Mark Wall talks to Andrew Norman about getting into racing, his riding style, favourite horse, Stratford Place Stud, and prospects for the season.
Jockey Mark Wall spends his days at Stratford Place, a stud farm hidden away in the Cotswolds. He has ridden 115 winners between the flags, but still finds time within his hectic work and riding schedule to train horses himself.
The Sat-nav failed to direct me to Wall's set-up in the picturesque Gloucestershire countryside. Asking a local the whereabouts of the stud was not an option…no one in sight. I tried to phone, but…you guessed it…no signal. I finally arrived having driven down countless country lanes.
"Hi Andrew, did you manage to find us OK?" said Wall, "We're very lucky around here. It's so quiet on the roads; you can go five miles and never see a car." Wall's boss, his father John who manages the operation at Coln Rogers, also warmly greeted me.
On asking Wall how he got involved with horses, he immediately pointed to his father, "His fault!" he joked, "My father worked at Thornton Stud for Lord Howard de Walden in Yorkshire and that's where I was born. I've been involved with horses all my life."
Wall learned to ride on a skewbald pony called Dinky, who he partnered hunting with the Hurworth Hunt: "He was amazing. He would jump a five bar gate whereas most wouldn't. Big hedges, you name it, he took the lot on. I never fell off!" Wall reflected.
Wall, 36, worked with David 'The Duke' Nicholson in two separate stints, before and after spending three years in France with Carlos Laffon Parias, a multiple Group 1 winning trainer.
Stratford Place Stud is owned by Chris Wright (co-founder of Chrysalis Records). Wall explained how the Stud originated, "Chris floated his company on the stock exchange and made a lot of money. At the same time, he had a mare called Crime of Passion who won the 1982 Cherry Hinton Stakes."
Set on a 420 acre farm, the name comes from the original offices of Chrysalis Records, Stratford Place, London. Wall's father John has managed the Stud since its inception in 1987.
Pointing to a picture of the horse above his desk, Wall said that following Crime of Passion's success, Wright had the chance of selling her or starting a Stud. "It all made sense, he had a house in the village and this farm was for sale at the time. Everything fell into place, it was just meant to be."
Recent research by a leading bloodstock agent indicates that Stratford Place has the highest percentage of runners to black type performers, at 18%. Following Zaidan's win in the Hong Kong Classic on Sunday, the stud has hit the headlines worldwide. The four-year-old is by dam Element of Truth, a $60,000 purchase by John Wall in the States. Zaidan was sold for $200,000 in 2009 but earned more than twice that in prize money when holding on by a nose at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Other high-profile names bred by the Stud include: Donativum (Won Breeders Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in 2008), Sublimity (Won Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2007) and Group Therapy (Three times placed in Group 2/3).
Wall, describing the work he does as "varied," says he always has tasks to do.
"At the moment, the mares are home to foal and we've got two-year-olds that need breaking-in. The yearlings are outside being fed and looked after and we've got three year-olds going back into training too."
Living just a minute's walk from the stud, Wall's work continues when the Point-to-Point season closes: "In the autumn, we get the yearlings prepared for the sales. We can do up to five miles walking with them a day for seven or eight weeks. The breaking-in is a big part of what we do, there were nine or ten yearlings to break in this time. I break-in quite a lot of horses for other people in the summer months too which I really enjoy doing."
Although ensuring he plays golf and goes cycling, Wall told me most of his free time is taken up by a new addition to the family: "My main hobby is something that I love - spending time with my daughter. She's getting to that cheeky age now."
Wall did not originally intend to train his own Pointers but it was inevitable given his training background and riding ability: "When you're riding a lot you sometimes get pulled into going to the sales with people and I guess I've got slowly sucked into it! It's a handful fitting it all in with working here but I'm fortunate to have a very understanding boss! It's very full on, but I enjoy it."
The first horse he trained, in 2006, was a mare called Pretty Lady Rose who won a Maiden and was placed in seven Restricted events.
To be successful, Wall admits, takes hard work, long working days, and dedication. He praised his wife, Axelle, for getting up at 'an ungodly hour' to feed and muck out the horses throughout the Point-to-Point season.
Wall rides for a variety of different owners and trainers, fitting schooling into his busy schedule. "Every trainer and horse is different. For example, I never did any schooling on Sheknowsyouknow. With others, for instance with Karrie Fanshawe, I'll meet quite regularly but others don't want so much. I would usually ride for three or four different people throughout each week and I go to Fergal's (O'Brien) just about every Wednesday. I have built my own schooling fences here so people can bring horses to me, whatever fits. We've got our own grass gallops and I'm lucky enough to have the use of the Mason's (Peter and Jennifer) too. I have very good owners; we usually chat about things and work things out, it's a two-way thing."
The five Pointers that Wall trains get the majority of their work done in the afternoon and early evening: "Every day at 4pm, I'll meet Jacob (Cox) who helps me ride out and Kirsty (Forbes) who works part-time at the stud helps too. Jacob has been helping me on and off for about three years. He's only 16 but he's a very good rider. I'm hoping we can get him a ride sorted out this year to get him going."
