Walker fourth in Sin­ga­pore

Matamata Chronicle - - News - DEN­NIS RYAN Rac­ing colum­nist

SIN­GA­PORE rac­ing is a whole new ball game for Mark Walker but that hasn’t stood in the way of a tran­si­tion re­flect­ing the skills that took him to the top of the train­ers’ lad­der in New Zealand.

Mark made a dream start to his Sin­ga­pore ca­reer back in Novem­ber when, on his first tar­geted race day, he sad­dled up Cor­sage and Rio For­tune for wins and Tell A Tale for sec­ond in the fea­ture Sin­ga­pore Gold Cup.

Less than six months af­ter open­ing his ac­count, he is in fourth equal on the train­ers’ pre­mier­ship be­hind fel­low ex­pat Laurie Laxon. His 17 wins for the sea­son that be­gan on New Year’s Day plus the three win­ners he pre­pared in the clos­ing stages of last sea­son add up to an over­all tally of 20 wins from just over 160 starters.

‘‘We started off bet­ter than you could have dreamt and we’ve had a great start to the new sea­son, long may it con­tinue,’’ Mark said when dis­cussing his new life.

Mark, who handed the New Zealand reins of Te Akau Rac­ing over to Ja­son Bridg­man last Au­gust, is cur­rently work­ing 47 horses from sta­bles lo­cated along­side 25 fel­low train­ers at the Sin­ga­pore Turf Club’s Kranji com­plex. That’s where all the Sin­ga­pore rac­ing ac­tion takes place, from train­ing to tri­als and race­day, some­thing that has ob­vi­ous ap­peal for Aus­tralasian train­ers more ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing to travel their horses over a wide va­ri­ety of dis­tances to race.

‘‘Rac­ing here is a very straight­for­ward op­er­a­tion in that sense,’’ said Mark, who added that many other ad­just­ments have been nec­es­sary in his tran­si­tion from train­ing out of sta­bles in both the North and South Is­lands dur­ing his New Zealand ca­reer.

‘‘The cli­mate is some­thing we’ve had to get used to to, it seems just plain hot all year round. I’ve had to change my ap­proach to man­ag­ing the team, which ba­si­cally means train­ing them like you would two-year-olds back home, you’ve got to go pretty soft.’’

He finds Sin­ga­pore’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion and rat­ing sys­tems fair to work within, even though he points to the wide gap be­tween classes as a horse pro­gresses up the rat­ings lad­der.

‘‘There’s a big jump from class four to class three, and the same from class three up to two. Not many make it through to class one, but they even­tu­ally find their level. The way the sys­tem is here with over­all stakes and in­cen­tives, not many horses don’t pay their way. ‘‘The min­i­mum stake is $55,000 (S$1=NZ$1.06) and apart from the horse that runs last, all un­placed run­ners get a re­bate of $900, so there’s a lot go­ing for own­ers here.’’

Early win­ners such as Cor­sage, Rio For­tune, Fly­ing Ful­ton, Mecca Star and Big Gal­lant are all for­mer sta­ble mem­bers from New Zealand, whereas more re­cent per­form­ers such as Lucky Steed, Bionic Boy, Vic­tory Ahead and Lo­cus Standi, who earned black­type last week­end, are trans­fers from other Kranji sta­bles.

‘‘When we got off to such a good start there were a lot of lo­cal own­ers want­ing to come on board and we’ve now got a good bal­ance of New Zealand sta­ble clients and lo­cals,’’ Mark said. ‘‘When I went back to New Zealand for the Jan­uary sales I had or­ders for 11 year­lings and David (El­lis) was able to go out and buy horses from $30,000 to $180,000.

‘‘They’re all still back in New Zealand be­ing bro­ken in and they’re likely to do their early rac­ing there too. Ev­ery one of their own­ers were happy to pay up for the Karaka Mil­lion so if they’re up to it, Ja­son will take them through to that. ‘‘The Sin­ga­pore lo­cals are dif­fer­ent com­pared to New Zealand own­ers who aren’t so bet­ting ori­ented. They cer­tainly are up here and you’ve got to be pretty ac­cu­rate in how you as­sess a horse’s chances. We’ve also found that own­ers take up a lot more of our time, which is dif­fer­ent to back home when David and Karyn took care of so much of that side of the busi­ness.’’

