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Sea changing is not a new concept, but a switch from hotel executive to racehorse syndicate owner is a little out of the ordinary – Camille Howard tracks down a businesswoman who, after almost 20 years in the hotel business, found a new passion.

Denise Martin grew up in Tasmania with sport in her veins. Her father excelled as a cricketer and Aussie Rules player, and so it wasn’t a surprise when Martin grew up to be a successful junior sportsperson.

As a young adult, while still maintaining her interest in sport from the sidelines, Martin became a teacher. She taught for a few years in Tasmania before the lure of international travel was too great to resist. In London she took a holiday job in the hotel industry and this turned into a career spanning almost two decades, taking her to South Africa and then back to Australia—Sydney, then the Gold Coast, and finally Melbourne.

In the mid-90s, while director of media and corporate communications in Melbourne’s then Regent hotel, Martin started getting itchy feet and decided the time was right to do something for herself, though she wasn’t sure what that might be.

"I always had a great passion for horses and racing," she says. After weighing up her options, Martin made the decision to sell racehorses, which she thought would be "enormously great fun!"

To start she needed a dealer’s licence and so she went straight to ASIC (Australian Securities and Investment Commission) to apply for a licence. She then put a well-recommended accountant in charge of taking care of the paperwork for her application. "Every second afternoon I’d go to his office at half past five and ask if there was anything further he needed from me. I was so keen!"

When her horse-trainer friend, Gai Waterhouse, was in Melbourne with her first racing carnival horse, Martin made sure they got together. "I met with Gai and told her I was considering applying for a dealer’s licence in order to sell racehorses and become a syndicator, and asked if she would select the horses I would offer in shares, and train them. And Gai said she would love to." That was in December 1994 and Martin hasn’t looked back.


Star Concept

Coming up with a name was easy. When Waterhouse needed to come up with her own racing colours—different to those of her legendary trainer father T.J Smith and Tulloch Lodge—Waterhouse chose purple with white stars. So the new venture became Star Thoroughbreds, and the colours licensed to Waterhouse became Star’s colours.

"As momentum started to build, I became more excited about the idea of doing something quite different. There weren’t many syndicators in Australia and only one or two were women. I thought this was quite pioneering, just as Gai was going to pioneer her side of the industry with not many women trainers."

During a holiday with Waterhouse at the Launceston Cup, Martin received the call to say her licence had been approved. "I was so excited I wanted to tell everybody. I wanted to run down the straight of the Mowbray racecourse and say to the 40,000 people there that I got my licence!"

In March 1995, when her licence to sell horses was formalised, she moved to Sydney and headed off to the Easter sales to buy her first horse, which she had to learn to photograph to show potential owners. "Well, I had no idea and when I took the photograph the horse looked like it had three legs, and although it was a grey yearling, it looked blue! And I thought I’m never going to be able to do this, I can’t take photographs of horses!" she laughs. "Ten years later, I’m quite the expert."

While her business is separate to Waterhouse and Tulloch Lodge (Waterhouse’s stable), Martin says they work in harmony and close association. "Now I go to the sales with Gai every year, and I buy between 25 and 30 horses that I offer in share partnerships."

Like all businesses, Star has to evolve, and this year in a major step forward she upgraded the quality of yearlings with the average price rising about 50 percent. Her reasons are simple: she wants to provide the highest quality horse for potential investors. "And like any quality merchandise, the market determines the price," she adds. "We’ve gone on to a higher plane in quality, and I can seriously say to potential investors with those quality horses this is a horse that Gai has said looks to be a legitimate candidate—he or she has the credentials."

Each prospective owner then gets a copy of a product disclosure statement and a prospectus, and they have a chance to see the horse, talk to Martin and Waterhouse and decide whether that opportunity is for them. "I work on the basis that this is a lifestyle offer. It’s not a financial investment that offers a guarantee of a high return, it’s for people to enjoy the thrill and the chance to be involved with Tulloch Lodge and all its great history, and to meet some wonderful people and enjoy the success of Tulloch Lodge."

