The Trailblazers Behind Trailrace by Roger Fitzhardinge

Republished with permission from Equestrian Life

When a family’s interests revolve around horses across a diverse range of riding and business careers, it’s interesting how they all interact and connect with each other. For the Phillips, competition and innovation all come naturally

 

Di Phillips was born in Sydney and lived with her parents on the Central Coast of New South Wales. Her great grandfather was a well-respected jockey in Ireland and her grandfather a good horseman working with heavy horses.

Grandad bought Di a pony when she was two, and her passion for ponies and riding became obsessional from that day. As an eight-year-old, Di started lessons with Maureen Walker and was in fact her first pupil. Di’s first show pony was Grey Monarch, a Royal Show Champion. He was 15 years old when Di started to ride him and they went to their first Royal Show in their first year. Di also rode ponies in showing classes for Maureen.

After Dianne’s parents separated, the family and grandparents moved to Sydney and Di started lessons with a Mrs Bloxham in Sutherland. Di’s sister was also a talented rider and they were both members of the Jenko Pony Club. On leaving school, Di worked as a make-up artist for Revlon and her passion for animals saw her move from horses, as this was not practical in the city, to showing dogs, specifically German short-haired pointers and English pointers. She was exceedingly successful and joined forces with the great Norman Ironside in showing dogs, going from strength to strength.

Di was involved in Rotary when she was 16 and was one weekend involved in taking a group of elderly folk on a picnic to Warragamba dam where she met Steven from another Rotary club. To say it was love at first sight may sound corny, but that’s the truth! Steven was not into horses but his mother was, and her uncle was one of the founders of the Australian Stock Horse Association and had won two Warwick Gold Cups (Campdrafting’s biggest and most coveted competition) so being welcomed into the fold was pretty easy.

Steven was an accountant and worked for his father. He was also a dog lover – not in showing but through competing in field trials with German short-haired and English pointers, where he also became a judge. As luck would have it, their neighbours had a racehorse that was being retired. They offered it to Di and she jumped at the opportunity. Galant Gaul, a 17.1hh chestnut, was a great horse but not exactly a superstar. Di was delighted to be back in the saddle, her true passion, and showed him with some success.

Steven was still working with his father and Di worked evenings in a restaurant when they decided to marry. They had a son, Jason, two years later, followed by daughter Wendy. They decided they needed some space and bought two and a half acres at Luddenham, close to the Blue Mountains on the outskirts of Sydney.

 

THE FIRST HORSE RUGS

This was when Di decided to make rugs for her own horses, as she wasn’t happy with the fit for her ponies. Her grandfather bought her an industrial 7-5 Singer treadle sewing machine that had seen a great lot of service during the war. She bought cheap jute and made a few patterns and rugs. A friend saw them and asked for some and, as time went on, her rugs became sought after. A trotting trainer put in a bulk order and encouraged Di to go into the wholesale business and Shanga Trading was launched. A market opened up in the USA where Di’s sheepskin-lined canvas rugs proved popular. The business went from strength to strength and was employing four people in the rug factory. Shanga Trading was also selling several types of rugs to Charlton’s, the biggest saddlery in Australia. They were churning out over 2000 rugs a month. Bradmill wrote an article on her business, as Shanga was the first to make the heavy Ripstop winter rug using Bradmill’s Kordux fabric.

An interesting fact was that Di was approached by Eileen Gibson from the famed Rosedale Riding School as she had a palomino mare that had a dock injury and could not hold her tail very far out. Di designed a tail bag from an old shower curtain, which became the start of a revolutionary line in tail bags. Necessity is the mother of invention and that was Di and Steven, always looking at innovation.

Just as the rug business was booming, Di had a fall and dislocated a shoulder. During treatment, she suffered a devastating nerve injury that left her right arm paralysed. It was six months before any movement started to return, during which time amputation was raised as a possibility. Di was good friends with Lynne Holwick, who bred outstanding Australian ponies that Di would school and show for her. Anne Honner (an Aussie dressage rider and top coach who represented Australia with success) and her children also had an association with Lynne who, through ponies, also became friends with Di. Anne’s husband, Richard, was a top hand surgeon in Sydney and took Dianne’s case to heart. After several operations with Richard at the helm of her recovery, Di started to regain movement but to this day still lacks full movement of her right arm and fingers.

Jason, meanwhile, was riding and enjoyed hooning around, as did Wendy — however she was not the rider that Jason aspired to be. Jason had an innate affinity with horses and a will to succeed, and was soon showing ponies with great success. It was not long before the property at Luddenham was sold to become a part of the new Badgerys Creek airport and the family moved back to the Central Coast, this time to Wyong. To help pay the bills, Di and Steven started a small saddlery called Wyong Riding Outfitters, where Dianne’s wealth of knowledge and delightful attitude and Steven’s business nouse put the business on a good footing.

Jason joined Wyong Pony Club when he was nine and Gumtree Gumnut, under 12 hands, was purchased and took Jason to the Sydney Royal. Then through friend Lynne Holwick he rode Kooralyn Natasha (11.2hh) and Crystal (13.3hh), who were both top ponies and won at Sydney, establishing him as a capable rider of other owners’ horses.

