Walker fourth in Singapore
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.