Sin­ga­pore move start­ing to pay off

Matamata Chronicle - - Sport -

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.’’

Mark Walker

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