Singapore move starting to pay off
When New Zealand’s leading trainer Mark Walker sprang a surprise and left to start a stable in Singapore last year he endured ‘‘the worst four months of my career’’.
Now the move, if not permanent, is definitely longterm.
It is not just the money, although that is a huge attraction. In Singapore, Walker’s 45-strong barn has won S$1.5 million (NZ$1.47 million) in stakes in the first half of the season, without winning a major race and the incentives for owners and trainers make the Kiwi-based trainer’s eyes water. The lifestyle has also won him over.
‘‘Those first four months were a nightmare. I could have given it up. The paperwork became a mountain, there were language difficulties and I wasn’t able to bring any staff over with me, except an apprentice, who at least could speak the language.
‘‘It was a tough time and probably only the enthusiasm and efficiency of my wife, Julia, got me through it.
‘‘Now if I said I was homesick and felt like coming home, I think she would chain herself to the stove or something.’’
Starting at ‘‘go’’ after years directing New Zealand’s leading stable was a challenge for Walker but he used his established aim for excellence to help.
‘‘I aimed what I had at the big Gold Cup meeting here and a couple of them got into the money. That got me some attention.’’
Walker and Te Akau stable’s manager, David Ellis, decided to target Singapore because of the falling stakes and rising costs in New Zealand.
It enabled them to ship some of their New Zealand team to Singapore retaining Walker’s expertise.
Former Rangiora stable manager Gus Clutterbuck, a little lighter these days than when he left home, later joined them.
‘‘The minimum stake is S$35,000 for class five horses but a lot of the races are $55,000 and up, and the training costs are about the same as they are at home,’’ Walker says.
‘‘If you don’t run first or last, the owner gets $900 to start, even if they collect $12,000 for running second. Trainers get $400 a runner. So if a horse starts twice a month, it covers the training bills of about $1500, even if it is unplaced. ‘‘We have Rio Fortune here and he won a Castletown Stakes as a twoyear-old at home and a nice three-year-old race. He is a middle-of-the-range class four horse here and is running for $65,000 every week.’’
That is more than for many stakes events in New Zealand.
Flying Fulton, who struggled to win a race as a three-year-old in New Zealand last season, after being a stakes winner at two, has won $230,000 just this year and is headed for the $1 million Singapore Derby. Walker has exceeded his own expectations, rising to fifth on the trainers’ premiership, in spite of having 47 boxes where those above him have 60. ‘‘About 35 per cent of my team are from New Zealand, the rest are locals. New Zealand owners haven’t fully twigged to the financial advantages of racing [in Singapore] but they will.’’
One trap Walker was aware of was that newcomers tended to get landed with horses and staff other trainers don’t want.
‘‘You have to go through that. I worked on a couple of horses extra hard to improve their records and that helped our numbers.
‘‘It’s the same with jockeys. You have to stand your ground. If they don’t follow instructions, you don’t hire them again for a month or so, where at home you might keep them on.’’
Walker has based his training and feeding methods on that of Laurie Laxon, another former Waikato horseman who has been the leading trainer in Singapore for most of the last decade. Walker is also a convert to Polytrack (man-made) racing surfaces, a feature of the Kranji racing and training complex, and says New Zealand desperately needs one.
‘‘I was sceptical when I came but not any more. We had 70mm of rain in about half an hour here one day and they only delayed the meeting for that long again. The horses take to them [the man-made tracks] quickly.’’
Another surprise has been the minimal effect of the Singapore heat on the horses from cooler climates such as New Zealand.
‘‘I can’t get over how most of them love it. Actually, the worst I’ve probably had so far is Coup Align.’’ The former Riccarton sprinting star made his Singapore debut 10 days ago with an eye to the rich features coming up in his new quarters but his coat is a little ‘‘homesick’’.
‘‘We have had to clip him three times since he has been here. He thinks it’s still winter. But he’s enjoying it and I am confident he will measure up over here,’’ he said.
Walker finds the integrity of the Singapore racing authorities as impressive as their ability to spend money.
‘‘Every horse is pre-tested, no matter what the race, and there are cameras inside and outside the barns. Even owners have to sign in when they come to trackwork. The stewards are strict but with all the money involved here, they need to be.’’
The Singapore club is about to spend $100m renovating a stand that was only built 11 years ago and spent $11m building an uphill 800-metre training track Walker says is ‘‘terrific’’.
‘‘The only drawback is that it takes about 50 minutes to work a horse properly on it.’’
And when it comes to spelling horses in Singapore things are different. ‘‘There is no grass. They go up a hill to an area where there are yards but no paddocks. But they don’t seem to miss it.’’
Surely a Kiwi country boy finds the bustling environment of the one Singapore [training] complex bland compared to the variety [of options] in New Zealand.
‘‘I miss driving through the countryside to the tracks at home but I love the racing here. With two meetings a week [Friday and Sunday] there is a buzz and excitement at every meeting, just like a major one back home. I really thrive on it.’’