'The Sport's Been Good To Me': Chris Wall Bows Out


Chris Wall | Racingfotos.com


Big freeze permitting, at 7.30 on Thursday evening Spit Spot (GB) will jump from the stalls at Chelmsford as the final runner for Chris Wall.

Of Newmarket's many trainers, which number almost 80, Wall is not the most well known, but he is certainly well versed in all manner of racing's nitty gritty, from the development of the Pattern to good old-fashioned horse husbandry. His absence from the town's training ranks next year should and will be lamented, for British racing really should not be losing a professional of Wall's standing, which mixes decency and intelligence in equal measure. 

Having trained in the town since 1987, Wall and his wife Carole, who has worked tirelessly by his side, will doubtless find the coming weeks and months disconcerting, but as he discusses the situation in the days building up to sending out his last runner, Wall, typically, speaks without a hint of bitterness. 

Of his decision to cease training, which came as a shock announcement last month, he says, “Although our numbers have been sort of dwindling gradually over the years, I thought that we'd always be able to maintain enough horses, and enough horses for us is probably 25, 30. We'd had 30 this year, and if we could have had something between 20 and 25 horses, we'd have probably kept going. The way it's happened is that we were selling a lot of horses this year that had done their bit and there were a couple of others that were being retired or off to stud, so we were losing 11 or 12 horses.”

The flip side to the strength of the bloodstock market in Britain is that it is making it harder for smaller trainers to keep restocking their yards, as Wall explains. 

“We have quite a few owner-breeders, but of course what they put for sale was by and large getting sold, which is fair enough. But it meant that we didn't have many yearlings last year and we were going to have not enough yearlings this year. We always have a few partnerships, we usually buy horses in training for that, but the price of horses in training has gone through the roof. I think that's gone up 50% in two years.

“And so you can't get the quality of horse that you're used to having and you don't really want to just buy one for the sake of buying one. So things were looking a bit grim and then a longstanding owner, who had actually been with us from our very first season, died unexpectedly. So that was another two horses that weren't going to be with us. And so we had a long conversation, Carole and I, about whether it was worth going on. I'm always optimistic with racing because the pendulum swings both ways, usually, and you think 'well something will happen', but at the moment I don't think there's cavalry about to come over the hill, galloping to the rescue.”

It is hard to argue with the Walls' reasoning, but it is harder to fathom why those numbers have dropped so dramatically when the results on the track have not. This is a trainer still doing what he has always done: conjuring decent results from his string at Induna Stables, a yard which is rarely without a group-class horse and which operates year after year at a thoroughly respectable strike-rate. This year's 20 wins – and hopefully counting – came at a rate of 16% with Salah Fustok's homebred Double Or Bubble (Ire) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}), a sister to former stable star Mix And Mingle (Ire), bringing home two Group 3 victories this season, in the Abernant S. at Newmarket and Supreme S. at Goodwood. 

“We've had a good year,” Wall adds. “I thought, 'Well if you can't get support off the back of a good year, you are certainly not going to get support off the back of a couple of ordinary ones'. It is disappointing, but it was going to come one day so we might as well take the decision and move on.

“We've always had some nice horses. We've been very lucky in that regard whether they've been bred [by their owners] or one or two that we've bought have worked out well. And we've been lucky also that I've had patient owners who will allow horses time to develop, and we've had good staff that help with that process too. We've sort of punched above our weight for a yard of our size for quite some time.”

Racing will be the poorer if its grassroots are cut off, because that's where the interest begins

Wall refers to himself as “an analogue creature in a digital age”, and certainly technology has revolutionised racing in recent decades. There is still, however, no substitute for good horsemanship and the kind of experience honed, as his has been, throughout a lifetime in racing. Wall's father Ron trained jumpers in Essex, and having learnt his trade initially at his father's hand, riding out before school, Wall spent stints in Newmarket with Bruce Hobbs and in Lambourn as pupil assistant to Barry Hills, before returning to the town that has been his home for four decades to work as an assistant for Sir Mark Prescott then Luca Cumani.

“Dad trained jumpers, but jumping in the late seventies was quite a small sport and and the future didn't look all that bright. So I thought if I was going to train I could train 30 Flat horses and have a reasonable living,” he recalls. 

“When I was at Luca's, one of his big owners was Ivan Allan, who had Commanche Run, and he asked me would I be interested in training a string for him privately.”

Having started out with 18 horses for Allan, Wall was soon a public trainer retaining that owner's support and gaining others. In the ensuing 35 years he has trained almost 800 winners.

“David Allan, who just died, was with us from the word go,” Wall says. “And there's Chris Hughes, who's been with us right from 1988. I feel a bit guilty for giving up because they've given us such tremendous support. All our owners have been with us quite some time. But they've all been very good about it, which has made telling them that much easier.”

Friendships, too, have been forged on Newmarket Heath. 

“It seems hard to believe that my generation of trainers are now the senior trainers in the town, but we are: James Fanshawe, William Haggas, William Jarvis, James Eustace, who has handed over to Harry, we all started at much the same time. In the early days, of course you were all trying to outdo one another because you were trying to find your place, but we are all good firm friends really. There's no animosity, and you don't always get time through the core part of the season to socialise but you try and do your best to stick together and help each other out. And if anybody's in a bit of a muddle, you do your best to give them some support.”

Those aforementioned contemporaries vary in size when it comes to numbers of horses, with Haggas training one of the largest strings in Newmarket. Wall is of the opinion that that diversity is key for the sport as a whole.

