Written by Bruce Clark
Courtesy of Racenet.com
If you were doing the grocery shopping at Woolworths in Sydney’s Hills District on Sunday and thought that bloke doing the same in the next aisle looked slightly familiar, (perhaps even more so after Tuesday), you’d be right. It was Chris Waller.
It’s what he does on a Sunday – family day, away from the hectic shuffle of the relentless business of racehorse training. “I know where everything is too,” said Waller. And if you understand a little of Chris Waller, that’s not proffered with any hint of a boast.
It’s why he puts the bins out Thursday nights, brings them in Friday morning. It’s why last Sunday’s task was building an old fashion billycart for the kids (obviously Mercedes-Benz Parramatta don’t make little ones), the previous week he was cleaning up rubbish in the garden. Otherwise, he’s fake auditioning for MasterChef.
All of which is no big deal, but it means a lot to Waller in his real world, time poor, as most racing professionals are, all striving to find a life and family balance.
So when the Melbourne Cup was restarting a nation on Tuesday, Waller wasn’t suited up and amongst the roses. It was family central at home, but typically hectic enough. Until 2:57 (which is about the exact time 12 hours earlier his day, and every other day, started).
Wife Stephanie (nee Titcombe, one time Miss Horowhenua in New Zealand and lead singer of the band Hokio – which is how Waller met his match but that’s another story), had just put the washing on. That’s what you do on Cup Day – right?
There were 36 Waller runners on the day, from Kembla Grange, to the Gold Coast, Randwick, Eagle Farm and of course Verry Elleegant headlining a four strong team in the Melbourne Cup.
The meticulous trainer made sure all were answered for. He never missed one of them. (Ok, he did have to put a blanket email mid-afternoon to owners, apologising for late delivery of normal post-race reports – “something big just happened” it said.)
“It was all pretty normal at home until three minutes to three (the Cup start time is 3pm). I just got to sit down on the couch, but that was even a bit hard, I was wearing a t-shirt, and was wiggling my toes and got to watch the race properly with the family,” Waller said
“And that’s something that I will forever treasure out of the Melbourne Cup. It was unique. With all of the wins of Winx, the family was never together, that’s why Tuesday was so special, just to be there with them, knowing all the sacrifices they have made.”
Daughter Nikita, 8, had even channelled her best Lizzie Jelfs and already declared Verry Elleegant the pick of the yard.
“But the second they crossed the line my phone started ringing and then it was just ping, ping, ping relentlessly, I didn’t know what to expect,” Waller said.
“I didn’t know what to do, who do I need to ring I thought, the first call I made was to Jo (Melbourne foreman Johanne Taylor) which was a waste of time because we both couldn’t speak, then I phoned a few journalists because I thought they’d be after me for a quote and believe it or not, they rang out.”
“I think for a minute I was just standing around stunned, then all hell broke loose, I think the neighbour came in, I can’t really remember, and then it was on for young and old. I thought I better change this t-shirt so I went and put a collared shirt on.”
Waller had said the Melbourne Cup wouldn’t change him, it won’t, but it has changed his view of the enormity of the great race. This is the same man who went through years of intense focus and pressure through the illustrious career of Winx, he’d just won Sydney’s spring stealer The Everest, but The Cup, is well, it’s The Cup.
“I obviously have been involved in the race before, but I can truly see now having won it, what the race means to this country and around the world, the vast audience it reaches, the build-up, every media outlet, every person wants to be able to relate to it,” he said.
“I’ve seen it from both sides of the fence, I’ve seen close friends win it and how it changed their lives, but I didn’t dare think or allow myself to dream what it would be like, what a big deal it was, probably because of the fear of not winning it. I never wanted to build myself up to be disappointed.”
That’s when your children can bring you back to reality. Tyler, 12, and Nikita know their dad is a pretty good horse trainer and there are a few trophies and pictures around the place to prove it, but they have always asked dad one question.
“The most often asked question they have had for me is Dad, why haven’t you won the Melbourne Cup. I’d mumble something like it’s not the best race or it’s too long or something but now I suppose I have answered that for them.
