrowly beaten by Nike Franco, whose driver Shane Graham suggested he should take Just Cala to Melbourne for the semi finals.
New to Group 1 racing, Dennis elected to give the drive to the super cool Amanda Turnbull, who won the Semi and the Final of the 3YO Fillies Breeders Crown on the daughter of Art Major.
Picker finally tasted Group 1 success as a trainer and a driver, when he won the 2018 Breeders Challenge 4YO Mares Final on Elle Yeah. He drove the copybook race to come off the leader’s back in the straight, before snatching victory in the last few strides. Elle Yeah has been a reliable workhorse for the stable posting ten wins and fifteen placings from forty three starts.
The trainer’s all-time favourite was the consistent and super quick Condagen, purchased by stable client Pat Bourke for a bargain basement $4000 at the 2010 Gold Crown yearling sale. The son of IfIHadYourLuck (USA) finished his career with a record of 24 wins and 33 placings for $313,000 - Dennis prepared him for twenty of those wins, including nine at Menangle.
The trainer was devastated in 2017, when his good friend and valued owner Pat Bourke died suddenly. “I was stunned and very touched when I learned that Condagen had been bequeathed to me”, said Dennis. “In order to give the horse every chance and to reduce his travelling time I elected to leave him with Kerry Ann Turner. He had his final twenty five starts for the new stable, posting four Menangle wins”.
The Picker stable has had a flurry of winners just lately, the majority at the Bathurst Wednesday night meetings. Most of these horses are Queensland bound - some will return to Bigga, others will stay up north.
Elle Yeah, Smooth Sailor, Ally Rogan, Rave On Rabbits and Gone Way Back look certain to make the trip, while he’s hoping to qualify a two year old filly by A Rocknroll Dance in the next couple of weeks. “I have an opinion of the filly, but I’m running out of time to get her qualified before we leave”, said Picker.
The horses are worked on a track Dennis describes as “different”, but more than adequate. “It’s 1000 metres in circumference, but very undulating”, explained the trainer. “In fact it rises ten metres over the last five hundred metres, before it becomes a downhill grade. Most of my horses are broken in at home and have no difficulty with the track. Outsiders can take a while to adapt”.
Easily the most rewarding acquisition for the stable in recent times is twenty year old Codi Rauchenberger. The youngster has driven twenty five winners since gaining her licence two years ago and is a natural talent. “Horses travel very kindly for he, and she drives with judgement through a race”, said Dennis. “Her junior claim helps me to downgrade some of our horses”.
As the first hint of winter makes its presence felt on the Southern Tablelands, Dennis Picker prepares for his annual journey north. He’s hoping to cover exes with the team over the next few months and hopefully negotiate a sale or two at the end of his term.
When he and partner Jaimie return in early spring the horses will take a back seat for a time as he plies his trade in the shearing shed. But when it’s time for Dennis to don his trainer’s hat again, he’ll be quickly back among the winners.
It’s in his blood.