A hazard of the job is long hours, and Martin finds herself working six days a week, not that it bothers her because she is so passionate about her job, a trait she shares with Waterhouse. "Saturdays are very big days for us because they’re our major race day. We start early in the morning and Gai and I often travel with her mum, Valerie, and it’s a good opportunity for us to chat about how things are going. I call that drive to the races our boardroom venue.

"People often say we’re like soulmates; we have similar personalities," Martin says. "The philosophy of the harder you work the more successful you become is evidenced by Gai’s stable. Gai’s the first trainer to Randwick in the morning, and often the last to leave. She attends track-work six mornings a week and she works a 15-hour day. She’s not been Australia’s most successful trainer by chance, but hard work. Nothing beats hard work."


Winners & Losers

The toughest part of her job, Martin admits, is dealing with client disappointments when their horse hasn’t met expectations. "Not all the horses are capable of winning at elite level," she says. "That’s something we can’t determine when we go to the sales. We can look at the horse on confirmation, on type, we can look at the pedigree, we know the price is attractive, the horse looks like quality. But if it doesn’t have the ability at the end of the day, no amount of training can take it to that next level."

At times like this the communication and diplomacy skills from her hotel years come in handy, as she and Waterhouse help the owners decide whether to sell the horse. "Gai’s stable is one of the few in Australia that helps owners to come up with that decision. If the owners do decide to sell the horse collectively through an agent, we can ask various agents to assist us to sell the horses on behalf of the owners and then the proceeds of that sale are distributed among the owners."

Waterhouse’s record and reputation in the industry helps in this area. "They take on board Gai’s comments and understand if she has made that assessment, then the horse should be sold and the proceeds distributed."

Buying horses is a risky game. Like punters at the track, sometimes Martin picks a winner and sometimes she doesn’t. She can recall a few might-have-beens, when a horse she decided not to buy turned out to become a group one champion (the ‘blue ribbon’ races), but she doesn’t dwell on these. "You learn by experience and I put everything down to a learning experience," she says. "We have to look forward all the time and plan for the future and not reflect on what might have been.

"Many times it brings people together who become lifetime friends—and they wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for the horse." And as one satisfied customer summed up for Martin in an email: "Thank you for providing the opportunity to live the dream."

also provides the chance for owners to see their horse be broken in and trained on one of the farms they use, complete with its own racetrack. The stables are open every Sunday from 11am to midday to give the owners a chance to come and see their horse, take photos, chat to Martin, Waterhouse and the team, as well as the other owners. Then the group (which can be around 50 or 60 people) crowd into the TJ Room at Martin’s office—among all the racing trophies, paintings and photographs—to watch videos of previous races.

To deal with such varied clientele—from retired ‘garbos’ to merchant bankers—Martin draws on her experience in the hotel and casino hotel industry. "It gave me an understanding of the service side of this business and the different needs of the general public. Our horses are owned in shares by young professional people, retirees and everybody in between, and that’s what hotels do; they are open to the general public in the same way racing is open to the general public."


Work Ethic

Martin is dismissive when asked how her gender affects her role. She is a businessperson first and foremost and says her commitment to the business is unquestionable. "Star is my life; it’s my baby, my passion, it’s my pride and joy," she explains. "I want to make sure that it’s successful and it works very well.

"Of course, Gai has been the overriding barometer for Star’s success because I have that association with her and she selects the horses and so her success spills on to success for Star."

Despite being one of only few women in this male-dominated industry, Martin says there were only a few noses out of joint in the early days, and it had as much to do with her inexperience in the industry as her gender. "Initially, everybody was interested to see if Star would survive in the industry—I was new to Sydney, I was new to this segment of the business—but nothing succeeds like success, and the industry understood quite early on that I was dedicated to ensuring that Star was here to stay and was successful."

It didn’t take long for the market to realise she offered a quality of service that wasn’t readily available. "Sometimes people say women have to work twice as hard for half the recognition, and I was determined that I was going to work twice as hard and let the recognition handle itself."

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