As a part­ner with David El­lis in the Te Akau op­er­a­tion, Mark has found the as­sis­tance of both Karyn Fen­ton-El­lis and his own wife Ju­lia in­valu­able as time has gone on. ‘‘Ju­lia is very busy run­ning the of­fice here and is a lot more in­volved with own­ers than be­fore but she’s en­joy­ing that in­creased level of in­volve­ment.’’

Te Akau clients who ran with the con­cept of ex­pan­sion into Sin­ga­pore have be­come wel­come vis­i­tors, with Mark guar­an­tee­ing a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘‘Those who have made it up have re­ally en­joyed it,’’ he said.

‘‘A night out rac­ing here is fan­tas­tic, what with the fa­cil­i­ties, hos­pi­tal­ity and the over­all qual­ity of the rac­ing.’’

Most horses that have been re­lo­cated to Sin­ga­pore have coped well with the change of en­vi­ron­ment, not with­stand­ing the vari­a­tion in length of time to ac­cli­ma­tise.

‘‘Like any­thing with horses you have to treat them all as in­di­vid­u­als; some can run within a month of step­ping off the plane whereas oth­ers can take three months.’’

For­mer star three-year-old Tell A Tale came up with a big early re­sult when sec­ond in the Sin­ga­pore Gold Cup late last year but af­ter six more starts re­mains a Sin­ga­pore maiden.

‘‘He could break a drought any­where in the world,’’ said his trainer.

‘‘The other night the track started out good but be­fore his race came along it started to rain and we ended up get­ting 50 mls in the space of 45 min­utes.

‘‘I’m still happy enough with him and he’s al­ready picked up nearly $300,000 but we’ll see how he goes in the QEII Cup later in the month and then de­cide whether to tar­get the Sin­ga­pore In­ter­na­tional Cup.’’

Mark has long been recog­nised as one of the hard­est work­ers in a pro­fes­sion that de­mands 24/7 ap­pli­ca­tion but de­scribes him­self as hav­ing ‘‘never been busier’’ since ar­riv­ing in Sin­ga­pore.

For­mer Ran­giora satel­lite sta­ble man­ager Gus Clut­ter­buck was there­fore a wel­come ad­di­tion to his man­age­ment team when he ar­rived early in the New Year.

‘‘Hav­ing Gus here now is work­ing out re­ally well and I guess the only dif­fi­culty is the lan­guage bar­rier try­ing to get our in­struc­tions across to the lo­cal staff. One of my se­nior staff speaks both lan­guages though, so it’s good be­ing able to fall back on him.’’

An­other Sin­ga­pore na­tive play­ing a big part in the sta­ble is Ru­sof Shafiq, who made steady strides in the early stages of his jockey ap­pren­tice­ship back in New Zealand but who has made im­mense progress since ar­riv­ing back in more fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. He cur­rently leads the ap­pren­tice ta­ble with 13 wins and on that score is also in the top 10 on the over­all pre­mier­ship.

‘‘Suppy’s been go­ing su­per,’’ said his boss. ‘‘He’s rid­ing a fair few of our own and he’s also rid­den win­ners for some of the other prom­i­nent train­ers like Steven Bur­ridge and Michael Freed­man.’’

If there are two things that Mark misses it’s the prover­bial green, green grass of home and the ca­ma­raderie of his trainer mates. ‘‘Not be­ing able to just jump in the car and head out to Te Akau or to Maun­gatau­tari like I used to, and the ban­ter at the Mata­mata track of a morn­ing, those are things that you have to go with­out.

‘‘Mind you, with Laurie, Stephen Gray and Bruce Marsh here as well, there’s a fair bit of good na­tured Kiwi-Aussie ri­valry, plus of course the guys from coun­tries like South Africa so it’s nice to know us New Zealan­ders can hold our own.’’

On a roll: Mark Walker and Tell A Tale.

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