“If it just comes down to a dozen super yards contesting everything between them, it's going to get very tedious and I think it'll put people off the sport,” he says.

“Racing's always been a sport where you can all compete. What's the saying, 'We're all level on the turf and under it'? It would be a great shame if that spectrum of trainers is lost, and I think there's a very real danger at the moment that that could happen. I don't have any beef particularly with big yards, except that nowadays probably there's nearly as many horses again that they have in their own yard parked out somewhere else.”

It is certainly the case that pre-trainers now mostly do bigger business than a lot of the small-to-medium-size stables in and around Newmarket.

Wall continues, “Until reasonably recently, when big yards were full those horses had to go somewhere else, so there was a trickledown and the smaller trainers used to benefit from that. But that tap's been turned off now and that's probably why some have struggled for numbers.

“That's a difficult thing to remedy. Obviously, what you can't do is limit numbers. You can't say to somebody they can only train 200 horses, because there'd be legal challenges to that for restriction of trade. But perhaps what you can say is that you have a licence to train for the number of stables that you actually have, plus say 10%. And then it doesn't put the pre-trainers out of business because there'll still be horses parked out. But it means that those owners have got to think, 'Well I need to put that horse in training somewhere, so we'll send it to somebody, alright less exalted but someone who does a competent job', and then it trickles down and it makes it a bit more interesting.”

Those concerns are not reserved just for the training ranks, as a number of smaller owner-breeders are also shutting up shop in Britain. 

“I think all sport at the moment is suffering from huge amounts of investment at elite level which isn't filtering down as quickly or as much as you would like,” Wall says. “And it will be the poorer if its grassroots are cut off, because that's where the interest begins. If somebody can't get in as a small breeder, a small owner, a small trainer, or just even going racing, if you cut that off, it's got to be to the detriment of the sport.

“People at the elite end, if things don't work out here or if they perceive things here to be not in their favour, can afford to up and go somewhere else. And if they go, what are you left with? I think we are in a situation at the moment where we need to nurture the grassroots a bit more. I don't bash on about prize-money. I think our races of international standing at the top end of the Pattern on the whole compare very favourably. I know there are some super-rich races dotted around the world, and they might have the money but until they've been going for a long time, they'll never have the prestige.

“But if we have more prize-money generally it would mean that the smaller person gets a better return for the money that they put in. And so therefore the existing ones might be able to afford a little bit more, or it's a much more attractive proposition for people to come in, because it's actually quite hard to sell racing at the moment. If we're going to have a vibrant future, which we should have because racing's always been a major sport and it still features quite large in people's minds as a leisure activity, we need to make it more attractive for the smaller person to get involved.”

Much as I've stopped training, I don't feel that I'm ready to retire, and I'd like to give something back to the sport

Wall, the unofficial 'King of Yarmouth', has of course enjoyed plenty of days on the big stage: from the G1 Gran Criterium win of Candy Glen (GB) in the early days of his training career to the wonderful Premio Loco, whose 16 victories included eight group wins in three countries. 

“The headline horses, the ones that you've taken up to stakes level, they get the juices flowing, but in fact, there are lots of things that I've always enjoyed about training,” he says. “This time of the year generally I really like because it's when you have a fresh intake of horses, particularly yearlings, and you are trying to learn a bit about them. And then there's the horse that perhaps is one of your less talented individuals who goes and wins a race. I get almost as much fun out of doing that, as I would from training Premio Loco to win the races that he did. The ones you've had to work a bit harder at to get them where they are, that have been slow learners or they had problems or they're just a bit limited in ability, and then you've suddenly got everything right and the right race comes, and boom, you think 'that was worth the effort'.”

He adds, “Lots of things go towards making it all worthwhile. I think one of the joys of training in Newmarket is that you have that community, whereas if you train on your own, it must be sometimes terribly lonely. I like the banter on the Heath with the other trainers and the staff.”

Wall is fascinating to listen to on the subject of race-programming and laments the rise of small-field races, both on the Flat and over jumps, which do little to establish a horse's true ability. He is in the majority camp that believes the fixture list needs pruning. In previous years, with his former boss Luca Cumani and in consultation with the TBA, he helped to establish a clear progression for fillies within the Pattern – one that he he believes has since been inverted. He has also served a stint as president of the National Trainers' Federation.

“There's no good complaining that things could be better if you don't get involved in the process that actually makes it better,” says the 64-year-old. “I wouldn't mind doing something in a political role because I'd like to keep my hand in. Much as I've stopped training, I don't feel that I'm ready to retire, and I'd like to give something back to the sport. The sport's been good to me.

“And doing something like that would stop me annoying Carole,” he adds with a laugh as his wife judiciously pretends not to have heard him and continues her work behind the computer in their racing office. 

Though he is about to stand down, Wall is optimistic for the future of his home town as a training centre. 

He says, “We've some excellent young trainers. George Boughey is probably growing the quickest, but there's Harry Eustace, Charlie Fellowes, James Ferguson, Amy Murphy, who've all done very well, and Alice Haynes has got off to a good start as well. So I think the future is quite good in Newmarket and elsewhere in the country, but we've got to make sure that the racing industry that we leave them with is something that will last their career and not give them too many more problems than they would expect to have along the way.”

These are certainly comments not just that we can all agree with, but which show why it is imperative for a man of Chris Wall's level-headed sense of appraisal to be retained for a key role within the sport, even though that really should be as a trainer. 


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