 

 

THE BEST STRAPPER

Looking to make ends meet between running the saddlery and wanting to show, Di was able to get some nice unbroken ponies from Lynne to be broken in and shown. The idea was to make the riding path pay for itself and sell them to good showing homes. Jason also rode other people’s ponies at shows and became a very competent and respected rider. His kind and endearing attitude, the hottest of ponies and, as was said earlier, his affinity with them, was extraordinary! Good ole Di was the best strapper ever and Wendy’s and Jason’s ponies were always so well prepared and presented. With that competitive will to succeed, Di became an instructor for the Pony Club.

With the opening of the Wyong business, saddler Gary Amos was employed to do repairs. It was Di and the Singer sewing machine, Steven the accountant, and the children loving the life. Steven took an interest and learnt a new leather trade from Gary.

Of course, like father, like son and with his mother’s enthusiasm and will to win (but without a huge budget), the experience Jason had gained in those few years saw him win the Gents Turnout at Sydney with a turnout bridle, Fitzwilliam girth and stirrup leathers that he had crafted himself. A great achievement, not only in riding skills and presentation but in attention to detail in the horse’s gear.

All through the riding years the man fanning their passion was none other than Vince Corvi, a very well esteemed rider, coach and mentor, especially to Di and Jason. Vince had an equestrian centre at Largs near Maitland on the Central Coast where Di and Jason regularly went for lessons. “He was a charming man that always had the answers to any training problem,” says Di. “For myself and the horses, he was god!”

At the age of 18 Jason went to continue his saddlery education under renowned saddler Mal Byrne. The time there was a huge inspiration and motivation and they became the best of buddies. Wyong Outfitters also employed David Stollery, who remained with them for eight years. The experience he gained took him to Zilco Trading in Sydney where he is now general manager. Jo Parry joined the team at the same time and is still working with them to this day.

Just as it was with Di, unhappy with the fit of pony rugs and starting Shanga, she was also unhappy with the style, fit and suitability of children’s and pony saddles. Not one to sit around and complain, she created a prototype pony saddle and it was taken overseas. Two saddlers who worked for County were impressed and put it into production. The brand name was Windsor and the pony saddle was a roaring success. There was always this attitude at the saddlery that they needed to be innovative and they always looked at developing the best quality gear from a rider’s perspective.

The next creation was the jumping saddle, which David Cooper went on to use when he rode Red Sails at the Atlanta Olympics. The saddlery business grew and was widely respected as the product knowledge was well founded, and backed up by great, competitive horse people working in the store sharing their advice.

 

DRESSAGE CALLING

Jason had been very successful in the show ring before drifting to polocrosse, where he also qualified as an umpire. The hack he had been riding, Tysend, was living the good life of retirement when Di decided it was time to ride again. It was an intensive six-week crash course in riding dressage! Tysend was a legend, and with great paces and rideability Di entered her first competition in 20 years; despite her nerves, she placed second, a great effort. What Di decides to do seems to just quietly and unconsciously happen.

The passion for riding kicked in and she bought a chestnut, I Wish, sight unseen from Perth after a good friend had told her that he was a gem. He arrived after four days of travelling looking like a coat hanger, but it wasn’t long before Di had him looking great and out competing, and even showed him at Sydney Royal. Di qualified and rode him at three Grand Nationals and it’s amazing now to think that Simone Pearce rode him at a Grand National in her riding class and now she has represented Australia at the Olympics! I Wish was what Di wished and she loved the horse and the chance to mix it with the best.

Di was graded a para rider, given that her right arm and hand weren’t totally functional, but she decided not to further her involvement there as she considered herself not to really have a disability. Meanwhile, the saddlery was going ahead in leaps and bounds and Steven had joined forces with Manfred Dobrow in furthering the Saddleworld franchises. He became national chairman of Saddleworld Australia, a position he held for 10 years, and Wyong Outfitters became Saddleworld Wyong.

The business outgrew the premises at Wyong so they expanded to a larger shop in Tuggerah. Ever aware of the evolving market, Steven and Di sensed a growing demand for boutique products that were outside the realm of Saddleword, and the company Trailrace was started and the Tuggerah store became Trailrace Saddleworld.

Di and Steve travelled every year to SPOGA, the largest saddler expo in the world, and when they brought back the Isabell Werth clothing brand, of course it went crazy! Steven made a mobile tack shop trailer and the adventure began with the Isabell Werth range launched at Canberra Royal from the mobile van. It was to all the Royal shows and big competitions and the Trailrace products went from strength to strength. Showing horses at the shows as well as running the saddlery was full-on.

It was at Sydney Royal that I Wish, the most cosseted of Di’s horses, took out a prestigious award and was sashed Reserve Champion. He was ridden by Trinnette Crawford and the judge was an English expert. Di had done all the preparation and with Trinette in the saddle it was a fabulous picture and the icing on the cake for Di’s dedication. As fate would have it, I Wish succumbed to a severe bout of colic not long after, a terrible end to a fairytale adventure. During this time Di also had the outstanding mare Kooralyn Blue Mist, which won nine Royal Show Australian Pony Champions and Reserves and four Supremes.