Wall had his first ride in April 1999, finishing fifth in a Restricted at Maisemore Park on Mr Max. He had one other ride on the gelding that season, finishing an encouraging five lengths third at Dunthrop in a Confined. Wall recalls how he ended up with his first Point-to-Point ride: "I used to go and ride out for different people in my lunch hour when I was with David Nicholson. Originally it started with pre-training, then we started exercising a few and eventually one ended up running. Mr Max gave me two great rides and he went on to win the next season."
He didn't have to wait too long for his first winner, winning a Maiden at Mollington in March 2000 aboard Impenny. Progress as a jockey stuttered in 2001 due to the outbreak of foot and mouth but has taken a gradual upward curve since, with 18 winners last season and 17 in each of the three seasons prior to that.
"All of a sudden it took off. The person that really helped me was Jim Collett. I rode a little mare called Scuttlebrook who had a reasonable amount of ability but what made her special was the amount of guts she had. I've picked up some wonderful owners who I really enjoy race planning with."
As a rider, Wall has a reputation of making the running out at the front. He explains his position on this: "I feel it gets frowned upon a little bit but in Maidens, why stick yourself behind horses that could fall in front of you?" he asked.
"A lot of the time I think it's safer. I don't have to make the running, it depends on the horse. I'm not saying I get it right every time but I have a reasonably healthy strike rate to show that I'm successful enough."
"You're there to be shot at if you go from the front and get caught but if you come with a run and don't quite make it people don't seem to take so much notice."
A natural judge of a horse's pace, Wall, who went over the esteemed 100-winner mark last season, feels that he has proven his tactical ability in reaching that milestone: "It's a great landmark to reach. It was a very proud moment."
As Wall had answered my question on his riding style so openly, I could not resist tackling him with another - what he considers to be the best horse he has ever ridden: "That's a really difficult question. There are several horses up there. Alvino would have to be one. Divine Intavention is definitely another. You would also have to put Bradley in that bracket."
However, it is Michael Hawker's Sheknowsyouknow that holds a special place in Wall's heart: "She was an amazing mare. She is barely 16 hands high but she is perfectly formed. Any horse you win 12 races on has to be very special. She holds course records and would have had more but she was usually so far in front I'd take it easy on her! She would have earned a higher rating but she performed best on firm ground and that generally isn't given the same recognition, which is a shame. She's the type we should be breeding from."
Wall has partnered Jason Warner's Nobby Kivambo to three wins between the flags this season, going through the grades in taking a Maiden, Restricted and Intermediate. The horse is to be aimed at the Connolly's Red Mills Intermediate Final at Cheltenham in May. However, the race does not sit kindly in the memory for Wall after what has happened in the last two renewals and he will be hoping his fortunes turn this time around.
Divine Intavention blundered at the thirteenth fence last year and unseated Wall when travelling strongly in third. The horse then proceeded to jump every fence without his rider to finish between Dammam and Now Listen To Me (first and second in the race), without guidance.
In 2010, Wall made all the running on William Somers and seemed to have the race in his pocket only for the horse to tie-up dramatically when clear. A horse Wall had partnered all season, Bradley, came with a late run to take the race under Sam Drinkwater.
"Being caught on William Somers was gutting but it was just the way it worked out. Bradley originally wasn't going to run so I took the ride on William for Tim Sage. Then two days before the race Bradley was so well that Fergal decided to run him."
"I knew they were both very good horses and that there probably wasn't much between them. The torment that played in my head throughout the day of the race was horrible. Then my worst nightmare came true. Nevertheless, I was still very pleased for Jim Collett as we've had so many good days together."
Wall has five Pointers in training this season:
Morgan's Bay (7-y-o gelding)
"He's picked up a small injury and he will have to be eased for a few weeks. He ran a little bit free first time out and then held every chance when he fell at the second last at Larkhill. That was a massive step in the right direction and we will get there with him but he has just had an unfortunate setback. He was quite hot-headed under Rules, a typical Karinga Bay. He's a very nice horse with a good amount of ability."
High Ho Sheriff (6-y-o gelding)
"He's run twice. The first time was probably a bit quick for him. The second time at the Heythrop he ran well in the circumstances as we found out afterwards that he had a dirty scope so he's been treated. He's had his time off and now is absolutely bouncing. He's not overly big but he stays longer than the mother-in-law."
Theatre Queen (5-y-o mare)
"She's a nice big mare who's coming along really nicely. She'll go to Didmarton and Siddington to have some practice after racing. She'll run at the beginning of April."
Skookum Tum Tum (5-y-o gelding)
"He came and had a bit of education and went round Barbury but then got puss in the foot so the owners took him home. He's now hot on the trail and he will be ready to run in a couple of weeks. He could be anything."
Flying Gnu (6-y-o mare)
"She didn't look anything special immediately but she kept improving. She won two races as a five-year-old mare and has a fabulous attitude. Her jumping wasn't the best, she lacked a bit of confidence and backed off a little but in some ways that played quite well because she's a keen going sort. She's back with us now and will run in an Intermediate within the next month. She's physically grown and strengthened up from last year."