CLICK HERE TO GO BACK
It is testament to the sort of man Father Dan Cummings was that after decades of enormous success in harness racing that is rarely the first thing which comes to mind when you think of him.
Father Dan went to see his big boss upstairs on Saturday afternoon, taking his last breath after a battle with cancer that eventually moved to his lungs.
There was little shock in his death, it had been coming for 15 months, since he was diagnosed with the illness and decided to not go down the treatment path.
“He wanted to enjoy what time he had left and he did,” said his brother Peter after “Danny” passed away aged 75.
“He made the most of his last year but when he got back from the sales he started to get worse and struggled with his breathing at the end.” That Father Dan made the most of his final year is hardly surprising because that was how he lived his life.
He entered the priesthood straight out of school and upon being ordained spent much of his working life in the Dunedin diocese (the church’s region).
A priest can affect a lot of lives in that time, especially one as popular as Father Dan and he was also at the centre of one of New Zealand’s great tragedies, being the parish priest at Port Chalmers when David Gray shot and killed 13 people in the Aramoana massacre in 1990.
“That was a pretty intense time for Danny, being the parish priest during something that bad,” says Peter.
But away from a life of service, Father Dan was Danny to his family.
Danny loved animals, a love he got from his mother Joan who set up Tuapeka Lodge in 1965.
While that extended to harness racing it was originally focussed on rodeo, where Danny held the New Zealand record for bulldogging, which is when a rodeo rider jumps from a horse on to a steer or calf and wrestles it to the ground.
This would suggest Danny was a bit of a hard bugger.
“He loved the rodeo and was very good at it,” says Peter.
But after Mum passed in 1977 Danny (the third of eight children), Peter and sister Julie (Davie) took over the stud with enormous success.
“Danny was the breeding and horse expert, I was the farmer and Julie managed it and sometimes prepared the yearlings,” explains Peter.
Tuapeka Lodge generally kept their yearlings to 10, selling almost all the colts and keeping the fillies.
Dan would train some, including one of their flagship horses in Maureen’s Dream, but it was mainly the colts who made Tuapeka Lodge the respected nursery that went on to prepare 10 yearling sales toppers.
Many of them traced back to unraced mare turned superstar broodmare Sakuntala.
The family bought her in 1974 and she left 13 winners from 18 foals, including Tuapeka Star who numbered the 1979 Tatlow Stakes at Moonee Valley among her 22 Australian victories and she went on to leave the great Iraklis.
“He was one of our favourites,” remembers Peter of the stallion who won the NZ Cup and Miracle Mile and over $1million.
He was one of two NZ Cup winners from the Tuapeka breed, the other being Monkey King, even though he wasn’t bred on the farm he was from a mare who was.
Sakuntala’s progeny or their progeny have resulted in over 30 horses to win more than $100,000.
But good horses alone do not legends make and Father Dan was a harness racing legend.
He was ahead of his time with his website and yearling pics and as a man who commanded respect without trying.
Come sales time he would be sitting on his lawn chair outside the stables of the Tuapeka Lodge draft, a parish priest to an entire industry.
“He could be hard when he needed to be. He was very demanding,” laughed Peter.
“He liked things done the right way but we never had a cross word and neither did Julie with him.
“But he loved the horses and really enjoyed his involvement with Southern Bred Southern Reared in recent years.”
Tuapeka Lodge will continue, with younger family members keen to help Peter and Julie.
“I think we have a lovely bunch of horses to take to the sales next year,” smiles Peter.
And they will have somebody looking over them from above. A legend.
Credit: NZ Harness News, 30 Mar 2020, Michael Guerin