Times of change for Kenny

It will be another walk down memory lane for John Kenny when he attends next month’s NZ Racing Hall of Fame function in Hamilton.

The NZ Racing Hall of Fame inductee dinner is always a time of reflection, recognising the major players, both human and equine, within the industry.

For Kenny, as the man behind Majestic Horse Floats, New Zealand’s largest horse transporting business, it’s a special evening, one that conjures up memories of all the inductees he has been associated with since he started as float driver at Otaki in 1974.

“It’s fantastic to see the horses and people honoured,” said Kenny. “I’ve had a lot to do with many of them since I started out.”

Like all others with virtually a lifetime involvement within the racing industry, Kenny has seen many major changes and from his own perspective he has made several life-changing decisions in his Majestic Horse Floats operation, none more so than mid-way through last year when he sold out to the Bancorp investment company.

“Jono Steele from Bancorp rang up and asked what is my exit plan,” recalled Kenny. “I told him I didn’t have one. It got me thinking. I’m 64 now and what am I going to do in five years. My family are builders and no-one within the company wanted to take it.”

Kenny appreciated what Bancorp had to offer.

“Bancorp is interested in iconic family businesses,” he said. “They invest for a lot of charities and want businesses that have been around a long time with a steady income.

“They buy businesses and leave the people to do the day-to-day running. And that’s how it is with Majestic Horse Floats. All the staff are still here.

“It made sense to sell. The sale went through last August and I’ve stayed on as a director. Ward Austin is the new CEO.

“I’ve stressed to Bancorp, this is a people’s game and we need the experienced people in it. Whilst we’ve got aging staff, you can’t replace experience.

“I’ve stopped doing some of the day-to-day stuff, leaving that up to Ward, but I’m still heavily involved in the background assisting. It’s taken a fair bit of heat off me.

“But I’ll be doing the Karaka sales as usual.  I’ve never missed Karaka and even before that I did Trentham, too, when the sales were down there.

“I’m very comfortable with the decision to sell and very mindful to support the people who have supported me. That’s why I’ve kept involved.

“There are three ingredients that make it all work at Majestic– the 60 staff over the 11 depots, the trucks and the horses. It’s never easy. “

And when talking of pressure, the test comes each year at sales time at Karaka.

“There is huge pressure at sale time, getting the horses in and out on time safely.,” said Kenny. “The vendors have put a year’s work in getting the yearlings ready for the sales and they want it to go smoothly.”

This year New Zealand Bloodstock has come up with significant changes to the National Yearling Sales structure, including a smaller first-day offering now on the Sunday.

“With less sold on the first day we can get 90 out on the Sunday and get another 90 straight in,” said Kenny, who was involved in the NZ Bloodstock decision. “It’s massive for us. Normally they sell on the Monday and we can’t move them until the Tuesday as we can’t deliver them in the dark.

“Beforehand some vendors were feeling disadvantaged by not having their yearlings there earlier to give the overseas buyers more time to see them.”

Kenny has come a long way since he began as a float driver and Majestic Horse Floats was owned by Bill Reeves, who was a pioneer in the stock transport business in Hawke’s Bay.

“When Bill died in the early 1990s I bought half off his widow then bought the rest in the late 90s,” said Kenny.

Majestic Horse Floats then bought out Inter-Island in 2007, Woodville Horse Floats  in 2012 and Nationwide.Horse Transport in 2013.

“It made sense to have them all under the one roof.,” said Kenny. “To survive we need to be getting the numbers of horses to transport. 

“The industry is getting harder and the costs high. And racing is more demanding than it used to be.”

Despite the tough times, Kenny has so many fond memories of the racing industry, particularly operating out of Te Awamutu in the early 1980s for three years and later the now defunct Takanini training centre when in its prime.

“Bill and Graeme Sanders had 100 horses in work when I was in Te Awamutu and that was a massive learning curve for me,” he said. “I learnt so much from Bill. He was a huge influence on my career.

“The Takanini days were special, too. I used to go to the track every morning from 1983 on.

“There were about 400 horses trained there and it was a great place. It was like a family. When they closed Takanini down they lost a community.”

Kenny has delved into racehorse ownership with his best galloper being Rough Crossing (six wins).

“But the best luck I’ve had is with the standardbreds,” said Kenny. “I’ve raced them with Trevor McKee and a few others.

“Statesman won 10 races for Tony Herlihy and Tony also trained Darcee, who won 10, too. We sold both to the States and they’ve done well over there.”

Through Majestic Horse Floats, Kenny has been involved with the NZ Racing Hall of Fame, including sponsoring inductees Horlicks, Sid Brown and Daryl’s Joy. 

“It’s good to put something back,” he said. “The Hall of Fame is so important. “

At next month’s NZ Racing Hall of Fame function another nine inductees will be added to the list, taking the total since its inception in 2006 to 75 greats of the New Zealand turf history.

The latest list of inductees also bring back memories for Kenny, including Noel Harris, Murray Baker and Chris Waller.

“I’ve had a lot to do with the Hall Of Famers and it’s great to see the new ones,” said Kenny, who recalls the first horse he personally transported for Majestic Horse Floats was the dam of Glengowan (Harris’ runner-up in the 1972 Melbourne Cup).


Written by Wally O'Hearn