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Walker taking steps to make mark

Author: Howard Wright

18/05/2017
1

What a tie for international racing that was a couple of weekends ago. The first of the year’s Classics in Britain and the US; two hugely rich Group One races in Hong Kong; a couple of million dollar races in Adelaide, and a Grade One mile race in Tokyo; something there for everyone. Thank goodness Dubai is taking a break, otherwise there might not have been enough good horses to go around. As it was, there was a distinct shortage on numbers in some places. Not the Kentucky Derby, of course, where every year it seems the field fills, although whether the quality gains anything from a maximum turnout is another matter.

The 2000 Guineas at Newmarket was its lightest on runners for some years, blighted perhaps by the concentration of top horses in a few hands, which means stablemates can take up other alternatives with no real loss of opportunity. Then there is probably the influence of the fast established Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, which climaxes a proper early year sprint programme for 3yos, who no longer have to be tested at a mile and when found wanting, brought back to five and six furlongs. Even Hong Kong, the land of rich pickings, suffered a small field for an enormous prize for the second weekend running.

The Audemars Piguet QEII Cup over ten furlongs drew eight runners, only one of whom, and Hong Kong-owned at that, came from Europe. A week later the Champions Mile offered £32,000 for finishing sixth but only seven turned out, and the two challengers from Britain were owned by businessmen with offices just up the road from Sha Tin Racecourse. The QEII Cup and Champions Mile used to be run on the same day. Then BMW came along as sponsor of the Mile and neither they nor Audemars Piguet wanted to share the limelight, so the two were kept apart. But, as can happen with commercial sponsorship, BMW gave up, and now there is talk of the three feature races being gathered together again.

Hong Kong Jockey Club officials have not voiced their feelings formally, presumably for fear of irritating Audemars Piguet management, which has been sponsoring for 19 years and has one more renewal left on its contract, but nor have they seriously attempted to prevent media commentators airing the idea of creating a combined feature programme that would perhaps tempt more overseas runners. Traditionally the QEII Cup has been a staging point for Dubai World Cup night runners. Mike de Kock has been particularly adept at using this route, and he would have been on the plane again this year had his World Cup fourth Mubtaahij not picked up an injury just hours before his planned trip from Meydan to the airport.

The QEII Cup is an ideal race for horses whose programmes are built around being at peak form in the first four and a half months of the year, whether they come under northern or southern hemisphere seasonal time slots. It is not such a good idea for horses with a mid year platform in mind; it comes too early and is too competitive, which probably explains why Britain has not had a runner for the last two years. Maybe there just aren’t enough suitable Group One horses around at the moment, but reestablishing a programme that includes the QEII Cup and Champions Mile would not only better satisfy international media men and women, who presently head home after one or kick their heels for a couple of days between the two.

It would probably encourage some connections to load horses on the plane to contest both races. Not that the Upper Lambourn trainer Ed Walker would have done anything different. The Champions Mile was the target for Stormy Antarctic, owned by Hong Kong-based Siu Pak Kwan, as soon as he finished his 3yo season with a creditable run behind the peerless Minding in the QEII Stakes in mid October. Sadly for Walker, the venture turned into what he readily admitted was ‘a disaster’, when Stormy Antarctic took off with jockey Karis Teetan shortly after the halfway mark.

The colt’s goose was cooked as soon as he turned into the straight, and although he collected the thick end of £53,000 for his efforts in finishing fifth, this was not the ending that the venture deserved. Nevertheless, Walker’s remains a name to remember. He has been a trainer on the move, in more than just the sense of being upwardly mobile, since he left his job as assistant to Luca Cumani and started with his own licence in Newmarket in 2010. His first runner was at Kempton with one time Cumani inmate Riggins in a Listed race, who dead-heated for first place; his second was also Riggins, owned by Dubai Thoroughbred Racing, in a Carnival handicap at Meydan, which he did not win.

His first runner in Australia, Ruscello, won the Group 3 Lexus Stakes at Flemington; his first runner in the US, Mutatis Mutandis, earned valuable black type by finishing third in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Stakes at Belmont Park. Stormy Antarctic was his first runner in Hong Kong. Whether by design or an accident of accommodation availability, Walker has pursued a nomadic path as far as his stabling arrangements have been concerned. He began in part of St Gatien stables, moved after two years to Grange House stables, then a year later went into part of Henry Cecil’s Warren Place for two years, before spending a year at Lester Piggott’s Eve Lodge stables.

Last year came the biggest move of all, from Newmarket to Lambourn, where he replaced David Lanigan in Kingsdown stables, from where Peter Nelson trained the Derby winner Snow Knight and which were bought in 2009 by Swedish businessman and owner Bjorn Nielsen. Walker seems settled in his new quarters, but don’t rule out another switch in time. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is on the lookout for a new trainer, with the northern hemisphere its chief target. “My CV isn’t strong enough yet to be considered,” Walker says, “but if the chance ever arose, it’s an option I would take very seriously.”

Howard Wright

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