After losing I Wish, Di continued successfully with a chestnut mare that was Jason’s polocrosse umpiring pony. Unfortunately, she was injured in the marshalling yard at Sydney when a lungeing horse ran into the mare and forced her retirement. Not to give up, Di bought a bay thoroughbred and started with her, but at that time there was a family crisis in that both Steven’s and Di’s fathers passed away and the mothers moved in with Di. She says with a wry grin that “it was like a nursing psych ward” as Di’s mother had dementia and Steven’s mother had serious mobility issues.

Di’s time was precious between family and the shop and so Vince Corvi took the mare and showed her for Di with great success to the point of being called in first at Sydney Royal then becoming overawed and not placing. She was a great small show horse but due to lack of time Di retired her. Now that Di has more time, she has what she describes as the perfect “old lady’s horse” and no slouch… a 15.3hh bay mare La Bella. She was champion thoroughbred mare at Canberra and was supreme ANSA (Australian National Saddlehorse Association) exhibit at Sydney Royal.

 

 

 

EXPANDING BUSINESS

The saddlery continued to prosper and the next big coup was after SPOGA 2011, when Jason went on “the buying and checking it out tour” and was impressed with the Equipe range of saddles. Subsequently, the company approached Jason to run the Australian dealership. They were impressed that he was part of a family all in the competition fields. As a competitive rider and saddle fitter, he was able to deal with any adjustments needed. The following year Charlotte Dujardin won at the Olympics with Equipe and the brand took off. Both Steven and Jason are competent and qualified saddle fitters and able to work to change the panels and the like to build a saddle that fits the horse. In dressage, the likes of David and the late Amanda Shoobridge started the ball rolling with Equipe, followed by Elliot Patterson and Alexis Hellyer and Grace Kay. These riders all use Equipe for all their horses from four-year-old babies to the Grand Prix horses.

There is also now a lot of interest in the Equipe jumping saddles, with the likes of Tom McDermott, Billy Raymont, Dave Cooper and Jess and Rhys Stones all using them. Jess, who is one of the best show riders in Australia, uses Equipe saddles on the hacks and galloways and their jumping saddles on her showjumpers, and Windsor saddles on her show ponies.

From a small shop set up to look after the showing community early on, the business has expanded and developed their range and expertise to include all the disciplines with outstanding internationally famous brands and products. This venture started as a family endeavour and that’s the way it stays. As Di and Steven have always shown, the staff have to be passionate and feel like family, as do the sponsored riders. Everyone pulls together in the one direction with faith and genuine belief in the products they sell. After all, the riders’ successes depend on the best gear that fits well. There is no hard-sell here; it is knowledge and a belief that the products are top notch and will give that competitive edge no matter what discipline. No guesswork here! They know their products and what suits riders and horses in all disciplines.

Jason is becoming more involved in the family business, regrettably at the expense of his riding. He won the men’s championships at his last polocrosse game, but since then the saddlery business and three young children have taken over and don’t leave much time for riding.

The way of the saddlery is always evolving and the Tuggerah store is now plugged in globally. It has retail, wholesale, export, events and online sales. Yet even in this disposable and throwaway consumer age, it still has an in-house saddler and rug repairer, just as it did in its humble origins. The family business incorporates the old and the new, and it’s this mix that makes the difference. It is servicing the needs of locals and beyond and knowing what the needs are that counts, as well as moving with the times.

Steven and fellow show jumper and IT specialist Jono Farrington have added an online business, The Equestrian Marketplace, where you can do one-stop equestrian shopping. It includes several top saddleries under the same umbrella, along with an extensive range of gear, horses and even properties are all listed at the one site. There is a social media page and blogs from top riders of several disciplines.

As Jason says, “The world is changing its strategies towards selling and buying products. If you sit back and go on about ‘in the old days’ you will get left behind!  We love all the staff and sponsored riders. We all have our part to play in producing a great online experience and you have to be innovative and interactive. We as a family have always loved the challenge of change and innovation and we won’t be left behind.”

For Di, still riding and being passionate about showing and dressage is all-important. “I have always ridden and had horses. I simply love them and the thrill in training and competing is still for me captivating,” she says. “It keeps me out there and seeing all about the trends that are evolving. The shop is exciting and ground-breaking and to have the whole family driven along with the thought of tomorrow being a bigger and better day is what life’s all about. I love to also see some sponsorship money given back to the sport as this is what makes the wheels of a bigger sport go around. We now sponsor many competitions and especially the new EA Young Rider initiative where the winner gets a saddle. We have been involved in the sport and still are, and if we can see ourselves free to sponsor we can think of nothing nicer to do for the benefit of the sport.”

As for Steven: “I am the accounting one, the one somewhat in the background at times, but I organise the strategies towards a better business and I enjoy that side of my life. To see the progress and the positivity towards Trailrace and Saddleworld makes it all worthwhile. To see customers happy and being offered good advice from great and competent staff makes it all meaningful – and of course Di and the horses – say no more!”

What a fabulous life story from such a modest and meagre beginning to one of the most popular and biggest saddleries in Australia! EQ

Republished with permission from Equestrian Life.