“Mind you if they come back and ask about some bloke called Bart and say well, he won 12 Dad, it’s time for them to pack their bags,” Waller chuckled.
And the reality of life as a sometimes absent father, rather than Australia’s most successful trainer was also brought home to him on that Tuesday on the couch, and despite the blur in the days since that moment shared together as family, was much clearer and something Waller talks fondly of.
You know if you draw Waller in the $10 Christmas Kris Kringle, a box of tissues or perhaps even a bucket and a mop to try to hide the quiver and dry the emotional outpouring of tears would suffice but try this:
“Look there are a lot of dads worse off than me, I’m home every night, have a great wife who is a great mum, I can switch off, but I can count on one hand the number of games of soccer I’ve watcher Tyler play, I never miss soccer practice if I can but I don’t get to the games.
“Same with Nikita, I get to take her to dancing lessons and watch when I can, hopefully that will change, but Steph sees what I have to do and the sacrifices we make, it’s not ideal, but we make the most of it.”
And even with that, Waller is thinking of his duty to the sport and the industry post Melbourne Cup triumph.
“I’ve had a chance to really think about it and absorb The Cup, and I’d love to be an ambassador and to go around to schools with James (McDonald) and share the experiences, from where I came from to winning the Cup and give people a chance to really feel it, and touch it.
“It would be my way of paying the sport back, what it has done for me and how it’s been the key to my success.”
I’m sure the Victoria Racing Club, who was a touched peeved Waller wasn’t there in person Tuesday, can move swiftly to anoint him Ambassador Waller and take up his offer.
And Waller vividly recalls the journey that started with visions of Kiwi winning the Melbourne Cup and putting Jimmy Cassidy posters on the wall in his room at the parent’s dairy farm at Himatangi near Palmerston North.
But in an instant, he can reel off milestones like Go Mangan winning a $3000 maiden at Trentham, his first winner. “That was very special, my first winner, I’d done it myself, there was no better feeling. Even today when I see a young trainer has landed a milestone or a first winner, I send them a message because I know what it’s like,” Waller said.
“Party Belle was my first winner in Australia, it was a 2100m maiden at Wyong, and she was also my first city winner, then Our Cracker was my first winner when I was based at Rosehill, my first double was on Golden Slipper day with Double Dare and Mr Ubiquitous, my first Group 1 was Triple Honour, that was a confidence defining moment, knowing I could do this.”
He sure can do it, some 3410 wins later, 130 at Group 1 level and now a Melbourne Cup, Chris Waller can do it better than most, but this is something he is starting to savour more than any of those from the almost cocoon like experience of Winx’s career.
“When she won her final race that was a big deal, I’ve been lucky enough to deal with some good horses, one very much so, and all the hype around her, but it’s nothing like The Cup,” he said.
“Winx drove our emotions into the ground, the expectations were always there, race day was one thing, getting her to the races was the hardest, you never stopped thinking of her temperature, how were her feet, how were her teeth, was she eating, was she eating enough or too much, making sure the transportation was right, just everything, looking at your phone for a message to make sure nothing was wrong, it was absolutely draining.
“She was meant to win every time. There was that pressure. When she won her last race, I wasn’t overjoyed with excitement, it was just the relief of it all being over and she was fine. I was emotionally wrecked, looking back it took me over a month to fully recover.
“But with Verry Ellegant I’ve been able to enjoy every one of her 10 Group 1 wins, even when she won the Oaks, that was on Winx’s last day in Sydney.
“So, I was able to take in the Cup experience not just because it was with the family, but because we went there with no expectations to win, just to enjoy the race, as if I had Who Shot Thebarman in it. It (winning) was a surprise as much to us as anybody else,” Waller said.
You’d not want to play poker with Waller, but his answers are as open as they are always diplomatic, just with far more sincerity that any a politician could offer. Look for Australia’s greatest trainer (and most humble) at Woolies next Sunday, and if you need to know where the saffron rice is, just ask him, he’ll know.