Dream believer: Chris Waller at the top of his game
April 21, 2015
CHRIS Waller is the dominant trainer of Australian racing. In each of the past three seasons he has beaten Gai Waterhouse to be Australia’s leading Group 1 trainer and in the same time, his horses have won a stunning $60 million in prizemoney.
From humble beginnings, he now has 300 horses on the books and controls 70 staff between his Sydney and Melbourne stables. He is about to mount another raid on the Queensland carnival, where he launched the careers of multi-million dollar colts Zoustar and Brazen Beau in the past two years.
You have a long history with Queensland, having come here as a strapper in the 1990s. More recently, you have built a very successful relationship with a number of Queensland owners, winning big races with the likes of Shoot Out, Rangirangdoo, Brazen Beau, Kermadec, Preferment, Amicus and Winx. You will be an adopted Queenslander the way you are going.
They are great people the Queenslanders, be it owners or racegoers. You always get treated well, be it at the track in the morning or on raceday by the everyday punter. It’s easy to warm to. When I was a strapper it was the same, probably even bigger than it is now. To get a call-up to strap a horse in Queensland for the winter carnival, it was like making the bloody rep team.
You would get on that plane and feel so proud, then touch down in Brisbane and you would think you’re pretty important.
What keeps driving you?
In the early days it was the fear of failing. Even to this day, there’s that expectation to stay at a certain level. Whether it be winning Group 1 races consistently, winning a premiership or just keeping owners happy. I don’t like to fail. I just want to maintain and do the best I can.
Doing the best I can seems to work … I have a great family life, good support people around me. So there’s no real chinks that are going to hold me back. Why do I do it? It’s easy when you’ve got a good family life and a good support team, good owners and good horses. It’s just a perfect life in my opinion.
Is there a rivalry between you and Gai Waterhouse? What sort of relationship do you have?
Gai would have to be close to my most respected person in racing. Gai has been a terrific help to me — she’s proud of my success, believe it or not, and I’m the first one to congratulate her when she wins a Golden Slipper. Ten years ago, she was like me. All I do is live for racing and push myself close to the limit. She is the first one to give me advice if I need it. Quite often it’s on a personal scale, making sure I’m taking a break, talking about how tough we do it when the sales are on, or during a carnival … She’s the go-to lady for me. It’s a pretty good relationship. She’s most professional and puts on her game-day face, and her marketing skills are second to none, but outside of that she is a lovely lady who is more of a mother to everybody than a competitor. It’s a shame people don’t see that in her … she has a wonderful kindness in her heart. She’s a beautiful lady.
You came to Sydney with barely a horse and it was tough going in the early years. Did you ever think of going home to New Zealand?
It never entered my mind. I was young and you didn’t know much better. It was just a matter of surviving.
You and your wife Stephanie now have a young family, with Tyler (5) and Nikita (2). Has that changed anything for you?
They are great for a horse trainer. We don’t have late nights. It’s good to come home to some reality. Whether you have that amazing Group 1 day, or that day of beaten favourites, my kids don’t care. They still have a big smile on their face when I walk through the door … It’s a great way to level the emotion and bring you back to reality.
Do you ever get a holiday or even take a day off?
I have a family day on Sundays. I work four or five hours on the computer at home, just preparing for the week, call into the stables and get the reports. Every night I turn my phone off at 6pm. Everybody understands and respects that — and the phone is off most of the day on a Sunday. I take five or six days off twice a year, straight after the Sydney and Melbourne carnivals, (but) I still work seven or eight hours a day while I’m away via my computer.
Will the emotion you show after a big race win ever change for you? Will it ever become blasé?
It’s starting to change already. There are certain days when I really struggle and there’s other days when it’s no problem at all. I still remember the tough days. They are getting longer ago and not as significant, but remembering the tough days after you win a good race makes your throat go a bit. Then you come down to other things. When Brazen Beau won the Newmarket, he had to beat the best in Australia. We flew under the radar a bit that week and didn’t create any huge expectations. When they come out and win, it just slaps you in the face because you dare not think about it because of the fear of disappointment.
You have 300 horses on the books. How do you identify them all?
Once they’re in work, it’s easy, because I see them three or four times a day minimum. It’s like people. If you run into someone three or four times a day, you soon get to know them. The new ones take a week to get familiar with, the old ones you can pick them off the truck. They are like your best mates, that’s why I get so attached to them. It’s the same with 70 staff. The first thing I do in the morning, I start at box one, look at every horse and say hello to every staff member. I made a point right from the start. Once you get into these little routines and have a bit of success, you dare not change it.
Is it unfair to say you fancy one horse more than another?
It’s not unfair, but I couldn’t single one out. The longer they have been with you, the closer you get to them. At the moment, the likes of Foreteller, Catkins, Hawkspur are names that jump out.
Foreteller has been to Brisbane, broke his leg in a Doomben Cup, we nursed it back to full health and I think he’s won three Group 1 races since. Catkins has a great temperament. She’s not a superstar, but she tries so hard and that’s why she’s won a lot of good races. Horses like Zoustar and Brazen Beau are only with you 12 to 18 months and then they’re gone to the breeding barn. The ones that have been in the stable a long time are like pets to my staff and I.
How do you keep that many owners satisfied?
Training winners. That’s the main one, and modern day communications. Simple as that.
You often have multiple runners in a race. How do you balance the expectations of different owners?
You start by putting them in the right race, put good jockeys on, because they make less mistakes and can do amazing things in races. You give them a good honest assessment of how the horse is working and you do the form properly, so you can tell them whether or not we think it can win. Of course, horses can disappoint, or run above expectations. We keep a level head and try not to create highs and lows that can occur if you build a horse up too much or simply say a horse can’t win.
What’s your strike rate like in assessing your horses against each other?
There’s not many surprises, but it does happen. The Sydney Cup is a good example. Who Shot Thebarman ran third in a Melbourne Cup. I said to his owners ‘he’s a very good chance, but we have to beat the Melbourne Cup winner Protectionist and the favourite Hartnell.’ I said to the Grand Marshal owners, ‘do you want to run in the race? It looks a strong year for the Sydney Cup, but the horse has been set for the race and he might improve and go to a new level over two miles.’ So he had no expectations, the owner, but we gave him that chance.